by Jessica Harrington
Rating systems are nothing new in our country. We have explicit lyric warnings on CD’s, age ratings on T.V. shows, video games, and movies. But what about books? Christian Science Monitor covered the most recent debate in an article titled, “Should young adult books have age ratings?” by Husna Haq.
On BBC Breakfast, author G.P. Taylor (Shadowmancer, Wormwood, and the dark YA series Vampire Labyrinth), proposed that young adult literature be rated for age appropriateness. His Vampire Labyrinth series was being reviewed as one of the most horrifying things written for children, which made him step back and re-evaluate his stance on how dark YA lit should be. He had a change of heart and now “thinks children’s literature has gone too far.” Other authors disagree.
Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls) rejected Taylor’s proposal and welcomed darkness in YA, noting that dark topics is exactly what teenagers themselves are writing about. He also makes the point that children have access to the internet to view things society has deemed inappropriate, books are not the only source of “adult topics” in a young person’s life.
This is not the first time we have seen the topic of ratings systems for books- Haq’s article recalls, in 2008, a similar proposal from the publisher Scholastic. That proposal was met with a petition against it signed by over 700 authors, including J.K. Rowling.
Taylor suggests that a rating system similar to the one used for video games and movies be set in place for YA literature so parents have some guidance. With that type of rating system, the same questions that are raised about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) are raised for this book rating: Who gets to decide what is appropriate for what age?
Will it be a mirror of the MPAA and have a top secret rating committee and an impossible to win appeal process (See the documentary “This Film in Not Yet Rated” for more on that side of the MPAA debate)? Or will it be a government agency? And if it is, doesn’t that sound a little like censorship?
Associations like the American Library Association (ALA) fight this type of censorship and ultimate banning of books. Every year they sponsor Banned Book Week to put banned books in the hands of those who want to read them. A simple Google search of “banned books” will provide you with numerous lists of books that have been banned in the U.S. for a time or banned in certain schools, and the reasons vary. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was banned for a rape-scene and being “anti-white”. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has been banned for profanity. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck was banned for the depiction of pigs mating and being slaughtered. Are those good enough reasons to deny children the chance to read those great literary works?
If books such as the above, and many others, get banned for profanity or depictions of images other than rainbows, then what will happen to all the wonderful YA series that have been written in the past 10 years? Think Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series. Both have come under scrutiny, the former for violence, the later for idealizing witchcraft. Is it necessary to be this protective our children?
So, I will end with a question: is a rating system a good or bad idea and why? Read Husna Haq’s article for Christian Science Monitor, do some Google research, and weigh in on the debate- we want to hear what you have to say!
For more on this topic:
2011 ALA banned book list (.pdf)
KCTV5 investigates Book Banning: Parents vs. Public Schools
Banned Books: A School Librarian’s Perspective
*Quotes pulled from Husna Haq’s article, “Should young adult books have age ratings?” for Christian Science Monitor.
As the parent of a 13-year old avid reader, I admit to feeling a bit hesitant to support development of a book rating system. Until my children were old enough to read YA, I took them to the children’s book section of bookstores/libraries, reading picture books and short chapter books to them. They progressed to independent reading of books found in the children’s section. Of my four children, only one has developed an insatiable taste for reading, but around age ten or eleven they all began to gravitate towards books written for teens. With the dawn of J.K. Rowling’s, Harry Potter, my husband and I began reading YA novels as a way of screening them before our children read them. Eventually, the purpose of these readings evolved into an opportunity to discuss the content with our children.
Ten years after going through this transition for the first time with our oldest child, we have gone through this change two more times, with one nine-year old left to go through it, and I must say the key to raising responsible readers is the discussions we have with our children about what they are reading. A rating system will not instill this habit in families where it is not already valued, nor will it keep children from reading what they should not. I have come to accept that the world is full of ugliness I would not want for my children to know of, but the truth is they will find it for real, if not for in books. I simply want to know what they think about it when they encounter it.
