In this post, Lisa Davis discusses age appropriateness in children’s literature. She considers the very subjective question of how to tell whether vocabulary or content is appropriate for specific age ranges, and takes into account who is reading the book and how it gets into their hands.
When editing children’s books, the editor takes on an additional level of responsibility to their readers. This is a challenge to those starting out in children’s books as one can end up wondering if a word is too difficult for an age group, or if the content is appropriate. However, as well as the intended audience of the book, we have to consider who will actually be reading the story and the gatekeepers who will be selling or sharing it.
Children’s books tend to get lumped together as one genre, which isn’t ideal considering how much children develop and learn each year. Here, I focus on the 0–12 age group, as this is often when age appropriateness comes into question, particularly as adults still have some say in what a child is reading.
Age-appropriate vocabulary is one of the first things that comes up with editing children’s books, and this refers to the vocabulary level of an intended audience. There’s sometimes an assumption that picture books need to be simple with limited vocabulary, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Picture books are designed to be read by an adult to a child, and this process helps expand a child’s spoken vocabulary. While I wouldn’t advocate using too many challenging words, I would also avoid oversimplifying the language so much that it ends up being dry.
A key element to consider is who is reading the words. For most children’s books for ages up to seven, adults are reading to a child. But vocabulary level is important for early reader books where a child is learning to read. In this case, the word choice is vital and usually tailored to use selected phonetical sounds. This is specialised writing and editing, which one would be trained for. So, unless you’re editing levelled readers, then just using common sense is fine – and remember that many children continue to be read to throughout primary school.
Swearing, of course, is another issue. Generally, for this age group swearing should be avoided, but there are some borderline swear words (‘bloody hell’, ‘damn’, etc) where some readers are OK with it and others aren’t. For this reason, I tend to advise avoiding them unless an author or publisher has a strong opinion on it.
This subjectivity becomes more apparent when we start looking at content. If we think about what content is appropriate for children’s books, we initially paint with broad strokes. However, so much comes down to individual definition and the context in which content is presented. For instance, if I were to ask if violence were OK in a children’s book, I would expect most people to say ‘no’. Instead, it would be better to ask specifically what is happening, how it is presented and what age group will be consuming this content. Is one character slapping another OK in a picture book for ages 3–5? Or in a chapter book for ages 9–12? Why does the slap happen? Is this action glorified? Are there any repercussions for this action? We have to consider the overall message this content sends to the reader and whether potentially problematic content is the only way to achieve this.
While there hasn’t been a study done to examine age appropriateness of content within children’s books, Ipsos Mori and Ofcom did a study on offensive language in 2016 that examined if/when certain words were problematic on TV and radio. The study concluded that ‘it was not usually possible to decide on the acceptability of language and gestures without taking the full context into account’. It also stated: ‘The likely audience should be considered (noting that not all channels are the same) – but the potential audience is also important’.
These findings can be extended to all content within children’s books. For instance, we wouldn’t be OK with drug usage in children’s books. But any reference to drugs or alcohol in books for ages 9–12 isn’t as problematic, provided it’s shown as negative.
However, these considerations need to be put into further context of the gatekeepers.
Considering the gatekeepers
With children’s books, we have several levels of gatekeepers before a book gets into a child’s hands. There are parents and family members, but they are often last in a long line that includes teachers and librarians as well as bookshops or distributors, who get books into schools and libraries. And there are organisations that support or promote books, but only if they adhere to certain criteria.
I’m aware of certain children’s book prizes that won’t include a book that has any violence. Additionally, there are companies that sell books directly to schools, so they are cautious about which titles they select to ensure there isn’t anything problematic that could result in complaints.
The issue here is that ‘problematic’ is incredibly subjective, and people tend to have stronger opinions about content created for children. While many readers are happy to see picture books tackling important social issues, there are others who feel children are too young to be exposed to this content. This is why we always see greater censorship in children’s titles, where even individual schools are deciding not to include popular titles in their collections.
Context is key
This subjectivity is something that can’t (and often shouldn’t) be catered for. Just as with adult titles, we have to accept that some people won’t approve of every children’s title. But complex subjects such as war, death, mental health and gender identity are all being tackled in children’s books today in ways that are seen as accessible to children. It all comes down to how the content is presented.
While books don’t receive age ratings, we can look to films and the guidance around them. But even here it’s not as straightforward, with the British Board of Film Classification noting that their recommendations ‘consider context, tone and impact – how it makes the audience feel – and even the release format’. So even with guidelines, it still comes down to context. But they also note that ‘giving age ratings and content advice to films and other audiovisual content [is] to help children and families choose what’s right for them and avoid what’s not’, which means ratings can only apply to content at the very top level. While I don’t advocate for age recommendations on books, what we can do is use book blurbs and back cover copy to give a clear indication of what type of story the book is, so readers have a good idea of what they’re getting.
Ultimately as editors, we need to read with a sensitive eye to examine word choice and content, questioning anything that might be inappropriate, while raising anything that could be problematic for some readers, so that an author or publisher can make an educated decision.
Lisa Davis (she/her) is a children’s book editor and publishing consultant who specialises in making children’s books more inclusive. She has worked at major publishers in the UK including Simon & Schuster and Hachette, and in departments including editorial, rights and production. Before going freelance in 2018, she was the book purchasing manager for BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity, which gives over 3.5 million books a year directly to children.
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.