From Book Riot:
One of the great joys of my young life was reading books pitched to older children. Graduating from picture books to chapter books with pictures, then chapter books, then longer and longer books was a big deal to me. For kids’ books in the U.S., you can usually find an age range somewhere on the flap or back cover of a book. Readers and people acquiring books for readers occasionally use this as a guide for getting books for appropriate ages. In recent years, certain groups have demanded a more robust rating system for books, similar to the MPAA rating system for movies. However, there are many reasons why books should not have content ratings like movies.
The general idea behind a “rating” system for kids’ books makes sense to me. The widespread availability of the Internet means that kids have access to some of the worst information ever documented with just a few keystrokes. Technology companies attempt to keep up with this freedom by providing methods of blocking content that could be upsetting or out-of-age-range for young children. The problem with books is that there’s no way to automatically censor content in books unless you ban them, rip out specific pages, or cross out certain words with a permanent marker.
Since books are longer and more involved than movies, they’re trickier to pin down with exact content ratings. Including age ranges can sort of help, but they don’t tell you much about the content. A 10 year old is also unlikely to have the exact same experiences or sensitivities as a 10 year old from a different country, or even one from a different neighborhood.
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Jon Lewis, author of Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry, argues that the ratings are subjective by design. We can see what he means in how certain movies are declared to be far more “adult” than others.
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Parents don’t even seem to like the MPAA rating system all that much, criticizing it for desensitizing children to violence. So what’s the argument for a rating system for books?
The idea is that kids should not have access to stories that could upset them or expose them to difficult topics. The rating system outlined on Book Cave uses seven categories (crude humor/language, profanity, drug and alcohol use, kissing, nudity, sex and intimacy, and violence and horror), and then rates each category on a scale from All Ages to Adult+. The book is then weighted for a final rating. Common Sense Media gives detailed advice about how to assess various aspects of books and how to choose them for children, and promises to provide detailed reviews to help parents, guardians, and other stakeholders make decisions.
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Age ranges and reading levels are also very hit-or-miss. Reading levels were introduced in schools to make sure students were keeping up with reading demands, so there were lots of numbers introduced to explain these levels. The important part of reading levels is that children should be able to ingest and understand the majority of the book they’re reading so they don’t get discouraged. However, kids should challenge themselves with books theoretically outside of their level so they don’t get bored.
If reading levels are determined by word difficulty alone, that can also make books look less complex than they are. Age ranges and reading levels are somewhat necessary for educators to build curricula, but kids should always be allowed to seek books outside of their “level” or assigned classroom work. I’m an advocate of the method “bring kid to library and let them explore for three hours,” as my caretakers did for me.
There are problems with rating systems that use categories to determine appropriateness as well. A book might not have violence in it explicitly, but it could have imagery that gives your child a nightmare. We can’t determine how kids will react to reading in general, so over-arching rules and categorical rating systems are limited.
Rating systems that determine how “adult” a book is also impose a certain kind of life experience on childhood. They present a monolithic idea of maturity: a child can only read about violent content when they’re of the age to be familiar with it. There are children in the world who are familiar with curse words, or have experience with violent or upsetting events. “Milestones” in childhood are impossible to pinpoint because people’s life experiences are so wildly different.
Reading about difficult topics, whether or not children have experienced them, can be a good way to process complex emotions. It’s also an important way for children to develop language and understanding around “inappropriate” topics.
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At the surface, none of this sounds necessarily bad. Parents obviously want kids to read, but they don’t want kids diving into books with intense horror that will scare a 7 year old or overt descriptions of sex before a parent has had ‘The Talk’ with their kid.
Link to the rest at Book Riot
PG notes that parents are not the only people who give or choose books for children.
Schools, public and private, also give/choose books for children. Ditto for libraries.
A ratings system doesn’t need to be perfect to be useful for people who choose books for children to read.
Given the nature of a relatively small portion of books which parents are likely to find objectionable, PG doesn’t mind terribly that a ratings system might err on the side of excluding books that only a small portion of the children’s families would likely find objectionable.
A single book is not the only way a child can learn about something the child or family might regard as objectionable. There are zillions of books available on all manner of topics, presenting them in a wide variety of ways.
As a final observation, PG notes that opinion pieces that claim it’s important for children know about this or that at a particular age are generalizing about children in a manner that assumes that all children of a certain age are ready to understand this or that fact of life. They also often assume that getting such information with a certain degree of specificity is important when a more general discussion might provide some or all children with the information they need to know and assuming they can extrapolate from the general to the specific without having the specific laid out in great detail.
PG’s experience growing up on ranches and farms with livestock of various sizes and shapes exposed him to some universal elements of mammalian interaction between the female and male of a given species gave him the general idea concerning male/female reproduction cause and effect among mammals of other types.
He expects that any child growing up in a neighborhood with more than one or two dogs might have the same general type of experience from time to time without the specificity provided in a book describing such details between human males and females of different ages.
But, as usual, PG could be completely wrong about this whole subject.