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YA Books Ratings and Publisher Arrogance (shh, it’s about the $$)

29 September 2012

From author John Brown:

I wish I could talk to a publisher about this. I should talk to a Barnes & Noble corporate book buyer. But since I don’t have one handy, I’ll discuss it with you folks. Maybe I’m up in the night? You tell me.

Here’s the deal. My wife is 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher. My wife is also a mom who loves books and wants her girls to read until their eyes bong out of their heads.

So we go to find books for her students and for our girls and, jeez, wouldn’t you know it, but this YA book features masturbation and that one features lots of fine words like F*** and S*** and this one is about giving the guys a blow job (tee, hee, hee).

Yeah, I know about YA saves. This isn’t about banning this or that content.

It’s about the fact that I’m a parent. And, geez, I have a certain way I want to raise my kids. My wife is a teacher who needs to provide books to her students that aren’t going to piss some parent off. Why? Because she’s providing a service to that parent. Because she wants to keep her job. And because it’s her job to help parents improve their kid’s reading ability not tell them how to raise a family.

So why in the Sam Hill can’t publishers rate their books?

. . . .

Well, here’s one answer I was given by a writer friend I respect.

Everyone in the industry is really pushing back against the idea of a rating system. Let me see if I can explain why.

A friend of mine, ZZ [name removed], is the nicest person in the world. Volunteered for years at a prison to help people learn to express themselves by writing. Her older brother was a closeted homosexual for years, contracted AIDS, died too young. She wrote a book recently called [title removed], about a family in the restaurant business (as hers was) who have a “late” baby and the problems it causes for the older teens, one of whom is coming out as gay. It’s a soft, quite, sad, moving book. And it would be part of the “rating” system and banned from a bunch of schools. ZZ also wrote a book a few years ago about teenage pregnancy. Also beautifully written, kind, compassionate. But it would get tagged by schools as “inappropriate.” ZZ feels strongly that there are kids out there who need books, kids in your wife’s school system who need to be told they are not alone.

I don’t see any way to have a system that distinguishes between books that I see as anchors to kids who need help and those books which I see as genuinely offensive and encouraging bad teen behavior by glorifying it. The only system I know is me recommending the best books I see. And I’d much rather see librarians and school teachers go through books on a case by case basis, deciding whether they personally think it fits the values in their community than to have someone else not attached to the community do the same thing.

Uh huh.

If this is accurate, it shows the industry’s stunning lack of creativity AND arrogance. Because if publishers really were listening to parents, they could come up with a solution.

Link to the rest at John Brown and thanks to Heather for the tip.


49 Comments to “YA Books Ratings and Publisher Arrogance (shh, it’s about the $$)”

  1. I label my books Mature YA if they are.
    Seems simple enough.

  2. A practical rating system would be very helpful to parents and to readers, but do you really want Publishers to have another gatekeeper responsibility? They have enough work with their duties as Pickers of Culture and Developers of Writing Mastery. These busy folks don’t even have time to properly format e-books, how could they actually READ each book they release, determine its appropriate audience, and indicate the possible content issues on the cover with a simple rating/designation? Leave that to the makers of films and video games. Publishers have no time to address such mundane things that might help customers make more informed decisions. They are too busy “curating” fine authors like Snooki. (turn off sarcasm)
    Here is an opportunity for any Small Press or Indie Writer. Would it be so hard to create an advisory label? “Content Notice: this book contains some scenes of…”

    • I have an “Age Appropriateness” guide on my website Books page. I did that because I noticed searches to my site about the age appropriateness of certain books. I went a step further and gave a few reasons (sexual content, violence, etc.) for my reasons for suggesting those minimum ages (YA or adult). Some people do want them. As a self-published author, I could put them in the descriptions, but most readers are going to ignore them anyway. I have 10 year old fans of my series which I would not have expected, because I don’t consider the books appropriate for that young; but apparently their parents allow it. Those “ratings” are on my website for readers who want to know. Authors can do it voluntarily. I would rather do it myself than let some independent person decide.

  3. On the surface this seems like it should work because publishers *are* the arbiters of culture and quality, right? They select only the very best of the best of manuscripts culled from the slush piles of dozens–if not hundreds–of agents who are looking for only the very best stories, from the very best writers.

    Or.. you know .. what ever it was that sold twenty-thousand units last year. Something like that would be perfect.

