Should Books Have a Rating System?

by Jami Gold on July 28, 2011

in For Readers, Random Musings

Movie trailer PG-13 rating card

This must be the week for me stepping into controversial topics.  It’s a good thing I’m still wearing my flameproof jacket from my last post on plot vs. character.  *smile*

It’s been a while since Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article at the Wall Street Journal and her contention that young adult (YA) books are too dark.  I’m not going to get into whether she has a point, as others have ably covered that ground.  However, one of the reaction posts triggered a thought that’s been rolling inside my head ever since.

Agent Rachelle Gardner discussed the issue from the viewpoint of a parent who also has insight into the publishing industry.  As she pointed out, parents do have a role in helping their kids determine what is appropriate for them.

Parents are best able to teach their kids how to recognize the limits of what they want to be exposed to.  For example, I know I don’t want to be exposed to horror stories, so I’ve learned to stay away from horror movies and most of Stephen King’s books.

Rachelle finished her post with the question of whether books should have a rating system.  YA books, in particular, appeal to readers from eight years old to adult and often push boundaries.  A book that’s fine for a 15-year-old might be traumatizing to a 9-year-old.

Are Rating Systems “Evil”?

Parents help guide their children, but how are they supposed to know whether a book is appropriate for their kid?  A rating system would certainly help.

Those against a rating system for books tend to use one of three arguments:

  • It’s censorship.
    No, censorship is when an authority (usually government) suppresses speech or communication.  Simply using a shorthand to describe content is not censorship.
    Movies, TV shows, and video games all have a rating system, and while market forces might encourage or discourage content of a certain rating, market forces are not systematic censorship by a controlling body.  Movie ratings have not prevented R movies from being made, and TV ratings have not prevented True Blood from becoming a hit show.
  • Some kids will seek out the racier stuff.
    True, ratings will make it easier for those kids to find the content they want, but ratings will also make it easier for parents to have conversations with their kids about what they’re reading.
    Some libraries or book-banning parents might attack books with certain content, but that threat exists regardless.  With the internet, once one person attacks a book, everyone hears about it—those who wish to copy them and those who line up to fight them.  A rating on a book might speed up how quickly attackers learn about that book, but the battle would eventually happen anyway.
  • Parents should pre-read all their kids’ books and then they’d know what was in it.
    Seriously?  Those who propose this must not be readers themselves.  I know kids who can devour a 500-page book in a day, every day for a week, every week of summer vacation.
    What are parents supposed to tell their kids?  “Sorry, Johnny, you can’t read that book until I’ve finished it sometime next week.  Why don’t you go play video games in the meantime.”
    Um, no.  Kids should never be discouraged from reading (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a writer).  That concept is insane.

More Information Is Good

Even as adults, we sometimes want a clue about the content of a book.  Many erotic romance books are labeled M/M, M/M/F, or M/F/M, or they indicate if the story includes BDSM elements.  The publishers volunteer this information because they’ve learned their customers have different preferences.  Imagine that.

Why is it so wrong then that kids (and their parents) might want to have the same information?

It’s time to get past the knee-jerk reaction and realize that depriving customers of important information about a product doesn’t help anyone.  Who’s more likely to give a book a bad review or start a book banning campaign?  Those who knew the content going in, or those who were blind-sided?

As a writer, I’d never eliminate a plot element because I was afraid of readers’ reactions.  My stories go where they need to go and my characters must remain true to themselves.  However, I think it’s fair to warn readers ahead of time of potential issues.

What Could a Book Rating Look Like?

I doubt we’ll ever have a comprehensive rating system like movies because there are too many titles from too many sources to have one all-seeing organization directing a coherent approach.  Instead, I propose that book publishers—traditional, small press, epub, indie, self, off-planet, whatever—volunteer the information to their customers.

And I don’t think a G, PG, PG-13, R, etc. type rating system would help.  The strokes are too broad and not every 15-year-old has the same sensitivities.  (Just as not every 34-year-old has the same push-button issues.)  Besides, books are more intimate than movies.  Books invite us to live and breathe as the protagonist for a time.

I’d rather see a listing of the potentially problematic elements, like in the rating details at the bottom of the movie trailer above.  A description of “Sexual Situations and Drug Use” would tell us that YA book was very different from a YA book with “Violence against Children and Rape Scene.”  Heck, many adults wouldn’t want to read that second one—and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And that’s my point.  Some people don’t want to read stories with infidelity, or rape, or underage drinking, or what have you.  Might those people miss out on some great books?  Sure, but that’s their choice.

And if enough of their friends told them about what a great book such-and-such was despite those elements, they might read it anyway.  Look at Hunger Games.  Plenty of people knew upfront the book was about kids killing each other, but the positive buzz and reviews encouraged them to read it anyway.

