The Obsession with Labelling


Call me old-fashioned but I struggle with all the labels being attached to books. The aim of the labels, I am sure, is to target books at a specific audience. The trouble is that it also alienates an audience – what 14-year-old wants to be seen reading a MG book (definitions available below)? Anytime I shop with a child they always want to buy something that is older than their age group. That is what they see as cool – aspiring to be older than themselves, showing they are mature.

This attitude feeds through to their choice of reading material and I find it frustrating that readers turn up their noses at good books because they deem the books to be ‘too young’. I am less bothered about the problem of readers picking up books where the content is too advanced for them or the writing is too complicated. In my view,  if readers pick up a book that is too complicated they will put it down. No harm done. Perhaps the book will end up collecting dust for a few years before they try it again or, worse case scenario, they won’t try it again. Is that really a problem?

The issue of content is perhaps a bigger issue and here it has to be a judgement call on the part of any adult who is recommending the book and on the reader looking at the book. Surely judgement has to be trusted and we have to allow people to make choices? Surely the key is to provide potential readers with some advice as to content and then let them make their own minds up.

So, back to labelling. I can see that labels are helpful for people in the publishing profession or teachers or librarians who are looking to meet the needs of a specific group of readers. However, to me, the danger lies not in the labels themselves (although they seem to be multiplying) but in people getting hung up on them and being blinkered by them. So, if you must use them, my advice is to do so with care because readers and books should not be tied up into tight little parcels. If you do that you might miss giving a 14-year-old the opportunity to enjoy an adult book (Q&A by Vikas Swarup was devoured in less than a week by one keen reader) or a 16-year-old the opportunity to reflect on the very important issues raised by RJ Palacio’s Wonder.

A list of labels and their (rough) definitions: 

YA – young adult. A search of the internet throws up a variety of definitions but for YALSA it means aimed at readers aged 12 to 18.

MG – middle grade. An internet search places this label as covering 8 or 9 year olds to 12 year olds

New Adult – the period that covers the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Probably from 18 to 25ish. A blog from Harlequin provides a definition of this label.

Contemporary – adding contemporary to one of the above labels indicates that the book is set in a contemporary and realistic setting. Often the book is written in the first person and is a story that could be described as emotional.

New Gen – new generation – books that cover teen/young adult readers. It does not appear to be as widely used as other labels.

I’m labelled out! Let me know if I’ve missed any.

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