Monday, May 28, 2012

Should Books be Rated?

By Julie Daines

Here we are again. Back to the debate about whether or not books for young adults should carry a content warning. 

Thanks to this article in US News and World Report by Jason Koebler, there have been some hot opinions flying around the internet. 

Some say books should be given a content label--similar to MPAA ratings for movies. A rating system would be helpful for parents to know what kind of content in terms of profanity, sex and violence might be found in the books their young adult readers are reading.

Some say a rating system is a violation of rights and would lead to books being banned and books with an R-equivalent rating losing sales. They point out that many of the books containing profanity are problem novels meant to help young adult readers through some of the difficult aspects of life that teens these days have to face. And another important question is on whose opinion would the books be rated? 

Quoted in the US News article is researcher Sarah Coyne at Brigham Young University who did an in-depth study of young adult books.
"I think we put books on a pedestal compared to other forms of media," Coyne says. "I thought long and hard about whether to do the study in the first place—I think banning books is a terrible idea, but a content warning on the back I think would empower parents."
In some ways I agree with this. There have been times when I wished I had some way to gauge the content of a book before I purchased it. And I don't just mean for YA books. It would be nice to be able to make an informed decision about the books I'm considering reading.

I think there are kids out there who would pay attention to ratings when making choices.

There are also parents out there who see the slightest hint of something questionable and overreact, calling for books to be banned. Need I remind you of the Harry Potter debacle?

I see the pros and cons of both sides of this argument.

There are already many places on the internet where parents or kids can go to find content information about recently published YA books. One of these sites is Common Sense Media, along with numerous book review blogs.

What are your thoughts? Should books for young adults come with a content rating?


Michelle said...

I rarely read an adult book unless it's been recommended to me. It's too hard to tell what will be in it otherwise. So I'm with you when it comes to wishing there was some way to know more about the content of the book, but it seems like an official rating system would be a logistical nightmare.
What about a small note on the back cover with a brief listing of content? I guess you still have the problem of what to list, since just about everything can offend someone.

pCarson said...

What if we could have their books rated: engaging, exciting, gripping, a keeper, or dull, boring, yawn?

Anna Culp said...

I wonder, would it matter? The parents who would care would be screening books anyway. And "rebellious" young readers may just want to read it more if it is rated out of their maturity bracket. And marketers wouldn't necessarily adjust target audience pulls based on the back cover rating, would they? There are plastic weapon toys for ages 4+ in stores based on The Avengers, which is PG-13. A lot of parents are buying what's marketed, not what's deemed appropriate by third-parties (or even common sense, I think), and I don't see how that would translate to books much differently. Perhaps the greatest dividers in who is reading what books are reading skill, and home reading culture. So, if a parent is saying "I'm just happy he/she is reading anything", or "My kids will stay away from that devil/porn/witchcraft/godless book," they'll be saying it regardless of what's on the back cover.

Scott said...

So far, I've avoided this discussion because it is difficult and highly charged. But I guess I'll jump in.

On the one hand, parents have the responsibility of choosing entertainment, including books, for their children that is appropriate to each child's sensitivities and maturity level. Some way of notifying the buyer that a book contains certain kinds of content is not a bad idea. I'm all for informing the consumer.

On the other hand, where are the lines drawn? Who decides? What is a "bad" word, and are certain words always "bad" in all situations? When is a situation too sexual? When does violence, which is often a huge part of the conflict and peril that makes a story exciting, cross the line? Personal standards don't always match family standards, which don't always match so-called community standards, which almost never match the standards set by whichever committee is trying to decide on a one-size-fits-all standard.

Will back covers of books (or some electronic equivalent) be required to contain extensive "warning" labels that list all possible objectionable material for every group out there?

As with movies, games, and music, kids will use those ratings to choose books with sexual situations, for example, because they are fun to read. As books become increasingly electronic and easily pirated, kids find what they want, and we don't even know.

The best art often challenges social norms, or enlightens us about issues in ways that often offend somebody out there. Some of the movies that have had the greatest impact on the way I think and view the world have been rated R. Many other so-called safe, family films are often brainless and pointless. You don't have to offend to be trash. It's good, though, to be aware that a film contains material that is not meant for a six-year-old.

Most of my favorite books have been banned somewhere for being non age appropriate, or containing language that offended some parents or librarians, or whatever.

So, back to the question.

Simple ratings, like those on movies, tell us little about the content of a film, and nothing about the film's artistic value. I'm less opposed to content notifications, although it's almost certain that nobody will be happy with where the lines are drawn.

I'm more concerned with "surprises" in books for younger readers than for young adults. The presence of the word "adult" in that classification tells me that some material might not be suitable for younger readers. And, I think it's naive of any parent to think that their "young adults" won't use the content notifications to choose material that excites them and, in their mind at least, helps them break away from parental control.

It's not an easy question to answer. It's easy to give a knee-jerk "heck yeah, they should be rated," but regardless of your political positions, your religious views, your past history and the sensitivities it creates, and your personal sense of right and wrong or beauty and trash, even a minute's thought will create huge gray areas. And, no matter what, you can bet that whatever board or committee or government bureau is responsible for setting the limits for those ratings, you won't agree with where they choose to draw the lines.