Ratings aren’t about taking away choices.  Ratings aren’t about forcing books to stop pushing boundaries.  Ratings are about giving people enough information to help them make smarter choices, the choice that’s right for them.

*ahem*  Sorry for the rant.  *smile*  Now I open the floor to you, and I sincerely want to hear from both sides.  If you disagree with me please tell me why, as my opinions are never set in stone.

What do you think about ratings or content descriptions for books?  Do you see this as censorship or otherwise dangerous?  Why?  (Did I miss an “against” argument above?)  Do you plan to ask your publisher to include this information?  If you’re self-published, do you plan to start including it (or do you already include it)?  Where should this information go, the copyright page, facing the title page, the inside back cover, or…?  As a reader, would you like to have this information?  Are there some plot elements you prefer to avoid in books, TV shows, or movies?

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85 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Jill Kemerer July 28, 2011 at 5:47 am

Wow, Jami, I stopped by your blog unsure of how I’d react–but you and I have the exact same feelings on this topic! I have a young teen at home and she reads 3 books a week. I do not have time–and our genre preferences are different!–to read every book she brings home.

I would love a disclosure system like you described. Top things I’d like to know in a glance: Bad language, sexual scenes, drug use, graphic depictions of abuse, etc… Frankly, many young adult readers would like these too. My daughter has picked up several YA books with cute covers only to be disappointed by the racy or dark content. Not every teen lives like the cast of Jersey Shore or The Real World.

I wouldn’t ban books with disclosures from my home, but I would like to be aware of the content.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 8:37 am

Hi Jill,

Great list of potential issues! Yes, and if all books had some sort of description, there wouldn’t be stigma (pro or con) against only certain books. Even PG movies get a “Mild Peril” type label. I know plenty of middle grade (MG) readers who would appreciate knowing if an MG book falls closer to Magic Tree House or Suzanne Collins’ Gregor series.

And I’m like you, I wouldn’t ban books from my home, but I’d sure like to be aware so a conversation could take place. Thanks for the comment!

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Joanna Aislinn July 28, 2011 at 5:58 am

Due to time constraints, I skimmed through this (but hope to look at it more closely later). Excellent breakdown. As a lifetime reader I’ll say this: as a teen, I learned way too much about ‘mature subjects’ via novels I happened across at the library. My parents had immigrated from Europe and never thought to supervise what I read. Some of the YA works I’ve recently read kind of blow my mind w/what is considered appropriate for teens. And we won’t discuss some of the dark material that makes into the middle and high school reading lists.

Love your blog theme! Such a soothing color combination. Looking forward to stopping by again 🙂
Joanna Aislinn
Dream. Believe. Strive. Achieve!
NO MATTER WHY
The Wild Rose Press
http://www.joannaaislinn.com
http://www.joannaaislinn.wordpress.com

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 8:40 am

Hi Joanna,

Yes, and it’s that blind-siding I’d like to prevent – for all readers. I know adults who stick with YA books because adult books are often too dark for them.

As writers, we know that not everyone is our target audience, so why not help everyone try to find the best books for them? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Laura Pauling July 28, 2011 at 6:00 am

As a parent and a writer, I don’t think a rating system is something to be feared. My daughter reads well above her years. Thankfully, she goes for the more literary YA then the paranormal romance, which tends to have more sexual situations. Not all of course. I’d be most concerned about sexual situations that includes graphic descriptions, even just a tiny bit, or extreme abuse. There is no way I could keep up with her reading. No way.

And a rating system could lead to better reviews b/c readers wouldn’t be blindsided. As is, she has read some books that after I’ve read them, I realized I’d rather her have waited until she was older.

But I also understand why writers are scared of ratings.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 8:52 am

Hi Laura,

Yes, and that reading-level vs age-range vs. maturity-level issue is another reason why a generic G/PG/PG-13/R label wouldn’t help. Some eight-year-olds are advanced readers and can read YA-level books with ease. The parents of those kids don’t want to say that their kids shouldn’t read any YA just because some of them are too mature. They’d much rather help their kids find YA books that expand their reading skills without bringing them someplace the kid doesn’t want to be.

A book that blind-sided me was the last book in the Inkheart series – torture and threats of skinning someone to use it as paper. Yikes! That series definitely appeals to those young advanced readers because of the idea of books coming to life. Even so, now that I know that, I wouldn’t ban it, but I’d make sure a conversation took place to make sure the kid was ready for that darkness. Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins July 28, 2011 at 6:38 am

When I opened this post, I was ready to share my opinion, regardless if we agreed or not. Result: Yes!!!! I share the same feelings on this topic as you, Jami!