    I’m confident that publishers *could* come up with a system.

    I’m equally confident I wouldn’t trust it — or pay any more attention to it than I do the ratings on video games or movies. Yeah. No. This is a mug’s game at best and not one I–as parent, reader, and author–could endorse.

  4. If major publishers start rating their books, pretty soon there’ll be calls for an industry board to do the rating because, God forbid, some publishers might not rate them ‘correctly’.

    At which point they become another gate-keeper to keep indies out of the book business, just as movie ratings kept indie movies out of movie theaters or forced the producers to cut their movies to get the rating they needed while the same material would have got through unscathed if it came from Hollywood (ask Lloyd Kaufman about his encounters with the movie rating system, for example).

    No thanks. While it might seem a good idea on the surface, ‘rating’ soon becomes censorship by the back door.

  5. “Content Notice: this book contains some scenes of…”



    I’d sure like it if warnings could be given for excessive gore. I read a supposedly YA book, (Ashes, by Isla.J.Bick, who was a child psychiatrist,) which was disgustingly gory.

    Put me right off me chilli.

    Anything that tells you what is in the book is a good thing.


  6. I absolutely agree, and feel quite strongly about this. We need a rating system, and I think it’s terrible we don’t have one. Parents (and readers) need a way to decide about books before they buy them or give them to their children to read.

    I don’t agree that the publisher or author should rate their own books. And I’m afraid I disagree with Edward. We do need a ratings board. Yes, I know there’s a possiblity for corruption, but authors are in a unique position to fight back. It’s called the internet.

    But this is controversial, and potentially very expensive, because of the sheer number of books printed. Publishers will fight this, because it may mean a reduction in sales, so it will take awhile to happen. What will most likely happen first, is indie people will either rate their own books, or a voluntary rating board will arise.

    In the meantime, I think that books should be labeled for violence/disturbing content/sexual content, even if not rated, by the author. It’s considerate, and avoids poor consumer relations.

    • There is no ‘possibility of corruption’, there is a near certainty. I can’t think of a single case where a ratings board hasn’t ended up effectively becoming a censorship board; look at all the movies which can only effectively be released today because there’s no rating requirement for DVDs whereas very few movie theaters showed unrated film prints. Even if it doesn’t become corrupt, it will, at a minimum, add hundreds to thousands of dollars to the cost of releasing a book as you have to pay the ratings board to read it and rate it.

      ‘Voluntary ratings’ have trashed movies, comics and video games. Don’t let them do the same to books.

    • I agree. A board or community or whatever would be doing the ratings would definitely need to be separate from the publishers.

      And maybe “rating board” is the wrong term. I don’t really care for ratings like movies, I’d just like to be aware of the content before I decide to plunk down the cash and invest the time reading the book. 🙂

  7. Sadly, I’m with the “if there’s a rating system, it’ll get both the gratuitous and the absolutely necessary, and ban them both” argument.

    This doesn’t mean I don’t think there should be trigger-warnings or the like, but a rating system that’s too granular is going to be used lazily. I suppose there could be “rated G for fluffy bunnies” and “everything else”…

    • (And, as a note, I do actually see a place for “rated G for fluffy bunnies” — sometimes one wants to pick up a Very Unlikely To Offend book for a gift, or oneself feels like reading something where the genre assumptions form an implicit contract with the reader that Certain Things Will Not Happen.

      Which may be one reason why there are adults reading YA to the exclusion of other stuff; the other genres got too grimdark!

      Not to mention that there are some books out there which were published as regular fantasy, but are now marketed as YA. I think the Harper Hall trilogy and some of Diana Wynne Jones’ stuff both fall into this category.)

  8. A system of ratings would help, but rather than see the publishing industry as arrogant (at least in this respect…) I see them as terrified. Once a set of standards is adopted, who will be the arbiters? Who will be “The Deciders”? How will these people be selected, or will they appoint themselves? Is it to be a guidance system, or will it be a form of cloaked censorship?

    Your example above shows the need for a clearly diverse set of standards, but if not sex, where do we draw the line? Violence(which I think is much more offensive than sex and masturbation)? Insults to Religious creeds or thinking? Racial intolerance? The human experience is full of many things that children are not equipped to confront completely. That’s why it takes a while to grow into adulthood: children need parents or guardians to help them through.

