(Image from here. I will actually be using it to metaphorically explain how the age category system in publishing works, so that’s exciting.)
We give all the books we publish an age category.
The age categories are very small segments of the population when it comes to kids: 4 – 8, 7 – 10, 10 – 14. They’re meant to delineate different developmental reading levels and grade levels, and sometimes to indicate stories where sensitive topics exist that are handled in a way directed at one audience or another. Our biggest age category is on the opposite end of the spectrum: adult, meaning everyone 17 and up.
This age category system isn’t meant to apply to every single reader out there. Categories are by definition restrictive. It is not meant to include, ‘your two year old is a strange prodigy and is reading Proust whilst becoming obsessed with graphic novels,’ or ‘I know I’m eighty, but I love picture books as a system of artistic expression.’
Instead, what an age category system is meant to do is to provide a focus — a way for us to say, ‘THESE people are the people who are most likely to enjoy this book.’
Those are the people in the bullseye, so to speak.
People in other age categories may enjoy the graphic novels we publish besides the ones in the our designated age categories. They may be child prodigies who are reading beyond their age level. They may be adults who enjoy reading teen fiction. They may be parents who enjoy reading with their kids. They may be people who are curious about the subject of the book and don’t care that it was written for someone at a lower or higher reading level.
The graphic novels we publish aren’t written to be restrictive, either. We don’t look at the age categories we’re assigning books and think, ‘Okay, we said this book was for a 10 – 14 audience. We must make it so that no one who is 9 or 15 years old will find anything whatsoever to enjoy in this book. Middle school powers active!’ Instead, we work with our authors to make the best books that we and they can — and they’re often books that have appeal on multiple levels, to many different ages of readers.
If age categories are such vague and imprecise things, then why have them?
Despite age categories being both vague and imprecise, it’s good to have them. They’re an essential signal to teachers, librarians, booksellers, and consumers about whether or not they’re the sort of person who should be picking up this book. Even if you’re reading a book and thinking, ‘This book could be read by anyone!’ it still needs to be shelved somewhere on the bookshelf of the library or the bookstore. Does it go in the adult section? The teen section? Age categories make this relatively easy for people to figure this out.
Readers also identify themselves by age category. If you’re a kid reading two grade levels above your classmates, that tends to be something that you know. If you’re an adult who enjoys YA, that’s also a thing that you know. And people seek out books on the basis of their mental picture of what ages they should be reading at.
When thinking about age categories for books, it’s ideal to think about them not as a box that books are trapped inside, but as a starting point — here is where the book begins, but it could end up in the hands of anyone.