I’m not a parent, but I am one of those readers, who when at B&N and see a teen and a parent deciding on a buying a book (one that I have read), I will stick my nose in their conversation and offer the parent a little insight as to what topics the book touches on. Some are annoyed, of course, but surprisingly, MANY are grateful to know if the book is graphic, dark, light, etc.

A rating system definitely keeps readers from being blind-sided by sensitive topics, and like you said, it’ll help gain better reviews if the reviewer wasn’t blind-sided. I, for one, don’t mind being completely blind-sided sometimes, but most of the time, even if you know a novel is graphic, you’re still blind-sided by just *how* graphic it truly is.

Great post, Jami!!! Let’s hope that some sort of rating system is picked up. ALL readers – teens and their parents – will be grateful for it in the end…and most writers as well. 🙂

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 8:55 am

Hi Melinda,

LOL! at you “butting” in. You’re right though. This is really just about giving people insight on what topics or issues a book touches on. Thanks for the comment!

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Shain Brown July 28, 2011 at 6:52 am

For as many reasons as parents want to know what their children are reading I don’t want to write YA. I want nothing to do with it in a writing sense. *barrows jami’s jacket*

I want everyone to understand my point. I think YA is great and so many stories are awesome, but I want to write for adults, people my age, and I want to include the grit of our world. If I don’t want to brain mouth filter I don’t have to. I know that the group of readers my age read to decompress, read to laugh, and read to escape. So, I want to write stories that encompass all the things we deal with and offer nothing more than a character’s perspective. A character you may love, you may hate, or nothing more than to be curious about.

Writing for a younger generation, even those that are preteen requires a special finesse. Kids today are very intelligent and resourceful. It requires responsibility. I love reading YA and so many times I wish I had these stories while I was growing up. But I do understand the complex position parents are in. Some stories are a bit much for preteen, some may offer support to teens, but for a parent to be in the dark when it comes to some of these stories, it could be, well scary. Good Luck.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 9:11 am

Hi Shain,

Well, I don’t think anyone here is going to try to force you to write YA. 🙂 So give me my jacket back. LOL!

I understand what you mean. I don’t naturally have the voice for YA, and I tend to write dark paranormal stuff as well. If I ever have a strong YA character whispering in my ear, that might change, but I don’t anticipate that happening.

But even when we’re writing for adults, we have to keep in mind that not every adult is our target audience. There are some adults who will hate my books and that’s okay. I’m not writing for them and I’m not going to change my stories for them. I plan on including a content description with my books if I can. I don’t want to get bad reviews from someone just because they’re not a good fit for my story.

So I agree completely that there is nothing wrong with grit and darkness (not even at the YA or MG level), and that writers should not have to restrain themselves from what they want to write. But people – all people, not just YA readers and their parents – should be aware if a book touches on dark themes or not.

In the Barnes and Noble near me, they separate the dark paranormal romance from the light paranormal romance. The light gets put on the shelf with romance, while the dark gets put on the Dark Fantasy table with urban fantasy. I think that’s a good call. (I have the old Mounds/Almond Joy jingle running through my head – sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. 🙂 ) Sometimes I’m in the mood for dark and sometimes I’m in the mood for light, and we can’t always tell by the covers. Thanks for the great comment!

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Kait Nolan July 28, 2011 at 7:10 am

Like you, I have no idea what the best means of rating something would be, but I agree that it would help things. I’ve often heard it discussed in the romance world that we should have a heat level rating to indicate how spicy things get. I’ve always liked that notion because my personal reading preferences don’t extend to things in the vein of erotica.

In terms of screening what your kids read, I think it makes a LOT more sense to raise kids to be comfortable asking questions about anything that comes up rather than not trusting them to be able to judge what is appropriate or comfortable. Kids are generally smarter than we give them credit for, and while it makes sense for parents to want to shelter their kids from the world, it’s fully unrealistic. Whatever you’re not talking to them about, their friends at school are, and their friends may not be offering up correct information. The world is a big, often violent, sometimes scary place. Parents can’t ignore that and books are a good way to introduce kids to the concept without freaking them out.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 9:27 am

Hi Kait,

Great point about heat level! Yes, I think that falls into this same issue. As I said above, even at the adult level, not every adult is the target audience for every book. A content description could cover heat level too.

I agree completely about how kids are generally smarter than we give them credit for. And honestly, most parents would probably never check these content descriptions because they wouldn’t think about it. Others would ban books, but they’d be more likely to ban books or preview books anyway. It’s the rest of the parents (and the readers themselves) this would help. The ones who want a clue about what conversations they should be having with their kids.

Some parents want to have the tricky conversations with their kids, but don’t know how to bring it up. If they bring it up out of the blue, the kids are more likely to roll their eyes in a “oh no, not one of those conversations” way. But if they bring up an issue in the context of a book (“So what did you think about the way that book depicted xyz?”), the parents can start a real conversation. Thanks for the comment!