    YA, IMHO, needs to be set apart from Children’s Books in every way. A very precocious eight year old might get the implications in most YA books, but many of that age would not. Seeing certain things in print, when you’re too young to discern intent and filter them through experience, might give some kind of tacit approval.

    I think that sometimes, sex, for example can be used really well to bring a reader into an intimate acceptance of a character, or it can be a cheap, easy way to go — author’s choice. As long as a reader understands what they are absorbing, it should be no issue, but at some point, parents will have to decide when their children will be old enough to make their own reading decisions without pre-screening. Whether or not a short-cut system of ratings is in place or not, the final decision will be theirs and will be made individually. YA should be for these readers.

  9. In spite of any downfalls (doesn’t everything have a downfall?) I would like to see a ratings system, for myself as well as my kids. I can’t keep up with *all* the books of three voracious readers, so I can certainly sympathize with teachers who would like a rating system. Even if I’ve read a book before, I have found that if I didn’t read the book with say, a 10-year-old in mind, there were things I glossed over when reading it for myself. We have a rating system for movies and I really don’t think books should be any different.

    Until there is one, if I’m recommending a book I’m not sure about, I check out all the 1 star reviews on Amazon and also Common Sense Media – those two things will pretty much tell me absolutely anything that I *might* 🙂 be offended by.

  10. Teens need the freedom to choose their own books! If they pick up one that’s over their head, that is its own learning experience. (And yes, I’m a parent, mine are 20 & 16).

    I live in an affluent community and know of teens as young as thirteen who are known as the blow job girl (and the parents are clueless), who self harm, who do drugs, who have been prescribed anti-psychotic medication. Theses issues are everywhere. And books can help.

    That said, I do put a RECOMMENDATION for age 14+ at the bottom of the listing for my first YA title, but it’s for readers and no one else. Putting the same asinine labeling that’s on movies (some profanity, one instance of dwarf beheading) onto books will only backfire. Don’t people know kids at all?

  11. When the YA stories that teens might most need to read, novels with difficult themes; such as pregnancy, drug addiction, homosexuality, loss of faith and/or anything related to sexuality, will be weeded out as a mere precaution, it is censorship pure and simple.

    Teenagers live and see these issues every day, and they need tools to learn to deal constructively with reality in order to become decent, responsible adults. Especially teens whose parents are convinced that such subjects should be willfully ignored until age 21, or preferably, altogether.

    YA is written primarily for teens readers, not parents and that is the way it should be. Adults should keep in mind that sometimes, the things we don’t want to anyone exposed to are the very thing they most need to hear.

    Grading YA, even voluntarily, comes with the risk of making writers, teachers and librarians err on the side of caution, removing anything that could possibly offend. Over time the genre will gain the quality, depth and originality of Disney channel. It is not a risk worth taking.

  12. I like the idea of content warnings, not just for YA but for adult books as well. The fanfiction community has had this for ages, and the funny thing about it is that the fics with the most content warnings are typically the most popular. When looking for a fanfic to read, I would scan the content warnings to find the type of content I wanted to read. I would also screen out a few things I didn’t want to read. The only downside is that sometimes the content warnings can contain some spoilers.

    • I wish there were a way to put in content warnings that didn’t look… well, fanfic-like. (I enjoy fanfic, both reading and writing, but fanfic isn’t for pay, and books are, so it behooves me to appear more “book-like” when I’m asking for the $$$.) Say, if Shelfari or similar had a place to enter Content Warnings in a similar way as Amazon does tags — enter the warning, then check the ticky-box if you agree with a warning.

      But it would also probably need to have a Hide/Show, as content warnings can contain spoilers. I have to settle for “mature scenes” or “mature content” a lot of the time. 🙁

  13. I would recommend that everyone decrying the idea of book ratings should go read the original post by John Brown. He has a specific rating system that he recommends, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

  14. I don’t know if a ratings system is the way to go, but content warnings would be appropriate. Problem is, unless there is some standard and everyone does it, then you have a hit and miss system.

    I don’t agree that these things are necessarily censorship. Putting a rating on something doesn’t prevent the reader from seeing it and making a decision to buy or not buy. A rating or content warning is giving readers information they need to make buying decisions. It is not censorship in that case. Now, if a ratings system is used to exclude books from even being published…that is a different thing. But I think we are way beyond the point that someone like Amazon would make a decision not to publish/sell anything that didn’t have a rating. There are too many other channels that would fill that hole and Amazon would lose out. Same for other retail outlets.

