On readership by Philip Pullman

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman is a selection of his essays and speeches delivered during the course of his career. There is a lot of wisdom buried amongst these pages. A book to dip into and think about. For instance the following extract is from his essay “Intention” discussing the author’s intention on when he embarks upon writing a book. A question he says that is usually reserved for authors at literary festivals where the audiences need to be entertained. He illustrates the problematic nature of such a question by extending the argument to that of labelling books with an age figure.

The final aspect of ‘intention’ I shall look at here is to do with audience. ‘What age of reader is this book written for?’ is a question that different authors feel differently about. Some are quite happy to say, ‘It’s for sixth and seventh graders’, or, ‘It’s for thirteen and upwards.’ Others are decidedly not. In 2008 most publishers of children’s books in teh UK announced that in an attempt to increase sales they were going to put an age-figure on the cover of every book, of the form 5+, 7+, 9+, and so on, to help adult purchasers in non-specialist bookstores decide whether a particular book would make a suitable present for a particular child. They met a passionate and determined resistance from many authors, who felt that their efforts to write books that would welcome readers of a wide age-range were being undermined by their own publishers, and that the age-figure would actively discourage many children from reading books they might otherwise enjoy. The argument continues, but again it shows the problematic nature of ‘intention’. Does age-guidance of any sort imply that the book is intended for a particular kind of a reader? My own view is that the only appropriate verb to use is, again, hope rather than intend. We have no right to expect any audience at all; the idea of sorting our readers out before they’ve seen the first sentence to me presumptious in the extreme. 

I too have my reservations about this given that this principle is increasingly being turned on its head by bracketing the child’s reading to what is deemed as “age appropriate” rather than allowing them a free run of book collections whether at the school library or at bookshops/ bookfairs. Off late this basic principle is being turned on its head by adults discouraging children to pick up a book that has been labelled in this manner as not being age appropriate. Horrific turn of events given that this was not the intention at all. Age-guidance numbers were merely that — guiding principles. These numbers are not meant to bracket the child’s reading and thereby curtail their enthusiasm in reading. Children ( like adults) test themselves constantly and evolve in their reading habits by flitting between easy and challenging books. Whereas emprical evidence as collected in the bi-annual Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Reports ( KFRR) show that if children are allowed to pick up books for themselves there are greater chances of them becoming lifelong readers. ( These reports have been published across continents including India after conducting surveys in various cities, tier 2, and tier 3 towns too.) So it is not a good idea to prevent children from accessing books. If they do not understand something they will ask or drop it and return to the book later. But don’t straitjacket their reading in this manner.  Philip Pullman is absolutely correct in expressing his reservations about the intention of publishers on printing age-guidance numbers on the back cover of children’s literature.

Philip Pullman Daemon Voices ( ed. Simon Mason) David Fickling Books, Oxford, 2017. Hb. pp. £20

27 February 2018 

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