Mad Monday: Rating Books

One of the biggest, hottest genres out there is YA (young adult) and MG (middle grade).

YA are books specified for children 12-18 yrs old. MG are books specified for 8-12 yr olds. Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Chronicles of Narnia, The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Graveyard Book, and A Wrinkle in Time series are all MG. It’s assumed that there will be NO objectionable material in the MG genre, as far as sex, violence, and language goes. This used to be the case with YA, too.

In the book, Writing and Selling the Young Adult Book by K.L. Going she talks about one big reason people read the genre is because it is cleaner than the adult genre. When I talk to my voracious reader friends, whether teens or adult, one reason they state that they love the YA genre is because it doesn’t have the sex, violence, and language that they prefer to avoid.

But there’s great diversity of content in YA books. And now it’s easier to pick up a YA book with sex, violence, and language in it than to find one that’s clean. And I’ve read some YA books that I wondered why they weren’t in the adult genre. Not just because of the sex, violence, or language in them, but because the voice and tensions in the book felt like they weren’t in a young adult context.

I’m NOT about banning books or drawing skull-and-crossbones on “dirty” books or anything like that. I want all of these books to be written and published and set on the shelves for teens and adults to read.

But I am also a big fan of knowing what you pay for. 

In the YA section, you can pick up books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Marcelo in the Real World with explicit sexual jokes and scenes, or you could pick up The Book Thief which has no innuendo. You can pick up a fantasy like the Leviathan and find little violence or you can pick up The Hunger Games and get more than your fill.

This is good. Diversity is awesome because teen readers are so diverse. But for those teens who prefer not to read about sex, violence, or language I think we should make it easy on them to find books they’d enjoy.

I think it’s time that “objectionable content” was listed on the backs of books. Not anything like a MPAA rating system, but just a way for readers to know what they’re getting. It’d be nice to pick up a YA book and know if there’s sexual content, violence, or language. Of course this doesn’t solve every problem, because sex scenes in Twilight, Shiver, Graceling, Sold, and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants aren’t at all graphic and they can get graphic in other books, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

I wrote more about this topic in an article called Ellie Ann Battles Sex, Violence, and Rock and Roll.

What do you think about listing objectionable material in YA books?

Have you read any good posts/thoughts on the idea you can share?

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23 Comments

  1. That’s an interesting idea, actually, listing what kind of objectionable content, just so people know what might be in the book. I think that could work quite well!

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 2, 2012

      cool. I hope that sometime soon, the publishing industry does something like it. =)

      Reply
  2. Larry Enright

     /  April 2, 2012

    Kids grow up so fast these days. People, the world, everything moves so fast. Maybe it’s just me slowing down, but it makes me sad that kids have less time, it seems, to be kids anymore. Maybe your idea would help, Ellie. :)

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 2, 2012

      I asked some kids at the park (they were around 8-10 yrs old) what their favorite movie was and ALL of them said “The SAW movies.”
      Eesh!

      Reply
  3. Lori Van Roekel

     /  April 2, 2012

    Great idea, Ellie! Couldn’t this be done similar to video games so the reader has some idea of the content?

    Reply
  4. Great idea, Ellie! For adults, we can look up reviews, etc, and screen books for our kids, but when we want to be encouraging our teens to browse bookstore shelves and pick out something that looks interesting, there’s no opportunity to pre-screen anything. It would be really helpful for both teens and parents to have a bit more info, available right on the spot.

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 2, 2012

      No kidding. That’s exactly what it should be for–so that everyone can see instantly if it’s the kind of book they’d want.

      Reply
  5. I have to say I’ve always been a bit shocked that The Hunger Games and other similar books are YA. They are using children as pit bulls, after all. The same people who condemn Michael Vic give these books to their kids. Such books desensitize people to violence and promote the idea that such cruelty only happens in stories and movies. It’s a complex trend, and I think acknowledging that this actually IS violence and not a frolic of innocence is a step in the right direction. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 2, 2012

      I would have no problem with the violence in The Hunger Games if only it were marketed and sold for adults (teens can always pick it up in the adult fiction section). But outside the horror genre, I’ve never read the grotesque and detailed violence that Mockingjay contained, and it was all the more disturbing knowing that it was marketed for a 12 yr old to read.

      Reply
    • I agree with Piper. Well said! My friend who has a 5th grader is having a really hard time keeping the Hunger Games series out of her daughter’s hands. All of her friends are reading it and she must be 10 or 11! It is being touted as the new Harry Potter series, but it is so disturbing in comparison.