    But I do think if a book has excessive violence, adult themes, explicit sex scenes, the reader is entitled to know that going in. Right now, it is just up to independent authors and publishers to decide how to handle that. And most opt to not do so.

    One method I’ve recently used on a book that contained more adult themes than the previous two in the series is to make it more overt it contained such in the blurb. People might miss a content warning, but most will read the blurb. And at least, if they complain, they will only have themselves to blame for not reading the blurb and other material before buying. Teachers, parents, and librarians do have to use due diligence.

  15. Agreeing with many people on both sides.

    I think the only way to deal with the need for teachers and parents to know what to allow their kids to read is to read reviews or read the books.

    If parents either read the book or have an idea of what the book is about, then they can ask their children questions and talk about the subjects in the book as well.

    I just see this as a way for people to avoid doing what will teach their children so they just don’t have to ever deal with it.

    If you put in a rating system it effectively shuts out depictions of touchy subjects that are meant to teach and comfort. Unfortunately, a lot of those who want to have regulations are putting up Diary of Anne Frank and Tom Sawyer and To Kill a Mockingbird up for bans from school libraries.

    How do you put a rating that expresses that there are possibly offensive elements without effectively slapping an X rating equivalent on books like “America,” or “Speak,” or “The Giver, or “Tess of the D’urbervilles?” Who is going to oversee the rating board to make sure that books with real literary merit aren’t being blackballed because they only want fluffy bunny Bible stories getting into schools?

    The problem with hard subjects and children, is that sometimes the hard subjects aren’t something they want to talk about with adults, but a book doesn’t judge. They can pick up a book with a heroine that was raped, or a kid who’s in the closet, or the Holocaust, and War. They can use those books to make decisions for themselves, including getting help for themselves or others.

    I do see how a rating system could help if it were used to help children find the books that they needed, but if the books that they need are in the no-no pile, then how can it help anyone?

    If Parents think that their values are so important they should learn how to teach them to their children in a way that won’t be destroyed by a couple books. If they are doing that effectively, then their children will most likely put the books down that are truly offensive because they too will find them offensive. Keeping your children away from ideas and realities doesn’t make them go away, and only means that their beliefs have never been tested. If beliefs are never tested, then it’s much easier for them to fall under scrutiny because the child doesn’t know the whys and hows of their own beliefs and values. There’s not a much safer way to test those than through a book, rather than in front of a bunch of peers.

    • I don’t understand the concept of the “no-no pile.”

      While the books might not be assigned as part of the curriculum or available in the school library, bookstores and the public library would more than likely carry them. As a teen, I never relied on the school library for anything more than study hall, but was a voracious reader and visited the public library often.

      Whether or not books are officially banned from schools (a concept I disagree with for the most part), they will still be available elsewhere. Some librarians have been very vocal about ensuring that those types of books would definitely be available at the public libraries. People also celebrate the banned book list yearly by reading and sharing books that are on that list. So I’m not overly concerned about the availability to read them. Now, if the government disallowed for certain books to be published or distributed, then we would truly have a censorship problem.

      • When you live somewhere where if a book is not removed the individuals who don’t like it take care of it themselves, you come to think that Highschools and to a certain extent middle and elementary schools need to make sure they have books that might “disappear” or be edited by people who go to the public library.

        My library and the library in the next town over have issues with people stealing and destroying the books they take issue with or taking a black marker to the parts of the book they don’t like. Those individuals have a much harder time getting to the books in the school libraries.

        Obviously, a rating system wouldn’t stop them in the public library, but it could make it easier for them to demand a blanket ban on books in schools with certain labels, like religious views or homosexuality or sexuality. That makes it much harder for anyone to get the books they want.

        We only have one book store other than Wal-mart in this town, and one in the next town over and that one is a strictly “family values” sort of place (unless you’re a big time author like James Patterson, then sin away!). If the store doesn’t have it, and the library’s copy is destroyed, and the school can’t get it because of angry parents or it has a not for kids label, then where does someone go?

        • Wow! I didn’t realize people did that. 🙁

          Amazon’s always an option. 🙂 But it’s not one that would always work–especially with the economy the way it is right now. That’s one of the reasons I’m against angry parents working to ban books from schools. They should have the option to have their kid opt out of reading the book, but shouldn’t be allowed to make that decision for all the other kids.

