Should books have a rating system?

On Monday when I (erica) mentioned the lexile scores and how they can help you find a reading list for yourself or a kid, I didn't bring up the appropriateness of the books, but someone else did in the comments. If your child/student reads above or below grade level, it could make it harder to find an appropriate, yet entertaining, book for them. There was a good discussion about this issue on the ABNA forums that I followed this past weekend also.

Watching your kids grow up and knowing you're partially (mostly, for awhile) responsible for what they take in and learn from is a scary thing. Luckily, there are some things out there to help, including parental advisory labels and movie/game rating systems. Even most TV shows have a box in the corner to show what age range the show would be appropriate for (such as Y for cartoons up to MA for mature) along with initials like V for violence.

But what about books? Sure, there are sections of the bookstore. But how do I know that a book located in the middle-grade section of Borders is something I want my child to read? Even vigilant parents can have trouble deciding - I let Zach read The Deathly Hallows only after asking a few trusted people who read it if it was something I should let my then-8-year-old read (and I read it with him). I knew there would be dark scenes and assumed some beloved characters would be killed. What age level is ready for that??

MG is generally 8-14, but trust me, 14-year-old boys are WAAYY more worldly than 8-year-olds. A 12-year-old girl will go right to the YA section of a bookstore, but I think most moms/dads would like to know if there's a rape scene or something similar involved that they should discuss (and/or postpone, depending on the parent). Note: I'm NOT talking pornography here, not at all. Just general labels of MG/YA and whether they (along with a dustjacket description) are enough. Frankly, I think a lot of parents will be surprised when they see the upcoming Breaking Dawn movies and realize THAT stuff was in the book their younger-teenage child read (using that as an example because it's a well-known series, but there are many others).

In my thoughts as a mother - I would appreciate a general sticker on books similar to the movie and game rating system. Y (young, also could be E for everyone), PG (or MG - for children up to 10), PG-14, and YA/MA (for those over 15) would be enough for me to make an informed decision and also to strike up a conversation between my son and me when shopping for books. (btw, these are my labels, not real ones and definitely not meant to be laws)

Another writer on the ABNA forums mentioned something like this could be a form of censorship. A writer could even feel forced to self-censor themselves to avoid (or to get) a certain label - for example, if they avoid a reference to masturbation, a panel could give them a PG14 rating, but if they add it in, they could get the YA/MA and maybe restrict their audience or risk becoming a banned book. Also mentioned as an issue for some is who would regulate it. I certainly think there would need to be guidelines (again, such as those for TV/movies/games) and a committee to decide that.

What do you think? Would you feel censored if you knew your book could get a parental advisory label? Would it change your writing at all? Or do you think it could be helpful? Please let us know, we're interested in EVERYONE's opinion here (plus, christy said she could be swayed either way depending how good of a persuader you are...hehe)

Or, as one ABNAer said, do you think I should let it go and accept the fact that eventually my boys will hide a Penthouse under their mattress and there's nothing I can do about it? (btw, I do accept that, I just hope they'll wait a few years since they're 10 and 4)


  1. Mine would definitely end up with the sticker, but I'd hate for someone not to be allowed to read it because of that.

    The book I'm querying deals with rape, PSTD, and moving on. I'd hate for a girl who has been raped and is struggling in silence not to see read it (if it were published) or SPEAK (or any other book dealing with rape), because a parent felt it was inappropriate for them due to a sticker.

    Most YA books I read would end up with the sticker. ;)

  2. This may sound dismissive, but basically, if a kid is mature enough to actually WANT to read such things, chances are he/she can handle it - and if they're not mature enough, and read it anyway, chances are they won't "get it" and therefor won't be all that damaged by it

    NOTE: This is coming from someone who as a kid used to skim through his mom's Judith Krantz novels for the dirty parts

  3. At the very least it would be a helpful guide when buying books for children/teens as presents! I'm all for the idea :)

  4. I dunno; it would be helpful in a way, but it would also draw certain teens TOWARD the books that are more edgy (like oh, I don't wanna buy the "baby" books) and then they'd be missing out on some good reads.

    However, I wouldn't like my kids to be reading something they're not really ready for emotionally. But attaching labels might not be the answer. Kinda like labels on movies--they're helpful to an extent, but there are inherent probs with having/assigning those labels.

  5. Censorship and labeling is a tough subject. But I think as long as we prepare our children for what is out there then we've done our jobs. I wouldn't be offended or offput by an advisory label on my novels because it would probably make more kids want to buy it. ;)

  6. I hope they wait a few years, too.

    My non-parent fantasies tell me that someday I'll pre-read everything my children will want to read, and everything in our house will be totally age-appropriate. But I do live in realityville and I know that's just not going to happen.

    So, I'm not much into the rating system thing, for all the reasons you mentions. So I can imagine myself relying on other parents' opinions, internet reviews, etc., when deciding. There are plenty of websites for parents that give pretty good analysis of movies; it would be cool to have the same for books.

  7. I don't have children but I'm shocked to hear there are YA books with such mature subject matter in them. What happened to the days of Boxcar Children and Babysitters Club???

  8. Stina - This is off-topic, but I've often wondered if girls (especially, but also boys) buy issue books regarding issues they are dealing with themselves or if its more the curiosity of the thing (rape, eating disorders, etc.) for any girl. Although in that case, I think I would want to know if my 11- or 12-year-old daughter were interested in a book like Speak (which I have read, btw, but as an adult) and why. Just a personal thought...

