Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Language and Violence and Sex... Oh My.

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?


  1. yes. I agree. Being a parent to an advanced reader, it is becoming far too complicated to pre-read everything that my daughter reads. I am fortunate that she is mature enough to bring me a book when there is something questionable such as sex or foul language. Recently she checked out a book from the library that had won an award and sounded like something she would like. Two chapters into the story the children, who were 10, were cursing about cereal. Really? Is it necessary to curse about cereal as a 10 year old?

    Has she been exposed to curse words? Sure she has. She goes to public school and we listen to the radio and TV. I don't pretend that such words have not fallen on her ears already. Does she need to read it in her books? No. We don't read fiction to listen to reality. We can't always choose the people that surround us with foul language, but we can and should be able to choose to omit it from our leisure reading if we'd like.

  2. I think it all comes down to being aware ourselves what our kids are seeing/reading. The movie ratings baffle me sometimes; The rating leads me to believe that a certain film is safe for my kid, then I see the movie and wonder who in the world thought that was ok for a 12 year old.

    So I don't even think this is about censorship or ratings, really. I prefer to see movies before Jack sees them, then I know exactly what's going on, and I don't have to rely on some random rating scale to give me the PG go-ahead. Same with books. I read what he reads beforehand. (I've also made the school librarian and his teachers my best friends so I can rely on their opinions if I don't have time to read everything.)

    We, as parents, are the only ones who can really say what is ok for OUR kids. What I think is ok, you might not, and vice versa, so ratings are unreliable. Fortunately (unfortunately) kids probably aren't reading (sneaking) books at other kids' houses, the way they're watching tv or movies, so the chance that they'll read something we don't like is fairly low.

    This is an AWESOME discussion Heidi and I'm so glad you brought it up. I let Jack read The Body Finder and there were a few things I had to explain. I was ok with it, because I got to explain things the way I wanted to.

  3. I've just finished a list of young adult books that I will NEVER let my daughter read as a young adult. It's hard.
    There are too many good books out there for our kids to read for us to waste time on ones they shouldn't. Thanks for the post, it was well said.

  4. Jen - well said. For those who argue that my kids will be exposed to it in school, I want to tell them, there's a difference in being exposed to it unwillingly and in choosing to be surrounded by it.

    Tam - ideally I'd love to read everything my kids read, but with three avid readers with widely varying tastes, and a list I need to keep up with myself, it's hard to read it all before them. There are a few people whose recommendations I trust, but a lot I don't. I totally agree that you can't make a rating system that would meet the needs of every parent. What is okay for some people is not okay for me, and vice-versa. But to say there is mild language, or sexual content, or drugs, would at least give me a springboard to evaluate.

    I have a friend who wrote a Christian book aimed at tweens about the pressures to use performance enhancing drugs at a swim meet. I would think that topic might qualify for a rating for drugs, but it's a totally positive message about how bad they are for you. Harry Potter is one with a lot of violence and evil, and I'd think some of those books might have PG-13 ratings, but I let my son read them at the age of 10 because I'd read them first and we could talk through them. If I hadn't have read them first, they wouldn't have been books I wanted him to read that early (the later books anyway).

    So maybe the question is, can you read all my kids' books for me? :)

    Jolene - I've felt that way too. I think a lot of YA authors are really writing for adults. And I totally agree. Too many books to struggle over whether or not they should read certain ones!

  5. I feel much the same. I think that probably more parents than you realize feel the same, too, but the parents who feel the opposite are the ones passionately participating in the forums you read. I agree that an author should be up front about what is in his/her book. I mean, if you don't want it on the cover, don't write it in the book...right?

    I, myself, don't like to read books with sex. I don't like books with too much violence, either, although of those books with violence I've read (like HG) I have liked. I think the difference, for me, is that most books with violence (that I've read) seem to come across with a clear message that the violence is wrong. Whereas, most YA books with sex seem to condone it.

    I'd love to have a rating system for books. It seems that a lot of parents say..."I don't mind what my kid reads it as long as he talks to me afterwards." What about pre-emptive talking? I mean, speaking with your child early on about seeking books that will raise them up, not drag them down?

  6. I like the idea of a ratings system, but what is appropriate to one person, may not be for another.

    In the end, we as parents have to take what is thrust in front of our children, whether it be tv, movies, music, books, and teach them that what they see is's solely for entertainment's purpose. That is not real life and isn't always how we should act.

    When I read a story, I expect it to be true to life, unless it's fantasy or sci fi. The hard part about YA is to keep it true to life, it often has to feature bad behavior. Unfortunately, many times that means the bad behavior is glorified. We as parents need to raise our children with the knowledge of the consequences of that bad behavior and hope they choose the right paths.

  7. Jessie - I agree that pre-emptive talking is important. There's a lot I can let my kids be exposed to if I can talk about it BEFORE they're exposed, rather than after.

    Stephanie - I don't think ratings or labels substitute for a parent's own judgment or values. Just like a movie rating or video game rating doesn't control what I let my kids see or play, it just gives me an idea of what to watch for or whether or not I should preview it first.