          • Yeah, I hate to say it, Dany, but I’ve had the same experience where I went to high school. 🙁

            *waves frantically hello* 😀

          • I once found a book in the public library where someone’d taken a pen and scribbled over every “dirty” word they could find.

            I spent a while with a pencil, carefully deciphering each word and putting it back, above the scribble, because while I didn’t like profanity/vulgarity either, you don’t do that to a book!

  16. I originally came across this on Mette Ivie Harrison’s blog where she counters John Brown’s opinion. 🙂

    I don’t know if a rating system is the right answer, but as a reader, I’d love to have something that would indicate the content of the book. Not in a disapproving way, but from an objective standpoint. Everyone’s sensitivity to profanity, violence, sex, and other hot button topics is going to vary, of course, but it would be nice to have an idea of what’s there so I can make a better informed decision on whether I want to invest in the book or not.

    I’ve been burned too many times by content that wasn’t readily apparent from the cover and blurb on the back cover. It’s gotten to the point that I don’t buy YA books unless I know and trust the author or have checked them out from the library first. There are some topics I don’t feel comfortable reading, so I don’t. I don’t think the rating system should be used to ban books, though.

    I’ve seen people on both sides of the fence (those who want to ban books that are objectionable to them and those who do come across as wanting to usurp the parent in deciding what their kids should read) who seem intent on making people’s choices for them. That’s wrong, in my opinion. People should be free (so long as the content is legal) to read whatever they want without being branded and labeled for it. On the other side of the coin, people should be free to not read whatever they want without being branded and labeled for it.

    I don’t think there’s a simple answer, because no matter what system people come up with, there will always be those who abuse it. In my opinion, throwing a sex scene in a movie just to appeal to a certain market (as opposed to having any real meaning and consequence to the story of the movie) is abusing the system. As is automatically banning a book because it deals with homosexuality. The schools shouldn’t be making that decision, nor should a single parent be making that decision for others. Unfortunately, too many parents have abdicated those types of responsibilities to the schools, and I think the school system is doing the best it can under the circumstances. (Even though I don’t necessarily agree with some of the decisions they’ve made.)

    For me, it comes down to choice. I don’t want someone else making that choice for me. I also don’t want to feel like I’m being tricked into reading content I find objectionable. That’s why I would like some kind of indication of the type and level of content so I can make informed decisions.

    • You pretty much summed up what I think.

      One thing many people forget is that what is on the covers and in blurbs is written by marketing people whose clients want to sell as many books as possible. They want to sell you a book you don’t want! They want to sell you a book that you wouldn’t ordinarily choose for yourself or for your child. I know I wish that blurbs were more specific when I’m choosing books that I want, and I doubt others are different from me on that.

      As an indie author, I put content warnings on my books, for the information of my readers. I don’t give ratings. It’s just information so readers know what to expect, and it helps me so that I don’t get bad reviews from people who were expecting one thing and got another.

      • Self-published authors write their own blurbs.

        Perhaps writers could go by the TV ratings system, which makes me laugh regularly by labeling “cartoon violence”.

        How would you rate the Harry Potter novels? The first one was definitely fit for young children, but by the last one, people were getting killed, tortured, maimed–it wasn’t fit for eight-year-olds, for example.

        There are just so many problems inherent in trying to figure out a rating system.

        • That’s why I prefer a (I don’t know what to call it) list of the book’s contents rather than ratings. I don’t necessarily want someone else determining whether or not I would want to read a book, but as a consumer, I do want to know what’s in it.

      • As a consumer, I appreciate when author’s do that. 🙂

        I’d be happy just knowing what content is in a book and being able to make a decision from there. I don’t like feeling like I’m being tricked into purchasing a book I wouldn’t have picked up if I was aware of the content further in. Every few months when there’s a blow up-type article discussing YA, a lot of the responses from the vocal part of that industry leave me feeling that this is exactly what they’re doing. For my own good, of course. 🙁

  17. Maybe parents should just be involved in their kids lives and actually monitor what their kids read instead of asking other people to do it for them. Just sayin’…

  18. I had the same problem when I went to try and find books for my 12 year old. A big problem I see with YA today is that so many adult women are reading it, that the genre is becoming filled with books containing content I’d rather my middle schooler not yet be exposed to. Publishers know how many adult women are snapping up YA books and are complicit in the dilution of the genre, IMO. It’s a shame. It’s very difficult to find books appropriate for a girl aged 10-14 without resorting to a sci-fi or fantasy genre. I’ve come across many book blogs where they state quite openly that they only read YA, a statement I find somewhat absurd coming from an adult woman.

