Getting serious at the London Book Fair

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This week, for the first time ever, I attended one of the world’s biggest book fairs. I have always read about The London Book Fair with a mixture of envy and curiosity. It’s geared at the publishing industry — here, agents meet publishers from around the world and pitch books to them. Publishers set up stands to display their most successful books and show off a bit. It is a buzz of activity and BUSINESS.

This is the other side of the publishing industry from the book stores we all know and love. This is how books get made.

Anyway, so I was there to talk about sex.

*Smiles at you*

Should books have age ratings?

To be more specific, I was discussing ways we  could protect young readers from books for older teens that contain sex, swearing or  violence.

In the US and some European countries, publishers voluntarily put recommended ages on the backs of books for young people. Night School usually is rated ’14+’. This doesn’t mean younger teens can’t read them, it’s just a guideline for buyers so they know what they’re getting before they read the book. Books rated 16+ may contain sex, quite a bit of violence or other more ‘adult’ content.

It’s like a film rating, only no one stops you from reading the book if you’re too young. It’s just there for your information.

 

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There are no suggested reading ages on teen books in the UK.

Most Night School readers who contact me are aged 15-25.  But I also have a lot of young readers – the youngest who has contacted me is 10.  I ADORE my younger readers *waves at lovely young readers* but 10 is awfully young to be reading books like Night School.

Location, location

The problem is, the teen section is usually right next to – or actually IN – the children’s section of book stores. It’s easy for younger readers to see an enticing cover and be drawn to a teen book. But teen books are NOT children’s books. An 11-year-old is not a 16-year-old.

Night School may not be an ‘adult’ book, but it addresses serious issues of death, loss and sexuality. It doesn’t wallow in them but it doesn’t flinch away from them either.

Publishers and writers are in a delicate position of wanting to treat teenagers as we identify them – we call them ‘young adults’ after all – while also being aware that these books will be read by much younger readers.

I don’t want to give an 11-year-old nightmares. I don’t want my books to have 10-year-olds Googling the sex acts my 17-year-old characters joke about. But I also don’t want to talk down to my 17-year-old readers. I am not willing to have characters who don’t swear or talk about sex in case an 11-year-old reads my book.

Buyer be aware

Flags

At my event at the London  Book Fair, we opened the floor up to the audience of booksellers, editors, agents, bloggers and marketers to hear what they thought could be done. To my surprise, no-one was opposed to instituting some sort of voluntary system for UK buyers so they could know the kind of content a book contained.

Because young readers have varying levels of reading maturity – all 11-year-olds are not created equal – one suggestion we all quite liked was for a voluntary colour system: red for sex, yellow for language, black for violence, for example. Then readers and parents could flip a book over to see what they’re likely to get.

My book would probably have a yellow flag for its vaguely sweary characters.

No quick fix

We agreed this wouldn’t solve the situation. That younger kids would still want to read more adult books. That some kids would be drawn straight to red-yellow-black books in hopes of more pervy content. That kids will still dare each other to read the most extreme books and that many already read adult books.

We can’t stop older kids from reading these books, and I don’t want to stop them. This is how you grow up.

As a 14-year-old in the audience told me – “You should see what’s written on the cubicle walls in the toilets at my school. It’s worse than anything in a book.’

But what we can do is alert parents of much younger readers that teen books might not be appropriate for their children. We can at least give them some help to try and shield their child a little longer from words they will eventually Google, and images they will eventually see.

What do you think? Especially young readers – do you mind when things have age ratings? Would it bother you?

16 Comments:

  1. Je suis complètement d’accord avec vous CJ. N’ayant que 15 ans il arrive que j’achète des livres qui ne me sont pas destiné mais sur lesquels il n’y a aucune indication dessus. Je pense que votre idée de couleurs est une excellente idée qui pourrait permettre aux jeunes de ne pas être choqués par des livres qui ne leur sont pas destinés.
    Merci de votre inquiétude pour nous.

  2. Oh my gosh this made me laugh so hard!!!
    And fyi i am one of your younger reader people, but yet I still understand EVERYTHING!
    You will be suprised at what age some people learn this stuff at!!!

  3. Plus it does not give me nightmares… Though maybe that is why my friends are scared of me *manical laughing*

  4. Answer to your question: like 2/3 s of my school already know about sex and there is over 300 people in my school, all of my friends know about sex! We even make jokes about sex so basically there is no point in putting an age rating, cos I knew this stuff since I was 7, I told a couple of my younger friends, and guess what we thought about sex?
    We thought it was hilarious!
    I have no idea why though, we were retarded perhaps.
    So I hope that answers your question.

  5. I’m one of your younger readers and I agree with Chelsea, Most of the people know about swearing, sex even the 6 year olds at my school. It does not give us nightmares.

  6. I am more of an older reader, I think that having an age rating as a guide would be helpful for parents to see what their children are reading, on the other hand, growing up, it is less embarrassing to read about sex acts privately through a book than being with a group of friends and being the only one who doesn’t know about such stuff. When I was the age of younger readers, I know my friends and I thought the topic of sex was funny, therefore I don’t think reading a book at that age would have given me nightmares. As some of the younger readers have pointed out, sex has become a more “acceptable” topic and so younger people do talk about it.

  7. Seriously though when someone who is dirty minded hears a teacher say something dirty we are just like *nudge nudge, giggle giggle* my friends say I am like the 2nd most dirty minded person in our class… Also the youngest person who I’ve met knows about sex is 5!!!

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, everyone! I think you’re right – kids know more than we think they do about this stuff. I guess the idea of an age rating is mostly to make your parents feel better about letting you read Night School! 🙂

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  9. Oh god this is like my 5th comment, but i need to say this.
    If you ever been to my school, you should know that everyone acts a couple years older then they are. People started dating when we were 7/6, the people who dont have some sort of disorder or mind their own buisness. An 11 year old is like a 15/14 year old, we know about this stuff, time and knowledge have forced us to grow older. So basically we all left our childhood once we found out about sex. Everything nowadays is about gossip, you cant have gone through our school without have talking about one of your closet friends, so basically how much innocent and naive we look, we know about most things we should’ve found out later in life. Time and and knowledge have forced us to grow older.

  10. I think exactly like Chelsea. We know a lot about sex when we are seven. I am 13 years old and in my class there is some people that aren’t actually virgins (well, they’re people who don’t study anything and are in troubles every day. In Spain we call them “Canis”). I started reading books like Twilight at the age of eight, but I think it’s a great idea to put some age referents because some children are too innocent to read some kind of books.

  11. je suis d’accord avec Chelsea et Chi les enfants de 6/7 ans connaissent souvent plus de choses sur le sexe et les gros que certains adultes donc les livres ne nous choquent pas le moindre du monde.

  12. I am 13 and I do not find the Night School series is inappropriate! I have read much worse!

  13. Seifan\Seyfun Dino (NOT FROM THE COMMENT ABOVE!)

    Oh my gosh…. The comment up here is NOT FROM ME, CJ! CJ I’m Seyfun from the email, with the interview and Israeli fan page, remember?? NOT FROM THE COMMENT ABOVE HERE! Who comment in my name it’s an imposer or something, who propably can’t identife himself since he’s a coward. CJ, IT’S NOT ME! YOU KNOW I LOVE NIGHT SCHOOL!

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