    I love your comment: "We as parents need to raise our children with the knowledge of the consequences of that bad behavior and hope they choose the right paths."

  8. I just meant that even if there are ratings, parents still need to be aware of the content. Most parents, like us, would still check it out, but some won't and they'll just trust it.

    Being a parent is scary!!! I am so not looking forward to the teen years. All I can do is hope and pray that the lessons I'm teaching now are sinking in and will stick with my kids. My SIL is having so much trouble with her son. Never taught him any morals or values and now he's 17 and getting in all kinds of trouble. Her solution is to ground him and forbid him from seeing his girlfriend. They refuse to even talk to him about safe sex, even though it's pretty certain that they are doing it. If they had talked to him when he was younger...made him aware of the consequences, maybe they wouldn't be in this predicament. Or at least, they'd be sure he was being smart and protecting himself.

    And don't even get me started on the example they set for their kids. No wonder the kids are making bad choices...

    Okay, venting done!! LOL!! :)

  9. I agree. Yes, they will encounter these things in life, but hopefully when they are older. Right now their minds are not capable of processing such things.

    I have seen a great site with reviews on YA fiction that rate the cleanliness of the books. It's a Christian site.

  10. Unfortunately, we can't shelter them from everything. Just walking in the mall or around the park, kids can be exposed to things that are hard for them to process. It's our job as parents to explain things in a way they will understand.

  11. Interesting idea-to rate books like movies and television games. I know in Canada our movie ratings differ from our southern friends.

    Yes, kids will be exposed but I believe children, like adults, will draw back to what feels normal. If our shelves at home have books that deal with sex and violence in a non-glorified, value-based manner, then likely our kids will come-back to reading the same even after experimenting with books we'd prefer them not to read-books that don't reflect our values.

    I heard an interview recently on CBC with the YA author of the Gossip Girl series. I don't feel I can accurately reveal her judgements on those who judge her but would recommend searching up the interview if your interested in getting a YA author's opinion.

    Ahh...the writing world. Always so many points to ponder!

  12. Lynn - I'll have to google that interview. I'd be interested in reading it. I haven't read the books but I sure haven't been impressed by what I've read about them. I'm always interested in why authors write what they do.

    Stephanie - I don't disagree with you. Certainly as kids are exposed to things, we need to be ready to talk with them about it. And exposure comes earlier and earlier. I guess my wondering about labels (and by that, I mean the part UNDER the rating that tells why it's rated that way) is whether or not that allows a parent a better way to judge something, or a better starting place to evaluate it. Having my kids exposed to something in a mall is very different than me buying a book for them and saying they should read it.

    Rachel - I knew there must be a site out there somewhere, but I've only seen the ones for movies (which are very helpful! Especially since the rating system is very vague and covers a wide spectrum!)

    I enjoy seeing everyone's point of view. :)

  13. Having a rating system is an interesting idea...Do stores enforce video game ratings when it comes to sales?

    My daughter is 14, she is pretty good at monitoring herself. I've read a couple ya and told her that I don't want her to read them, yet...Twisted being one of them. She still closes her eyes if there is a kissing scene on tv...I'll mute it...while her eyes are closed, to reduce further embarrassment...

    I tend to not hear the words in music. I just feel the my husband points out groups that I enjoy that are not appropriate for her to listen to...

    The reason we trust her with her choices in books is her behavior...she hasn't given us a reason to doubt her choices. We discuss situations on tv. We watch Saturday night live together and then discuss can't hide from the world, but you can arm your kids with knowledge of what is acceptable behavior...

    Have a safe happy Labor Day!

  14. Sharon - thanks for your comments!

    I don't think music or video ratings are enforced in stores. It's not the same as a movie theater. The "rating" is more like a guideline, unless the video or movie is rated for Adults only. And I'm sure there are stores out there that don't monitor even that.

    Still, there's no law that parents can't buy it for their kids. It's not like alcohol. So if a parent doesn't have restrictions for what their kids read, they certainly can buy it for them.

  15. It all comes down to how you raise your children and what you find acceptable...

    Personally, a movie that has sex/love scene in it is more acceptable to me than one with violence in it...

    I don't think our daughter would buy a book that she knew was inappropriate. A friend of ours has written several romances. K knows there is one romantic scene and she's to skip it. She will...she'll think it's gross. :) (I've read it, it's a H.R. and it's not too bad, but it's a bit too romantic for her taste.)

  16. I'm a little late to the conversation, but I applaud you for putting into words what a lot of authors feel, but might be too afraid to voice, as you've said it's a very unpopular opinion.

    There are warnings on everything except books and I'm not sure why they should be exempt. Like someone Jessie said, if you write it in the book, you shouldn't mind it being on the cover.

    My son likes music and I read all of the lyrics to the songs he wants to buy, but with three kids, a part time job and other responsibilities I can't read everything my kids want to read. That's just not realistic.

    For the record I agree with you.

  17. Totally would agree to it. I was really strick about what my daughter could watch and see as she was growing up--she turned out great! SOme parents don't want that pressure but it is a responsibility.