    Mike - you still aren't mature enough. ;)

    Carol - good point, I didn't think of that.

    Su, Heather, WBNZ - I wouldn't mind if mine had a label, either. I have some underlying themes that cause my character to make the decisions she does regarding dating and sex. I'm not sure most of the younger-YA crowd would understand them and see it just as a "make-out" book. Hmm...

  9. My parents were open about sex and adult situations. But that was when i was about ten.

    Today's kids are having sex at thirteen... Yes, parents, they are. So that's why y/a is getting edgier. These situations are everywhere. TV especially. Have you seem what the advertise on TV and especially cable these day?

    Kids are more mature. I don't think any kind of tagging is going to help in the grand scheme of things.

    Parents just need to be aware what kids are reading. Look at you son, Erica, he is reading way above his age level. You watch what he reads. That is what's needed. You looked at HP 7 which is older y/a. He is only eight. Now if that was labeled, you would never even consider him reading it.

    I wrote my first book as y/a. I was told countless times, because my mc's are eleven and thirteen, that this is an m/g book. So now I have trim it down further for that market.

    Adults have read my ms and loved it. But it's considered m/g.... go figure.


  10. I think the info is out there for parents who look for it. Basically it's 9-12 or YA. I've read manuscripts I've written to my kids and skipped the racy parts. My friend had a son who was on an adult reading level at age 9. She had her librarian scout books for her.

    Honestly, I don't go by rating systems with movies and video games even though they're plastered on the packages. I read reviews to find out content. Then I use my judgement.

  11. This is a toughie and I ride the fence. As a writer, I see the difficulties with adding more labels and how it would affect both the market and how we write. There would be a lot of argument involved in what constitutes violence or sexual content, etc.

    On the other hand, I am also the mom of an 8 yr old girl. My daughter LOVES Harry Potter, and is on book 3, but will probably stop there for a while. She is a very high reader, but I don't feel like the content in the later HP books is appropriate for her - she's definitely more on the sensitive side about scary stories, etc. We were reading a 4th grade level William Shakespeare biography that she was assigned for a school project, and it describes several of his plays in detail - to be honest, I was a little uncomfortable about her reading about all that killing and suicide in the plots of his plays. I'm not sure suicide is something she has ever even thought of or heard about at age 8. So, yes, we talked about it in the context of the play, but we didn't get into it further at this point.

    A lot of people think that if you have a close relationship with your kids and talk about lots of things openly, then if they read something like this, it makes sense to just address it. But even with a good relationship, you don't always know what your child is reading, and once they are reading chapter books, you just don't have the time to preview everything.

    Maybe it's this particular age - the "middle grade" 8 to 12ish ages - where kids have SUCH a vast spectrum of maturity and readiness for different topics that it's more difficult as a parent. I want to say that by the time my daughter is a teenager, yes, I would like to continue having book conversations with her, but I would be less likely to steer her away from a particular title or topic. I don't know.

    ~Desperado, why don't you come to your senses, come down from your fences...~ LOL :)

  12. I don't like the idea of a rating, but you know that logline that most books have now on the copyright page? I think it would be cool to have sensitive content listed there, as well. So you know that a book is going to have violence or some other mature theme in it. I would like this even for adult books! GRAPHIC violence/sex is not something I like to stumble across when I'm 1/3 of the way into a book and really invested in it. But sometimes if I know up front that things are going to get graphic, I still dive into it anyway, if the book is recommended. I just like to know - but having it in small print on the copy right page isn't like a blatant sticker or stigma. It's just info that's there for the people that would like to take the time to find out. My 2 cents worth! Great controversial topic!

  13. Oh yeah, and I agree with you about Breaking Dawn! Not like the other three books!

  14. With the way books are today - I think you may be onto something with a rating system.

    New follower and fellow crusader. Nice to meet you!

  15. I gotta say, I'm in favor of this! And it's b/c I have two little girls who DO read above grade level. I don't necessarily want to protect them from life, but I would like to be able to discuss things with them, etc. And know when they need to talk about things that might bother them or they might not understand... I wouldn't mind something like this on my own books. Great post~ :o) <3

  16. You know, I honestly think it would be a good thing. I mean, I don't condone censorship by any means, but parents do have a right to teach and to not teach certain things and allow certain things. The rating would just be an easier way to let parents raise children as they want to. And writers shouldn't feel restricted by it anyway. Kids are going to pick up what they want, and parent's are going to allow what they want regardless. If a parent doesn't care enough to worry with finding out if a book is appropriate in the first place they don't care about ratings...but that's just my opinion.

  17. I'm with Margo -- I can see adding a line about whether the book contains swearing, drugs, alcohol, violence, or sex (even on adult books), but adding a label may just cause problems. Would a parent censor an Ellen Hopkins book because of a 'mature' label, thereby potentially denying his/her daughter or son the chance to read material they might need? Kids don't tell their parents everything, but I can see a parent taking away a book that they think is 'too old' for the child, when really the information inside was just what he or she needed.

    I like what Scholastic book orders do on their order forms for the Teen Reads Club -- they place a little note below certain books saying it contains 'mature subject matter and adult situations that may not be appropriate for some readers' or something like that.


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