Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Good Idea, Bad Idea...

First of all, let me state that the article I'm about to discuss is from the UK. It doesn't affect us here in the U.S. And let's hope it never does. I found this article through Read Roger. It's called "Publishers To Put Age Guide On Children's Book Covers."

The article begins by reporting that "publishers are prepared to put reading age guidelines on the covers of all children's books" and asserts that this will be an "important breakthrough for children's literacy." Their main argument is that research has shown that adults are clueless when it comes to buying books for kids. They just can't figure out what do do, what to buy. The conclusion to this dilemma is apparently quite obvious. If books were labeled like toys or DVDs or video games, then surely parents and loving adults would know what to buy.

What would the labels look like? "Early" for (5+) "Developing" for (7+), "Confident" (9+) and Fluent is unattached to an age. It's just floating out there waiting some span of time for confidence to transition or morph into fluidity. Apparently.

So what's the problem? Why isn't this a good idea? For one thing every child is unique, is different, is individual. Not only do children cognitively learn at their own pace, children's emotional development goes at their own pace as well. Suitability and appropriateness must always be looked at from several different angles. None of the angles include a stagnant age. There is the level, the ability of the child to process words on a page and comprehend. The "reading" aspect of it all. The magic that happens when a child learns that letters make up words that make up a sentence, that make up a story, that make up a book. I'm reminded of Francie of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words!

For quite a while, Francie had been spelling out letters, sounding them and then putting the sounds together to mean a word. But one day, she looked at a page and the word "mouse" had instantaneous meaning. She looked at the word, and the picture of a gray mouse scampered through her mind. She looked further and when she saw "horse," she heard him pawing the ground and saw the sun glint on his glossy coat. The word "running" hit her suddenly and she breathed hard as though running herself. The barrier between the individual sound of each letter and the whole meaning of the word was removed and the printed word meant a thing at one quick glance. She read the pages rapidly and almost became ill with excitement. She wanted to shout it out. She could read! She could read!

From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.

From A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith, p. 166-167
But that is only part of the equation. The other parts are emotional maturity and development AND content. A child can cognitively understand and read "above" his or her reading level yet not be ready to read books for older readers. Sometimes the content can be more than they can handle, more than they're ready to understand, comprehend, interpret. There is a HUGE leap between the content that is suitable for a 12 or 13 year old that would be very inappropriate for a 9 year old or 10 year old. (Alex Flinn writes a GREAT article called "Why My Books Really Are 12 and up." (I found that article through A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy's post "But My Child Is So Advanced.")

So whether you're "advanced" for your age or "slow" for your age...I see many potential problems. Who wants to be 9 years old and reading books that are marked Early or Developing? That wouldn't motivate a child to read. That wouldn't add the "pleasure" aspect to reading. That would add an embarrassing stigma. That would keep slow readers, reluctant readers, from wanting to pick up a book. I remember how reading groups were supposed to be "cleverly" disguised so it wasn't obvious which group was which. But it didn't really work out all that well. Labels are labels and really aren't healthy. There are aspects of "I'm smart and you're dumb." How can someone a year or several years behind his "age level" feel good about it, comfortable with it. How can he or she help but feel dumb for being so behind?

My mom tells a wonderful story. One of her older brothers was born in the early fifties. He was labeled as "special" and as being unable to read or too slow to read. His mom--my grandmother--wouldn't take that answer. Wouldn't accept that judgment. She read aloud to him. Sure enough when he was so hooked in the story that he just had to know what happened next, she stopped. And guess what, he learned to read. He picked up the book, was motivated, saw it as pleasure and not work. And sure enough finished that book. And picked up another. And another. And another. As the story goes, it wasn't that he couldn't read. It was that he didn't see the point of it. He didn't see what was oh-so-fascinating about seeing Dick and Jane and Spot. Who is really really really thrilled and captivated by any of the stories in phonics-type (or sight-word) beginning readers. (I'm not thinking Dr. Seuss or that "Beginning Readers" or "I Can Read" line. I'm thinking classroom readers.) I personally remember loving to be read aloud to as a child, but kindergarten held six months of sounding out ba, be, bi, bo, bu. But I'm digressing this isn't about which philosophy, which tools are used to help a child learn to read.

So this one is a biggie. A kid has to WANT to read. Has to connect the act of reading with something pleasurable. We're not going to become "more literate" (as individuals, a county, a state, a nation, a country, etc.) if we don't pay attention to the pleasure aspects of reading. Divorcing the act from reading from pleasure, from enjoyment, from entertainment....is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Putting labels on books could hamper a child's perception. They could possibly think a parent was trying to get them to do something that was good for them. Reading should never be equated with work, never equated to vegetables(...taste yucky but are oh-so-good for you. Try them you'll like it. I promise.)