      Reply
  6. Elizabeth

     /  April 2, 2012

    While I think it might theoretically be useful for books to say things like “Contains sexually explicit material” or “Adult language” or “Graphic descriptions of violence and drug use”, I would want there to be strict criteria for the warnings. Furthermore, I’m really worried about characterizing things as objectionable material. I think that scope creep, and prejudice creep, are too easy, and it could make it more likely that kids will be denied books that have, for example, healthy (non-sexual) descriptions of GLBT characters or interracial couples or people from non-mainstream religions. How long would it be before we started seeing “Warning: Homosexual content” or “Warning: Pro-Islamic”? I don’t want to make books like The Bermudez Triangle or Does My Head Look Big in This? harder to access than they already are, and I don’t have faith in the ability of the market to institute a bias free warning label system. I have no trouble imagining a system where books including a gay couple holding hands get flagged and books including straight couples going to second or third base do not, and that scares me.

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 2, 2012

      This went through my mind as I wrote this. It definitely IS a risk, there are so many levels of what people call “objectionable material.” When I wrote reviews for Christian Library Journal, we had to write up everything from “contains unicorns” to if a MC had parents that weren’t married.
      But the movie industry does this for every movie there is. I don’t see why it’d be harder to find an objective warning label for books.

      Reply
  7. I agree Ellie Ann. I have three kids. My eldest is 8 going on 28 and she has read about subjects that make me grimace and groan and explain, all because YA books do not bear warnings or ample information on the outside of the books we purchase.

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 2, 2012

      Now if we could just get some publishers to listen. =)

      Reply
  8. Warnings make me a bit nervous. Maybe it’s because I just listened to a brilliant podcast describing how the documentary Bully Project has been given an R rating because of the use of the F-word. It’s easy for warnings and ratings to become I-can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees issue. In other words, Bully Project is powerful and teens would benefit from seeing it. There is also the potential that teens would pick up a book because of the warning.

    I think it’s up to parents (and somewhat less … teachers) to make these decisions with their children.

    Thanks for making me think. On Monday!

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 2, 2012

      perhaps a warning label “sexual content, sexual innuendo, graphic violence, language,” might scare some people away from some really good books.
      however, since most people buy books based on word-of-mouth, I’m not sure how many people would be deterred by a label.

      Reply
  9. Great post, Ellie. I’ve wondered what YA actually means, seeing as lots of the YA-themed material I’ve come across seems highly adult.

    Reply
  10. I’m SO glad you wrote about this. I’m all for the wide range of topics and writing styles promoted under the YA umbrella, but I’ve definitely noticed as an adult, adult that a huge portion of new books aimed at younger audiences have more and more mature tones. Same things with movies and television, of course!

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 3, 2012

      As Larry commented above, it’s like our kids are made to grow up before their time.

      Reply
  11. Disagree. I’ve worked the libraryscene for 10 years now, a bookstore before that, and labeling is just censorship by another name. Parents who pose concern to me about content get one reply, read it first. Bottom line, I cannot say what a child is emotionally ready to handle, or what are the values/ideologies of a family. I don’t think I’ve ever had a teen bring me a book and ask me if it is too mature, only the parent. I get what you are saying, but I think labels drive more negative behavior than positive.
    Frankly, some really fabulous YA edgy stuff, is the best writing around, period. John Green’s latest, which deals with teens facing death, they have sex, etc… dang, it was spot on. I’d hate for it not to be considered because they had sex, you know?

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  April 3, 2012

      I feel like letting a customer know what they’re getting is good, and creates trust. I think by not answering the concerned parent their questions about content is unhelpful and creates a line in the sand that doesn’t need to be there.
      If a parent wants to shield their 12-year-old from sex, violence, and language I think we should make it easy on them. We don’t know what it’s like in their family, or the reasons why.
      I know there are amazing, good books with sex, violence, and language in them. I don’t think it ruins them by labeling that fact on the back of the books.
      I know one day my daughter will enjoy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But she’s four now, and she gets scared during Monsters, Inc. Simply by looking at the cover of the movie and reading the “censorship label” aka, rating on the back, I can see that it’s too mature for her. It’s valuable to me as a parent.
      If you think the good books can’t handle it, then I see why you wouldn’t want those labels on the back of them. But I think the good books can stand their ground.

      Reply

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