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J. M. Dow July 28, 2011 at 7:12 am

I have a lot of difficulty with this topic. I’ll try to keep my comment concise, though. Here’s my problem: Sometimes teenagers are more accepting and mature than their parents. A teenager can read a book about suicide and take comfort and know that they’re not alone and be deterred from it where a parent will bury their head in the sand, fluff their feathers, and snatch the book out of the child’s hand. I know it’s the right of the parent to choose what their kids read, but many times it’s not the _child’s_ sensibilities that are disturbed, but the parents. I feel a lot of this issue could be solved not by the parents reading every book that their kids read, but by talking with their kids. Have them talk about what they’re reading and discuss how certain actions aren’t cool. Or explain how there are a lot of kids that go through whatever circumstance it is.

Personally, I was reading Stephen King at 11 with no problems at all. I’d knock out a book a week. My mom trusted me. That’s a big issue with a lot of parents. I don’t think a single book promotes violence as a good thing. Plus, you can gain the information you need about a book from the summary on the back. It doesn’t seem fair to judge a book by the dark things taken out of context.

Lol, Jami, I may have to write a post of my own as sort of a rebuttal. I hope I didn’t come across harsh or anything.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 9:48 am

Hi J.M.,

No worries! 🙂 I don’t disagree with you about the potential difference of opinion between parents and kids and what they’re ready for. That’s the case whether these content descriptions are in place or not.

The interesting thing is that by sticking with the content description and not having a G/PG/PG-13/R type rating, there’s no easy way for government to legislate who is and isn’t allowed to buy or check out a book. *mischievous grin* And that’s what I think we want to avoid. Kids would still have the freedom to buy or check out any book they wanted without parental permission.

I see this as a tool to be used by the readers (and their parents) to know what issues should be talked about. Truthfully, I can see a parent freaking out over a listing and wanting to ban it, but then the kid bringing another book to them – a classic that the parent would have read in high school – and seeing all the “dangerous” topics that book covered. 🙂 I’d hope that the parent would then realize that it’s not the topics that should be avoided or banned but how they’re handled. And that leaves the door open for discussion. Thanks for the comment!

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Raelyn Barclay July 28, 2011 at 8:31 am

I have a middle schooler who reads at 12th grade level or higher so this is something That Man and I have hashed out. In the end, we want to know what’s in the book (sexual content, violence, etc.) not to forbid him from reading but so we can discuss with him. Thus a notification similar to what I see most small presses doing would be ideal.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 9:49 am

Hi Raelyn,

Yes, it’s not about banning, it’s about information and discussion. Thanks for the comment!

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Ron Leighton July 28, 2011 at 9:07 am

Hmm. I reluctantly agree. I don’t consider myself a writer of YA because I want to have some sex and violence in my fantasy stories that I would not be comfortable promoting to youngsters.

If a young person read something in one of my stories that proved upsetting to them, I like the idea that a rating system would make it more likely there parents were discussing it with them.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 9:53 am

Hi Ron,

LOL! I seem to be getting a lot of those “I expected to disagree with you but no” reactions. Don’t worry, I won’t let it go to my head, and I’m not taking my flameproof jacket off yet. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tiffany A White July 28, 2011 at 11:18 am

I like this idea – I don’t think it’s censorship. I think this is helpful, especially because the YA market has taken off and some material that’s okay for a 17 year old just isn’t for a 10 year old. My opinion.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 11:51 am

Hi Tiffany,

I agree, there’s a huge difference in maturity. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Jennifer K. Hale July 28, 2011 at 11:27 am

Love this post! I happen to think that some sort of system, whether it’s a rating system or just a “heads up” would be great, and not just for YA readers. I’d love to have it for all genres! I can think of more than one time that I’ve picked up a book and put it down pretty quickly when it got a bit too dark/weird for my taste.
I don’t think this is censorship at all, and I love that you pointed out that books are far more intimate than movies, as we get to participate in them. I think this is a big, BIG point as to why we need some sort of system like this.
Thanks for sharing!

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 11:53 am

Hi Jennifer,

Yes, exactly! I see this as beneficial for all genres, at the adult level too. We all have difference preferences, or even different moods from day-to-day, and we’re not the target market for every book out there. Thanks for the comment!

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Texanne July 28, 2011 at 11:49 am

You put it perfectly, Jami. Thanks.

It’s so hard to know what’s going to cause problems for kids. Kids are different from grown-ups, and different kids have different situations. I’d welcome a discreet warning label down at the bottom of the cover.

At least, with paper books, when you discover you own something you’d just rather not have in the house, you can donate or trash it. I’ve got a couple of icky things on my Kindle–and if there’s a way to get rid of them, I haven’t found it yet.

