I ran across a blog post by Nathan Bransford last week that got me thinking. In it, he quoted from another post by a woman named Sheryl Cotleur who raised the issue of violence in young adult books. In particular, she referred to the latest book in the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
I have to preface the rest of this with saying that I haven't read the Hunger Games books yet. I have the first two, but somehow always find other things that top my list. I'm not a YA author, so the types of books that pique my interest aren't usually YA. So while I haven't read the books, I'm not able to speak specifically towards the appropriateness of the violence in them for younger readers.
What the remarks by both Sheryl and Nathan did make me think about was the broader subject of what's appropriate for young adult, and even middle grade and children's books. I've been thinking about this for a while now, my own son and daughter entering the age and reading ability that brings them into the YA realm. And having read some of these books, let me say it scares me.
I freely admit to being restrictive to what my kids have seen in movies and read in books. I'm sure you'll find it shocking that I was uncomfortable with the "torture" sequences in the Pixar film "The Incredibles." I'm not one of the parents who think their child is going to be exposed to sex and violence and language and alcohol in the world around them so why protect them. I protect them so that they are shielded from that for as long as possible. There will be a whole lifetime ahead of them to be exposed to those things. And being exposed is very different from presenting it to them as acceptable. I don't care what the world around us says: sex and drinking and cursing are not appropriate for a 12 year old, let alone a ten year old. At least not for my kids.
Finding language in a book aimed at kids that would make a movie rated R disturbs me. I've read other blogs and the litany of comments over the last year, so I know this puts me in a minority. I know YA authors find parents like me unreasonable and idiotic. Last year I sat down with a stack of YA books I hoped my daughter would be interested in reading in the next few years, and I was dumbstruck by the amount of casual sex in it. It wasn't even like Forever, the Judy Bloom book that is entirely about sex, which treats it as something big and significant to dive into. This was total casual sex. By fourteen year olds. In books aimed at 12-16 year olds.
In my own little perfect world books aimed at kids under the age of 16 wouldn't have any of this, but I know this isn't realistic. There are enough people out there yelling about the rights of authors to write what they want, and for kids to read what they want, that I'm fairly sure the tides are not going to turn back towards innocence.
Still, why not a rating system for books? If authors insist on writing with certain amounts of violence or language or other material that parents might object to, and parents continue to object (which there actually are some of us), why not just rate the books the same way music and movies and video games are rated? That way a parent – or a teen, even, as I do know some that don't want that in the books they read – can make decisions before they choose.
I know this is controversial. I've googled "book rating systems." Go ahead and try it. It's vicious out there. People think it's tantamount to censorship. They think books are already adequately labeled just by putting them in the middle grade or YA category (which I can promise, by reading hundreds of these books, does not mean they are clean of what might concern some parents). I've read many, many of these articles and arguments, not a single one of which addresses the real concern of parents and teens, or does so in a way which dignifies their point of view. There's not a single argument against the rating system that I could find that I couldn't logically rebut.
I suppose there's a part of me that's flummoxed why authors would be so angry about this. Is it because they don't want parents to know what's in their books? Is it because they're afraid they'd lose readership? Is it because the surprise of finding questionable content and the resulting outcry generates free publicity for them? If an author truly thinks sex and language and alcohol use among teens is common and unremarkable, why should it bother them if that's listed on the book cover?
As for the violence in the Hunger Games that started this discussion on Nathan's blog, I think it's still a matter of content and context and information. The holocaust is a horrific event that would no doubt draw a less-than-G rating, but even so there are middle grade books that address the topic gently and carefully which even cautious parents would consider. The point is that in knowing what's in the book, those parents who care can use those books as springboards for discussion and kids with squeamish stomachs can choose something else.
It's not about censorship; it's about being able to make informed decisions. I remember when the music industry first began dealing with ratings, and there was an uproar then. Now... who cares about it? There are still 5-year-olds out there listening to rap music with language that would make a sailor blush. That's their parent's choice. And parents who choose otherwise, choose something else. Is that so bad?
So my question is this: What's your opinion on a book rating system for middle grade and YA? And do you think it would change the way writers write?