Thursday, 18 February 2016

Age ratings, space and the humble potato - A frustrating week! (A ReadItDaddy Editorial)

This week's editorial has been inspired by a few things and dips back into a subject that STILL bakes the hell out of my spuds every time it crops up.

Age ratings for books.

Yes, I know, by now you're probably inwardly groaning and expecting some long drawn out rant about compartmentalisation and pigeonholing but stay put, there is a point to this ramble and it might even help other parents make the right decisions about what they let their kids read.

The first thing that inspired this post was seeing a girl probably about 3-4 years older than Charlotte reading Andy Weir's excellent book "The Martian". Obviously with the movie just hitting DVD / Blu Ray, it may have been that this girl had seen the movie and wanted to fill in the gaps by reading the book. The movie carries a 12 rating, probably quite rightly so because of some distinctly icky bits early on when Mark Watney is coping with a particularly nasty injury - and later in the movie when Mark uses some pretty colourful language (mostly edited but best to err on the side of caution).

It got me thinking. My girl loves space, she loves reading about and seeing anything to do with Space and NASA and she's also beginning to develop a real love of science fiction. In some ways, "The Martian" would be as utterly enthralling and absorbing to her as it is to me - and yet I couldn't let her near it at the moment purely because the novel also features the colourful language and some pretty gnarly descriptions of Watney's day to day life.

Most of all there's the concept that - unless you're a big poophead of a spoiler and give away the ending to your child - they won't know Watney's fate (and let's face it, even if you DO know what happens in the end, you're going to want to experience the highs and lows of this fantastic story yourself). Dealing with death is still seen as something we should shield children from as much as possible, probably quite rightly so but it would have made one hell of a talking point in this particular case.

So there it will sit on the shelf (in both book and movie form) until she's 'old enough' - whenever that is.

The second part of what inspired this blog post was something I should probably get a bit of a rap across the knuckles for and again goes into 'age rating' territory. Remember Gilbert Sheldon's most awesome moggy creation "Fat Freddy's Cat"? Stupidly I have a copy of the anthology collection kicking around at home. To all intents and purposes it looks like a nice colourful comic collection, and alas Madame C got hold of it and read right through. The bit that my wife took objection to was actually a strip about Freddy taking the cat to a 'therapist' who had decided that the best way to cure the cat's behavioural difficulties would be a good solid jolt of electricity!

Bear in mind that the strips are A) designed to be fantastical, hilarious and B) they're very much from an era when political correctness was a hitherto unknown phenomenon. I (quite rightly) got verbally chastised when Charlotte gleefully relayed this funny story to her mum and so another book gets put well and truly out of reach until...well she's old enough.

By no means is this a justification but it set me thinking back to being 8 years old and trying to remember the sort of things I'd read by then. I was an avid consumer of the newspaper - and if there's one thing that plays on the mind more than anything else, it's the harrowing and horrible stuff happening in the real actual world, sometimes right on your doorstep.

I also used to sneak a lot of books out of my relatives' bookcases. By 8 I'd read books by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov but I'd also read books by James Herbert, Clive Barker and Stephen King. I also used to soak up any reading material about the paranormal or about mysterious phenomenon such as UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts etc (in fact on the latter subject, the old Lion Methuen ghost collections were terrifying and actually designed for kids back in the 70s. I couldn't get enough of them!)

With my responsible parent head on, I'd hate for Charlotte to read or see anything age inappropriate. Sometimes it's extremely difficult to make that judgement call and it's definitely not a call to make on the basis of my own childhood (or anyone else's for that matter). My wife errs on the side of caution, with an almost 'Victorian' approach to what's acceptable so she quite rightly takes a very firm line on what Charlotte is exposed to (Not sure why "Mamma Mia" is largely ignored though - a happy singalong movie about mystery fatherhood with some fairly racy content in places, well racy by 8 year old standards anyway).

Back on point, age ratings still feel like something that you as a parent should individually assess and evaluate (and that puts a lot of faith and trust in your judgement - no small thing) so whenever the subject comes up it still jars that the insinuation is being made that you need a rubber stamped age rating on your reading or viewing material because without it, you could bring the author, the illustrator, the movie makers or the publisher to court and sue their rotten butts off (is that really the only reason we ever see a whiff of this stuff in the first place?)

Alright, we're almost there - I did warn you this might go on a bit. Here's another tangent to veer off on. What the heck is wrong with 8 year olds? No no, I don't mean the kids themselves, why are 8 year olds largely ignored as a whole age group when you look at the way children's books are broken up into age categories. You have birth to 3, 3 to 5, 5 to 7, 9-12 and from there onto YA.

See the gap? Where do 8 year olds fit in? Too old for picture books, seen as too young for middle grade? I see this time and again in book listings and publisher catalogues and it baffles the heck out of me.