Kids have Kindles too.

Well reasoned and presented article, Jami. Thanks.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 11:56 am

Hi Texanne,

There is a “Delete this selection” on the Kindle (which I’ve used to get rid of samples I’m not going to purchase), but I think it stays on our account and would get downloaded if we synced a new device. Not sure though. Like you, I’d rather have the heads up. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Roxanne Skelly July 28, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I think we used to have a ‘rating system’ at least in brick & mortar bookstores. They had children’s section, young adult sections, and so on.

It wasn’t just a way to identify the maturity of the content, but it was a way to target market per age-group.

I wish Amazon and such could do a better job at grouping books by age range. I know you find books based on age range, but the user interface for doing that is atrocious.

Honestly, I think parents should take more responsibility, not only looking at some ‘rating,’ but looking at the contents of the book.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Hi Roxanne,

I agree it’s the parents’ responsibility. The question is how they can know the contents of the book without having to read the whole thing ahead of time (which is unmanageable). Sure, they could flip through pages to get an idea, but many issues are only touched on in a book and so might appear on a paragraph or a page or two or might be addressed in subtext rather than spelled out. Children’s sections and young adult sections are classified as “genres” by the publishing industry and are not a rating system.

This suggestion is more about how to give readers a heads up of the content, and I honestly think readers of all ages would appreciate this information for all genres, not just MG or YA. This isn’t a call to mandate anything. This is an appeal to volunteer information that will help potential customers make a smart choice. Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc July 28, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Leave it to you to come up with an awesome topic!
To tell ya the truth I have never, ever thought of ratings for books. But now that you put that idea on the table, I don’t think its half bad.
My daughter is 15 and an AVID reader. She reads Meg Cabbot Stephanie Meyers, a new author named Julie Kagawa (The Iron King, very cool book) and is so excited that her favorite series of all time, The Hunger Games are being made into movies. So she likes alot of different authors. That being said, many of the authors she reads (except for Ms. Meyers) have some pretty racy stuff in their novels.
When she likes a book, she tends to want to give me the break down (i love that she does this. It’s kind of mother daughter bonding time) Anyway, sometimes the description of whats going on in her “YA” novel sounds a tad grown up for her 15 yr old mind.
But, a few things keep me from saying, “Ok, enough…stop reading!” First, um, she’s reading, and now-a-days, huge numbers of teens hate reading and refuse to pick up a book. Second, when I was 13 yrs old my mom handed me a romance novel when I was bored during a beach trip. I credit that Constance O’Banyon novel called Velvet Chains (still have it in a place of honor on a book shelf) with beginning a life long love affair with reading, romance and writing.
So, yeah, I read a few slightly explicit love scenes when I was 13, but I don’t think it hurt me too much:)
At this point, I think my daughter is okay making the judgment on her own, but I truly beleive that ratings systems might be beneficial to parents who want their children to develop a love for reading, while still keeping the content of the book in perspective.
Love the way you get people talking!
Great post as always!!!
Tamara

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Hi Tamara,

Exactly! No matter the issue, parents should ideally be offering guidance rather than mandates, in most cases. This information would allow the parents to have conversations with the kids about the issues brought up in the book. Thanks for the comment!

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Mary Kate Leahy July 28, 2011 at 2:04 pm

I think you made a lot of great arguments. I don’t have a problem with a ratings system, on its face. But a guess a counterargument would be we don’t want parents to restrict what their children read, which is sort of related to the ratings system. Personally I think it’s better for parents to let their children read whatever they want, and then discuss the topics of concern with the kids. Not necessarily reading it themselves but having a relationship which encourages open communication about tough issues, like drugs and sex. No one ever checked up on what I read and I turned out okay…I think 🙂 Plus there are lots of people who would restrict things from that children that most of us wouldn’t think should be restricted (like Harry Potter because of the magic) and a ratings system might make that easier. Although that would probably happen anyway. Hmmm…. Anyway, great post as always.

Oh, and to be fair I don’t write YA and I’m not a parent, so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt 🙂

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Hi Mary Kate,

Yes, I think the parents who would prohibit books are more likely to be the type to look up reviews and be controlling in general. So this is more about making it easier for the rest of the parents, the ones who don’t want to ban books, but who want to know what conversations to have. How can they have open communication about the issues in a book if they don’t know what the issues were? 🙂 (Some teenagers can be a tad…um, uncommunicative. I know I was. 🙂 ) This would make it easier for those parents, and I think those are the vast majority of parents out there. Sure, there were some who banned Harry Potter or Twilight, but the sales figures prove that most parents did not. Thanks for the comment!

