05 June 2008

Rating Books--what qualifies as an R?

A recent article in the Guardian details proposals for age ranges to be placed on the covers of children's books published in the UK. I'm being facetious by suggesting that books may someday be rated like films (although I'd believe just about anything.) But I find the idea of age ranges condescending and irritating. Must everything in life be labeled and pigeonholed? Labels provide a false sense of security (not unlike filters on computers) and a false impression of legitimacy. For example: I have now worked in two towns with a teacher who assigns a second grade biography project, and the only criteria is that the kids must use a book that is at least 100 pages long. Do you know how many biographies are written for second graders that are at least 100 pages long? I'll tell you--hardly any. All that assignment leads to is children working their way through the biography section, pulling books off the shelf, until they find one that is 100 pages long. There is no joy in the learning process, because the books that are interesting to the second graders are inevitably less than 100 pages long.


Admitedly, manga in the US is labelled. I've always viewed that as a concession made to Western readers who are simply confused by the genre and think it's all porn. I doubt if faithful, voracious manga readers pay any attention to the ratings. But how many children will be turned away by great reads becuase they feel they are (1) too old for said book, or (2) too young? I know that the label "Children's Room" is the kiss of death for kids who feel they are no longer children and as a consequnce never darken my door and miss out on lots of books they'd enjoy. So I can envision second graders (or any graders) being told to read a book that is "age appropriate" and going down the shelves until they find one with the magic age range printed on the front. It doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine labels turning children away from books, too. I can just imagine a precocious seven year old eyeing James and the Giant Peach (8-12) and being persuaded by a responsible grown-up who is at the mercy of labels to choose The Magic Treehouse instead (5-7.) Not much of a deal, really.

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