  19. Now, I think you’re on to something… RD’s got a solid point.

  20. I’m against rating books, because I think that ultimately it’s just going to cost book buyers (or taxpayers) more money and be completely ineffective.

    Yes, you can require the customer in the bookstore or library to show ID before purchase or check out, but you can’t stop someone from reading that book without purchase or check out unless the various ratings are all kept in separate rooms that require ID to enter. And that still won’t keep kids whose parents let them read books the ratings givers deemed inappropriate for their age from sharing with their less fortunate friends.

    It works for movies because they don’t let you into the theatre without a ticket nor do they let you unwrap the DVD and watch it on your portable DVD player in the store. Physical books do not need a device to get at the content, so keeping kids from “inappropriate” material would be much more problematic and expensive.

    Sure e-books are easier to police, because there could be parental controls placed on a kid’s purchasing account, but that doesn’t stop the kid from setting up a different account.

    The only policing that has a chance of being effective is parents getting involved in their kids lives, and trusting them to not read material the parent deems inappropriate.

  21. I have such mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I can totally see where this guy is coming from. I have a 12 yo daughter and I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with her reading books with questionable language and subject matter. However, I think it would depend on the book as a whole–not just a few f-bombs or one questionable scene. Context would have to be taken into consideration. For instance, when I was 12, I read Roots. There was a lot of subject matter in the book that taken individually, would definitely be inappropriate for a 12 year old to read. (rape, torture, mutilation, etc) However, in context, it told the story of how horrible slavery was, and without those scenes–if they had been watered down–would have lost their power.

    What worries me about a rating system is that pretty soon, it’s not just a warning for what the book contains, but it would become a way for people to censor the books. For instance, I can see a time when no book rated over PG-13 would be allowed in the middle school library.(The Hunger Games would probably not make that cut. Too much violence.) Then the public library would restrict what kids could check out, then stores would follow suit, and well, you see what I mean.

  22. I think part of the change is from the romance market and the erotic market becoming combined. Then along came books like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Hunger Games’ which were big hits with adults – so that line becamed blurred.

    The YA market is the new ‘hot market.’ For example today’s YA Romance, 10 years ago would simply been marketed as a Romance.

    I’m not convinced we’ll ever get a ‘rating system’ – though I’d like to see e-books tagged with keywords ‘sweet romance,’ ‘graphic sex,’ ‘violence,’ ‘drug use,’ ‘redhot romance’ and ‘not-erotica’ by the author so there isn’t a NEED for an outside entity.

    • “’d like to see e-books tagged with keywords ‘sweet romance,’ ‘graphic sex,’ ‘violence,’ ‘drug use,’ ‘redhot romance’ and ‘not-erotica’ by the author so there isn’t a NEED for an outside entity.”

      That’s an intersting suggestion. I was at WorldCon last month and favorably impressed by a similar “keyword tags” system that a publisher called Angry Robot is using on their print books. These are sf/f novels (and not YA). I showed the tagging system to my publisher, who I dragged over to the Angy Robot table one day, because I thought it was an interesting–and very simple, affordable–packaging technique.

      • Angry Robots is doing some interesting things. DRM free ebooks and subscriptions for all the books they release for 6 and 12 month periods.


  23. I do put content warnings for violence, explicit sex and excessive swearing (several f-words and worse, I won’t warn for s-words or a single f-word) in my book descriptions as a service to the readers. And I only added the swearing warning for one book, because I heard so many American readers complaining about swearing in books. Personally, I don’t have issues with bad words unless we get to the taboo level (the c-word, the n-word and the like) and have always found the “bad language” warnings in the American media silly.

    That said, I am against a general rating or classification system, because people are all offended by different things. I just said that I didn’t understand “bad language” warnings at first, I didn’t even get the concept (I thought it was the same as “bad writing”). I’m definitely against a mandatory rating system, because who of us wants to submit our books to some ratings board prior to publication? I certainly don’t and if that sort of thing were to become mandatory in certain venues, I’d pull my books.