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Kyla July 28, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I think that’s a wonderful idea. I have written some stories that…are disturbing for some people, but because I publish them online, I always can post a warning at the beginning of that chapter telling people of what they’re about to read that could be traumatic for them. That includes rape scenes, murder scenes, death scenes, and several other things. But I’ve worried about that issue when it comes to traditional publishing. Who’s going to warn these people what they might read?

I think, as a writer and an avid reader, that giving a small list of possibly disturbing issues at the bottom of the title page or maybe in the Table of Contents (that way, you could even specify a chapter they could skip or something) would be greatly beneficial. Thanks so much for bringing this subject to my attention, and have a wonderful day.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Hi Kyla,

Great point! Yes, it’s much easier to address this with online shopping or ebooks. And I’ve seen several books include this information in their blurb on Amazon or Smashwords, but print books are a bit trickier. Thanks for the comment!

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Tahlia Newland July 28, 2011 at 4:51 pm

As a reader who reads YA because she doesn’t like a lot of dark stuff and the mother of an avid teen reader who has had some nasty shocks, I totally agree with you and wish publishers would just get on with it. I think that the reason they haven’t is because if we knew up front that there was a torure and rape scene in a book, a lot of us wouldn’t buy it. Maybe that would stop authors putting such scenes in YA books which is not such a bad idea!

I can’t see it happening until a govt gets involved though.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Hi Tahlia,

Actually, I think a lot of the small press and epubs are already heading in this direction because many of their sales are online where additional information can be added to the product blurb. The slowpokes are the traditional publishers. 🙂 In their defense, most of their sales have traditionally been from in-store print sales. If they start gathering this information for the Amazon listings, maybe they’ll think about printing it somewhere on the print book itself for those in-store sales. Thanks for the comment!

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Sonia Lal July 28, 2011 at 9:45 pm

When I was younger, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have agreed with this. Mostly because it would have made it easier for my parents to keep me from books I wanted to read. They didn’t moniter what I read, but if they had, half my reading list would have disappeared.

On the other hand, as a responsible adult, I cannot help but agree. I don’t have kids, but I have nieces, some of who enjoy reading. The older one is a teen, the younger will be a teen in two years. Part of me cringes at the thought of them reading stuff like I read at that age. The rest of feels like a hypocrite for cringing.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Hi Sonia,

Yes, I can understand that cringing and hypocrisy debate. I have to remind myself that I turned out okay. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Darcy Peal July 28, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Since this is the modern era of computers how about a website that lists books with ratings & comments. The books could be submitted by publisher, author, or reader. So I could visit the site, see if the book in question is listed and concerns (if any) there are.
Whoever starts this site could make some serious cash if done properly.

OK, Now someone go start it!

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 8:29 am

Hi Darcy,

Good point! With smart phones becoming more prevalent, even a customer at a bookstore should be able to use the phone’s camera to read the bar code and look up that information near instantly.

Awesome idea, thanks for sharing it. Yeah, someone get to work on that! 🙂

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Gene Lempp July 29, 2011 at 1:03 am

Right with you, Jami. As a parent, I know I’d like to be informed about what my children are reading as much as what movies and television shows they watch. This is not meant to stop them but to keep the door to discussion with them open. Putting warnings (as you suggested) on the back cover or inside back cover would be a good start (part of me wanted to suggest front cover but that might be a bit harsh).
As a writer, I would want my readers, and if I was YA, my parents, to know what they were getting into. Blindsiding someone to make a sale is bad business. The object, in my opinion, is not just to sell a book, but to make a repeat customer. If we are honest with people up front, they tend to respect that, even if they don’t agree with us. Strange concept, I know.
There are absolutely things I do not what to read about. The child rape example would be one, children vs. children would be another (I’m sure Hunger Games is great, I choose not to read it) and gore for the sake of gore would be a third. What I do want to read is excellent writing that tastefully handles difficult subjects rather than going for shock and flash value.
Great post, Jami.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 8:31 am

Hi Gene,

Blindsiding someone to make a sale is bad business. The object, in my opinion, is not just to sell a book, but to make a repeat customer.

Yes, exactly! If we’re trying to get repeat customers, we want them to be a good match for our story. Thanks for the comment!

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Tami Veldura July 29, 2011 at 6:05 am

So… I’ve always found it very interesting that books don’t already have a disclosure/rating/warning system. Much of my writing started out in the fanfiction world and that community is VERY serious about making sure you know what you’re getting into before you go there. I’ve always put warnings on my writing because I completely understand people’s desire to avoid topics.

Moving up into the erotic romance world I found a similar sort of warning system in place (at least here online) and again, I’m not surprised by this. If the people in this community evolved out of the fanfiction one, it makes sense they would drag the warning system along.

What I have found in fanfiction (at least mine) and not in the adult community, was a heat level (like mentioned above) based on citrus. There was some snafu about a movie rating system where people received take down notices so much of the community swapped to an equivalent citrus system that ranged from Kiwi (G) to Lemon (NC-17).