Other issues I can see. How about the fact that not only are all children are different, but all parents, all caregivers and guardians are different as well. What one parent deems as "appropriate" for their child might not match up with what another parent deems "appropriate." There is no generic definition of "appropriate" or "suitable" that everyone can agree on. Closely related is this...who is the person...or who are the people who will determine what is and isn't appropriate for a certain age. How do they become qualified to make that judgment call for a whole country? Is that a job description that anyone would ever really want to take?

Here's a funny snippet from the article, " The idea of banding has suffered from what proved to be a false perception in the book trade that older children would be discouraged from reading a book that had a reading age on it..."

Really??? That has been proven false? What is this person going to prove false next?

The original premise of this article was that research had shown that adults--parents, etc.--were so confused, so befuddled, so clueless when it came to determining what books would be good to buy for their children. So this whole rejuvenation project has evolved. Let's change everything, transform everything, go in a whole new direction.

But here's the thing. The solution is much closer. Much. It's simple really. Obvious. A three letter word. ASK.

I'm reminded of a Dragon Tales song...If you find yourself in trouble ASK for help...

Librarians are there for a reason. They are experts at what they do. They know, they love to know, what books are available, what books are good, what books work for children. And the thing is...they love to talk about it. They love to talk books. They love to recommend. They love to connect books with readers. They not only don't mind it when children or adults ask for help, they welcome it, they want it. They like feeling useful, needed. It makes their day. Brings a smile to their faces.

There are experts out there that will help you out. And it won't cost you a penny. It doesn't take a new development concept, it doesn't take money, it doesn't take a new "vision" to solve the problem.

Librarians. Booksellers. Good people to know when you're looking to buy a gift for someone. Review journals and newspapers are another obvious place to look for recommendations. Even the Internet is full of good resources, though maybe harder to wade through. But look a simple google search and you too can find this gem: Guide Book to Gift Books 2007 edition.

There is teamwork involved. I won't lie. Adults will have to know their children and talk briefly about what their child is like--their interests, their age, their maturity--but if given just a few nuggets of information--a favorite book in the past, a favorite author, a favorite genre--they (librarians, booksellers, experts) can give you plenty of help. And it usually comes with a smile.

Which makes this just as good a time as any to remind you that the next Carnival of Children's Literature and will be hosted at Big A, Little a is coming soon and will be focused on gift-guides...what books to buy this holiday season.


Biblio Reader said...

This is a ridiculous idea. Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't there already sections in bookstores by age to help out clueless parents who refuse to ask? Why also mar every book with a age restriction? Personally, I know when I was young I kept reading books a bit below my reading level (Babysitter's Club, Animal Ark) because I still loved them. How terrible to have to hide the cover so no one could see what age they were for. :\ Excellent analysis!

Becky said...

Yes. Both bookstores and libraries are typically divided into at least three sections for the under 18 crowd. Picture books and board books. (E's at some libraries). Transitional readers (early readers, chapter books, etc.) (J's at some libraries) and young adult (13+) (Teen).

And I agree. I like reading outside labels, outside age groups. Why create more stigmas when there is already a problem getting kids motivated to read.

Ink Mage said...

That *is* a really stupid idea. I don't understand how it will help people buy books for children.
And if people are worried about the content, ratings like movie ratings would work much better.

Karlene said...

I hate that idea. Here's another negative aspect—who gets to decide which age is appropriate for the book?

Just one example is The Golden Compass series, touted as books for children, but the content is very disturbing to young children. (What am I saying? It's disturbing to adults too!)

The Traveling Pants series is aimed toward younger teen girls, but IMHO it's really too mature for anyone under the age of 18.

Other readers may violently disagree with the age levels I'd assign each book, and that's the core of the problem. If the book labelers are anything like movie labelers, some parents will be in for a huge shock!

Anonymous said...

Becky, you are so right in giving the power back to the librarians and others who are trained to help parents find books. What is boils down to is that some people are lazy--they want quick solutions. Open the book, glance inside--bam!--got the right book for Junior. I have been discussing the possibility of a day (or week) devoted to transitional readers and when I brought up this idea to a group of reading specialists, one said, "Just do a website. Parents don't have time to discuss these issues--they just want a book list." Needless to say I was dismayed hearing that come from someone devoted to helping children read. Thanks for the article and links.
Candice Ransom