    Besides, even if you’re careful about warning people of potentially problematic content, you’ll always find someone who complains about something that you never even considered problematic. For example, some time ago I gave recommendations for YA novels on a book forum. I gave warnings about books with potentially problematic themes, sexual content, etc… And I was still blasted for recommending a book which contained teens drinking beer. Now I come from a country where it’s perfectly normal for young teens to have the occasional alcoholic drink in a family setting, so it never even occurred to me that the drinking might be an issue, especially since it was only beer and not excessive.

    I know about accidentally reading about something you don’t want to read about. But again, everybody’s hot buttons are different. I once threw a supposed romance novel across the room because the plot revolved around surrogate pregnancy (which was not apparent from the blurb), a practice I find abhorrent, exploitative and about as unromantic as can be. Judging by the Amazon reviews the book got, I was the only person who was infuriated.

    Besides, I think we all read books and watched films as teenagers that probably were not age appropriate. My parents never censored my reading, so I read Harold Robbins at ten (“It started out so good and then they started having sex all the time and it got real boring.”) Like many of my age, I read the Clan of the Cave Bear series as a teenager. I was traumatized by the elevator crash scene in Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (which I read because I assumed it would be just like the TV show – big mistake). I flipped through my Dad’s copies of Playboy (too many naked women, but they did have SF stories by Arthur C. Clarke) and seedier downmarket erotic magazines featuring sensational articles about the sex life of Genghis Khan. My Mom took me to see The Name of the Rose when I was 12 (but wouldn’t allow me to watch Indiana Jones or Star Wars – go figure). And somehow I survived and grew up to be a relatively healthy and well-adjusted adult. Kids are pretty good at tuning out things they’re not ready for yet.

  24. A while back, as I have read, someone tried to do a study on the psychological effects of exposure to pornography on children. The study was to have involved a group of 10-year-olds who had been exposed to (presumably known) quantities and kinds of porn, and a control group who had not been exposed to porn at all.

    I am told that the study had to be scrapped. They could not find any 10-year-olds who were eligible to be in the control group.

    Ten-year-olds are getting free porn over the Internet; and people think that a rating system will keep them from reading naughty words on naughty topics in the YA section of the library? It’s like caulking a small leak at one end of the Titanic when the other end is already gunwale under. If you could somehow keep the ‘wrong’ stuff out of the library, you could never stop all the much easier ways for kid to get hold of it.

    Meanwhile, you’ve created yet another expensive bureaucracy to administer yet another program that can never achieve any of its stated goals. You have privileged those publishers who can afford to game the system over those who can’t.

    As Edward M. Grant said above, complying with the ratings body would add hundreds or thousands of dollars to the cost of every book released. It would, in effect, be the best tool the publishing industry could ask for to censor self-published authors out of existence. (Self-pubbers could still release their books, but if the ratings are backed by legislation, they couldn’t charge for them unless they paid the fees and jumped through the hoops.)

    If the solution would work — if it could possibly solve the problem as stated — then I could see an argument to be made that it would be worth the loss of freedom for readers and opportunity for writers. But there is no way that it could work. Why give would-be censors a weapon that is utterly useless against their stated enemies, but devastating when turned against us?

    • Totally agree. Most kids and teens these days have seen porn on the internet – and if you’re lucky they have only seen the vanilla varieties – so any concerns about them reading books about sex, masturbation, prostitution, rape, abuse, etc… are rather naive. Never mind that even the more sensationalist YA fiction is generally vastly superior to internet porn.

      BTW, as a teacher I noticed that once my students realized that I wouldn’t get all censorious about them watching things they weren’t theoretically supposed to watch, they started opening up about what they had seen (including the porn) and what bothered them about it. And IMO it’s a lot more helpful for kids if they can talk about things which bother them with adults than if they are too afraid to talk, because the adults in their life don’t want to know what their kids are really doing and seeing.

      • “it’s a lot more helpful for kids if they can talk about things which bother them with adults than if they are too afraid to talk, because the adults in their life don’t want to know what their kids are really doing and seeing.”


        Amen, Sistah!

        I remember adults telling me what was what when I was a kid, back in the 1950’s.

        I remember thinking, “what’s this guff you’re giving me? Do you think I’m completely stupid?”