I think if people started including disclosure warnings, especially in the self-pubbing world, a general consensus would emerge as to the wording and such of warning elements. I know that I will continue to disclose content for my writing, even outside the romance community, because it can certainly do no harm and can definitely do some good.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 8:36 am

Hi Tami,

Thank you so much for sharing your insight into the fanfiction and erotic romance side of things. I knew I had seen some of that, but I don’t spend time with either of those communities, so it’s nice to know that’s the “norm.” I’d never heard of the citrus thing before. 🙂

We can hope you’re right, and that as the self-publishers and epubs become more prevalent, these disclosures will become more common and expected. As you said, they do no harm (especially at the adult level) and can do some good. Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee July 29, 2011 at 7:23 am

I have an “advisory” section of my site for just this reason. I’ve known 8 year olds who would be fine with even my darkest released story; I’ve known 16 year olds who might have nightmares from my mildest released story.

I have a general recommendation, then break it down into drugs, sex, language, topics, possibly disturbing elements. (I had a beta who was majorly squicked because I had 2 characters in a story be cousins and lovers, so I mention that detail in the advisory.)

I may also start putting the crux of the advisory in the e-book description. Considering it.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 8:46 am

Hi Carradee,

I’ve known 8 year olds who would be fine with even my darkest released story; I’ve known 16 year olds who might have nightmares from my mildest released story.

Yes! And that’s why I dislike age-related ratings. Plenty of PG-13 movies are okay for some younger kids if the reason for the rating is more about dark themes and mild violence (like Harry Potter). It’s more about the specific kids than the age. Tell parents why a story earned a certain rating and let them decide from there.

And of course, given my opinion, I’m going to say that I think you should put the advisory in the ebook description. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Clay Morgan July 29, 2011 at 9:09 am

Great stuff Jami. Your post has me thinking about how the video game industry has gone. Once more intense elements began working their way into those games, the ratings were added. They do something like teenager, 17+, mature. I’ve noticed that many parents who would never let their kids go to certain movies don’t even pay attention to the video games with language/content/violence that’s just the same. If YA is going to include stuff that’s questionable to millions of parents then some kind of disclosure is probably useful, but the slope is always slippery.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 9:21 am

Hi Clay,

Don’t get me started on the worthless ratings of video games. 🙂 A video game with Mario Brothers-style cartoon violence gets the same rating as video games with realistic violence? Ugh.

Like I said, the information about why a game earned a rating is more useful, so I’d be fine with skipping the “rating” and going straight to the “reason.” And hopefully that would make blanket banning harder too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Sipal July 29, 2011 at 11:17 am

Wow, Jami! You are wading into turbulent waters, aren’t you?

I love your take on a rating system. As a parent and a writer, I think a voluntary one that establishes the content is fair and reasonable. And speaking only for my daughter, she would support that idea too. She chose a book to read for a school project that she was just not comfortable with at her age. I did not tell her not to read it, nor did her teacher. But she knew her own limits and chose not to. If the cover had given her a better hint, or there had been a rating, she wouldn’t have spent valuable time and had to restart her project.

Thanks for your great insight!

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 11:33 am

Hi Susan,

Yep, I’ve been a glutton for punishment lately. 🙂

Exactly. Sometimes adults have bad opinions of kids and teenagers when we’re talking about them at the general level rather than their own. But I’ve found that many kids are uncomfortable with things and would appreciate the ability to protect themselves from certain situations. I know kids who – when given the choice between reading a curse word on the comic pages or having it scratched out for them – chose to protect themselves from profanity. Open communication allows those sorts of conversations and choices. Thanks for the comment!

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Deri Ross July 29, 2011 at 11:34 am

I had never thought about a rating system for books before reading this post! It’s a pretty nifty idea. And I love your simple explanation of how ratings are not censorship. Personally, I value ratings in movies very much. I was thrilled when the movie industry decided not only to rate movies, but actually list WHY they were rated a certain way, such as violence, drug use, etc. That plays a very big role in whether or not I see a movie myself, let alone if I let my kids see it. I don’t see why books should be any different.

I have a story I wrote years ago that initially started out as a YA sci-fi/fantasy piece, but started taking on some very adult themes after a while. I never did anything more with it, because I couldn’t figure out WHAT to do with it. I wouldn’t want younger kids to read it, if they “read up” like so many do, and have their parents offended, but I don’t think it would fly as a purely adult novel. If there was a rating system, I’d be much more comfortable putting it out there as YA novel with some warnings.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 11:38 am

Hi Deri,

Exactly. I pay attention to the “why” more than the movie rating itself. 🙂 And I think you’re right that this could help with stories like yours. I’d much rather have those warnings than have “market forces” pressure the YA authors to dumb-down their stories in any way. Thanks for the comment!