A rating system may help parents limit what their children can access without their approval, somewhat like a PG-13 or R rated film, where a child can attend only when accompanied by an adult. However, a rating system for books would likely cause upheaval in the literary field; old books (classics and previously published) would need ratings, libraries and bookstores would have to come up with ways to prevent liability issues from arising, and what about all of the open forums and discussions online? And, just as a PG rating from the 1980s is not the same as a modern day PG rating, rating systems for books would eventually hold similar patterns of ambiguity. It just seems like a nest of dragons that will never be fully tamed.
No, I believe that the best policy is to keep encouraging parents to engage in their child’s activities and find ways to keep lines of communication open. Start by reading to them when they are young and showing enthusiasm or dislike for the content in picture books. Ask your children what they think about the story. You can do this with television, theater, music, artwork and so on. Rating system or not, this is what “should” be happening–discussion!
Thank you for an excellent post on an important topic. And I appreciate Egg’s comment on the value of discussion, since all of us, even child readers, are bringing our individual background and tastes to any reading material, how much can a generic rating say to a particular reader? And remember, if you tell a kid they aren’t allowed to read something, they’ll surely read it!
This debate sparks a whole spate of questions. Who would be selected to read and rate YA books? How carefully would they read the books in question? I’m thinking, for example, of Sherman Alexie’s commentary on the reported reasons behind the banning of his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, and the issue of exaggerated/falsified claims about a given novel’s content (see: http://fallsapart.com/banned). I also wonder whose criteria would be used to categorize the ‘age-appropriateness’ of various books, not to mention that I think it’s often a mistake to equate age with maturity.
For me, the most important issue is the impact of reading. In the piece mentioned above, Alexie quotes Shakespeare — “…we hate that which we often fear.” Why do people fear books? Do they fear infection?
I believe our psyches work much like our immune systems. Based on the bacteria and viruses with which we come into contact, our immune system develops defenses and stores counter-agents. Yes, both systems can be overwhelmed by a massive infection or a traumatic experience, but isolating kids in protective bubble wrap is simply postponing and likely exacerbating, the future consequences (just ask someone who gets chicken pox as an adult). Reading, I would argue, can act like a vaccination, giving us just enough exposure that we know how to fight off or deal with future encounters, rather than succumbing to them.
While the fact that we tend to identify with characters as we read (see: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-05/08/fictional-characters-study) might encourage “risqué” behavior, I would suggest this is further reason to encourage diverse reading habits, rather than limited ones. Under a rating system, for example, I would guess that the early versions of many fairy tales would be verboten for young children.
However, I would argue that kids should read multiple variations of Cinderella, for example, to see all the lessons and insights the tale has to offer, rather than having the story limited to Walt Disney’s take on morality, which our society seems to have deemed age-appropriate. After all, in a culture as obsessed with looks as our own, reading our children the version of Cinderella in which the stepsisters cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper would seem to be a necessary object lesson. This doesn’t negate versions of the story that emphasize kindness or other moral values; we should read those, too, because variation offers perspective and context, and allows for an ethical stance, rather than a reactionary one.
Finally, I’m reminded of Dylan Nice’s essay, “The Truth in Nonfiction” (http://therumpus.net/2012/07/truth-in-nonfiction-a-testimonial/), in which he discusses reading Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” and how, “In the span of a few thousand words over a half-century old, the world got bigger for me in a quiet way.” The impact of reading Orwell’s essay, Nice says, was that he “kept reading and thinking,” until the “the fragments I collected connected themselves into larger and more cohesive systems.” I would argue that this is the ultimate goal, to encourage more thinking, more engagement. I don’t believe this goal is ever achieved by limiting access to literature, much less by limits based on arbitrary guidelines.
In related news: NPR is asking for votes on the “Best-Ever Teen Novels” http://www.npr.org/2012/07/24/157072526/best-ever-teen-novels-vote-for-your-favorites. I see that Alexie, Salinger, Hopkins, Rowling, are all on the list; what might that say about their presence on the censorship lists?