        Ignorance is the main cause of unfortunate pregnancies. I don’t have children, but if I did, I’d answer their questions the moment they asked ’em, as fully as I knew how. The basis being that the reason they are asking is because they half know the answer already. Better give ’em the tools to face life as it is, not how some pearly gates vendor wishes.

        I wish you had been one of my teachers:)

        Keep fighting the good fight.


  25. Most of the comments address the practicality of a rating system yet there are several assumptions behind any rating systems that bear challenging:

    1. That all individuals of a certain age respond similarly to the same stimuli;

    2. That content that is offensive is harmful; and

    3. That we all agree which content is harmful, i.e. sex=violence=bad words in its effect.

    I suggest that each of these assumptions upon which the desire for a ratings system rests is false. My rationale for each.

    1. The YA category should never have been created in the first place. YA creates a false impression of “safety” even though the age group considered YA covers vastly differing ages. There is a huge difference in maturity between a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old under the best of circumstances, yet there are some very immature 20-year-olds. YA assumes a monolithic set of assumptions about a very diverse group.

    2. Does reading the f-word cause harm? (Is anyone really fooled by using f**k instead of, well, you know.) Does reading about an abortion cause harm? Does reading about a shooting cause harm? There is no evidence that it does. Are these things offensive? Perhaps, but the decision to be offended rests with each individual. I may decide not to be offended by something you consider terribly offensive. Your desire to suppress, categorize, or limit what *I* want to read or what *I* want my children to read is simply not your right.

    3. Most of the ratings systems seem aimed at “foul” language and/or sex with little attention being paid to violence. That reflects a particular religious preference and you certainly have every right to control what your own children read but you should be involved with their learning anyway and stop trying to coerce others into adopting your own value system. Each parent has the responsibility to oversee his/her children’s moral development, but freaking out if your child is exposed to an antithetical value provides a learning opportunity, not one for suppression.

  26. Just want to echo what Tom Simon says above: a rating system, ostensibly designed to prevent kids getting access to particular types of material, is pretty laughable when they already have access to virtually the entirety of human knowledge and culture through the Internet. Not even parental controls can filter out everything, especially if the user is determined enough – and they will be determined, believe me.

    Assuming you are living in a modern country with Internet access that isn’t filtered by the government, you cannot control what media your kids are exposed to. Sorry.

    The other reason to have a rating system – for adults to know what content they’re buying – seems like a waste of time when we have Amazon reviews/book review sites. You could simply do a lot of googling on a title before buying…

    Anyway, the determination of the usefulness of such a system would be based on whether such information would encourage more book-buying, balanced against the cost of trying to set up the system, get publishers to agree on ratings, get the publishers to actually implement it (by displaying the rating on their books), and deal with the inevitable s**tstorm when – not if, when – it’s used for censorship.

    Somehow I don’t think the theoretical bump in sales is worth it.

  27. Rating systems in practise, have so far had a very destructive effect on the mediums they are applied too. Sure, a rating system is not censorhsip, in any way. But it’s not long before some major retail/educational outlets start blindly culling selection based on them, and then you have publishers no longer willing to take risks on material that would attract more mature rating, even if the work is of great artistic, educational. etc. value.

    Books have so far, for the most part, escaped this trend, and I hope they continue for as long as possible.

  28. Wow. I have been looking at the wrong ya books apparently, since just last week I was complaining about not seeing any sex in the genre. Not that I advocate explicit sex in ya, but I have noticed a lack of acknowledgment that sex is, and that some teenagers do it. Maybe this is bc the ya that interests me is sff, the one subgenre called out above as being safe still?

    I don’t mind voluntary content tags but a ratings board is a bad idea. Go watch the doc “this film is not yet rated” if you don’t understand why.

  29. I’m coming late to this discussion, but I’d like to point out that there currently exists a rating system that does look at books in depth, & is supposed to help readers determine whether a book’s contents will be problematic.

    It’s called book reviews.

    I won’t claim that this system works all the time, or even works well. This also faces the problem that book reviews are dwindling in number. And it would help if people writing book reviews in Amazon, Good Reads, & so forth would add for YA books any possible gotchas parents or educators should know about, it would make the review more useful.

    Just a thought. Assigning books a series of letter &/or numbers based on a subjective critereon which can be gamed won’t be as useful as a review which looks at the work in depth. (For example, a review will explain that while “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” & “Catcher in the Rye” both contain objectionable language, the larger plot is not offensive. A rating system will not permit such subtlety.)

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