Within our society, there is an ever-increasing trend towards government intervention in areas which affect everyday family life. Whilst some legislation is essential and helps to protect the most vulnerable members of society - anti-smacking laws, for instance - too much intervention runs the risk of disempowering parents and young people themselves.
We are used to age restrictions imposed on films and games which I accept as both a necessary and useful guideline, given the graphic nature of some products. Like many parents, I will still exercise my own discretion when deciding whether certain films and games are suitable entertainment for my own children, based on my knowledge of the content included and my children's own development and personalities.
With books, I feel that the same kind of approach would be far too restrictive and fails to take into account the huge variance between children's ability, understanding and potential response to specific content. I think this is something that can only be really be assessed usefully by either the parents or children (particularly teenagers) themselves. Part of the whole attraction of literature is the sheer variety of material available and its ability to transport the reader to completely different worlds and situations.
I've always loved reading, even as a young child, and it is something that I've been keen to share with my own children. Luckily, all three of my boys have shared my love of books, even as babies. I have, however, found it increasingly difficult to find decent books to maintain the interest of my oldest son who has grown out of the likes of Enid Blyton and Horrid Henry. I have found there to be a lack of decent stories to tempt boys in the 10-12 age group, with many books seeming to be too childish, others too old and most aimed squarely at young girls!
The prospect of introducing age restrictions on children's reading materials runs the risk of narrowing the field even further and potentially turning my son off reading altogether. I dread to think what would happen if my ten year old's beloved 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series should end up being classified as 12 plus, for instance! (Although what would clearly happen is that I would exercise common sense and discretion as a parent and would continue to allow him to read them - something that I'm more than able to do without the need for any additional legislation.)
Like many parents, I do care about things that my children are exposed to. I want to protect them and maintain their innocence for as long as I'm able to, whilst at the same time giving them the skills and knowledge to manage the transition into adulthood successfully. Part of this process involves giving children an element of freedom, and certain choices, in line with their age and development. With so many restrictions already in place, choosing books remains one way in which children and teenagers are able to exercise choice and responsibility, hopefully within the framework of a loving and supportive family.
One of the safest ways in which children are able to excercise choice is through reading material, as reading is by its nature a solitary affair. Imposing stricter guidelines and restrictions on any reading material can be counterproductive - instantly alerting youngsters to content that may be inappropriate - making its popularity pretty much guaranteed! During my own childhood, I can remember giggling over the content of problem pages in teenage magazines and gawping at the 'Position of the Month' in More magazine! I can even remember a school friend shoplifting a copy of 'For Women' and staring in disbelief at the naked body of one of the singers from Right Said Fred! Most children's literature does not include such disturbing images!
I do feel that some material aimed at young children can include material, particularly language, that I, as a parent, would not consider to be appropriate for the intended age group. I'm not sure that introducing any legislation with strict definitions of what is and isn't acceptable for readers of a certain age would be the answer to this concern, however, as I wouldn't want it to be seen as acceptable for any book aimed at children to be littered with swear words, for example.
Some authors do seem to be pushing the boundaries with what topics and language is acceptable within children's stories (as opposed to 'young adult' literature.) I have struggled a little with the content of some of David Wallliam's children's stories, for instance, with one of them (Billionaire Boy) containing the word 'slag'! Personally, I do not feel that this is at all appropriate for a book which, on the back cover, is aimed at children from nine years old! Fortunately, I was reading this to my son and substituted the word but I wouldn't be at all pleased to discover that word in his vocabulary thanks to reading that book. Some of the topics within Walliam's novels also seem to be more appropriate for a teenage audience (first crushes, parental affairs, cross dressing and 'page three' for example) than the younger readers that the childish illustrations and over the top characters would actually appeal to.
Despite these kinds of discrepancies, I'm not at all convinced that legislation would address these concerns appropriately. No arbitrary age rating can ever replace the need for some parental oversight, particularly for pre-teens, and their knowledge of their own children.
I firmly believe that introducing age restrictions would make reading age appropriate material seem much less appealing than reading inappropriate stuff! I can also imagine over-zealous librarians and shop assistants whipping 12+ books out of the hands of 11 year olds across the land! (I witnessed a teenage girl not allowed to purchase Pritt Stick along with art supplies in WHSmith a while ago - proof that common sense is not necessarily very common!)
In short, I believe that parents and individuals have the right to make choices about appropriate reading materials and any state intervention in this area would be unneccessary and potentially counterproductive.