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Sonia G Medeiros July 29, 2011 at 6:18 pm

I love the idea of a ratings system. It would be very useful for parents. My daughter is 9 and an avid reader. She reads far ahead of her grade level. She’s also very sensitive. There’s definitely a lot of material she’s not ready for.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Hi Sonia,

Yes, advanced readers can be very tricky to match reading level and maturity level. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Michele Shaw July 29, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Hi, Jami! As a YA writer and a mother, I have to say a rating system would not bother me at all. I do wonder who would get to decide how to do the ratings. That said, there is a wide range of YA from quite “clean” to rather explicit and many “taboo” topics. I feel like I will do my best to be informed about what my kids read and talk with them about their choices. When it comes to that line between middle grade and YA, right now all we have is shelf placement. We do have to remember that all kids like to read up. They admire older kids and want to be like them so they read about them to quench their curiosity. Guidance for parents would be nice, but we still have to talk with our kids. I would feel comfortable with my kids reading my own YA work at 12 or 13, but it’s individual. Other parents might read my books and not feel the same.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Hi Michele,

Good point about kids wanting to “read up.” And I don’t think a ratings board or anything would do a good job with this. I’d think the authors would be the most knowledgeable about their work, and if they’re volunteering this information because they understand the value to their customers, they’d make sure it was accurate. Thanks for the comment!

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alyslinn July 29, 2011 at 6:28 pm

I can see the view from my perch here on the fence. 😉

If there was such a ratings system (or a detailing of particular content, e.g. swearing, violence, etc.) I would hope that it wouldn’t go into too much detail. Sometimes I think that the sort of breakdown I used to see on the back of Blockbuster DVD cases was a bit too much (X number of curse words, X number of sexual situations…)

My anti-ratings view, however, is that a too-detailed ratings system could possibly keep people from experiencing things outside their current state of experience/knowledge. A walled garden is very pretty, but its boundaries make it dull. It’s a bit like only sticking to one news station because you know that the anchors/talk-hosts/editorial reflect your small view of the world.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Hi Alyslinn,

I haven’t been a Blockbuster member since the days before DVDs. 🙂 So I can’t comment on how detailed their disclosures were. I’d think something like “Mild Profanity” or “Heavy Profanity” would be enough. Spelling out a number would be overkill. 🙂

And I very much understand your point of avoiding the “echo chamber” effect. You’re right that a balance would be needed to make sure that we’d be warning off only those who would be truly offended by the content. Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Musil July 30, 2011 at 7:30 am

I’m a goofball, because I’ve never heard of this idea. But I wouldn’t mind it at all. The more information the better. It seems my sons automatically sort through the books they want to read. My 14 year old started a book and was uncomfortable about the material (I hadn’t read the book) and he stopped reading on his own! And I suggested he read Hunger Games because I knew he’d love the story. And he did. Great post, Jami.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2011 at 9:54 am

Hi Julie,

Yes, I think many (if not most) kids want to avoid feeling uncomfortable, so it’s good to hear from someone else with that experience too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jemi Fraser July 30, 2011 at 9:00 am

As a teacher, I find kids make much better choices than most people expect. No matter how excited other people are about a book, kids won’t read it unless they’re emotionally ready for it. Most kids put it down because it’s ‘boring’ – or in other words, ahead of their reading ability or emotional level. I’ve taught MG & YA kids for years, so my classroom is filled with a huge range of books. There are some books with mature content, but none of the kids grab it for the racy stuff. Ever. They tend to make choices that work for them.

I do have books labelled as ‘below’, ‘at’ and ‘above’ grade level, and they use that system. We also talk a LOT about books and content and I think that helps them make smart choices too. But they mostly do it on their own.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2011 at 10:02 am

Hi Jemi,

I agree. Kids often deserve the benefit of the doubt. And I figure if I’d appreciate this information on adult fiction so I can make smart choices for me, then kids would appreciate this on their books too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Fiona Ingram July 31, 2011 at 2:52 am

I agree with Jemi Fraser above that kids can make the right choices and will choose what interests them. However, as a watchful (adopted) parent, I still like to cast an eye over what my daughter reads. A while ago True Blood arrived on our tv screens (in South Africa we always get things later). My daughter was dead keen to watch it because she loved Twilight. I thought it was about teen vampires in love, okay, no problem. When I saw a snippet I was astounded at the adult content. I delicately broached the subject with my teen. “Oh no,” she said. “I watched one but it was so boring. It was just about sex and stuff and no real story.” Relieved I realized she can make decisions but I still monitor the levels. I have found that assistants in book stores usually have a good idea of level of content and age appropriate books and are willing to guide a concerned parent.

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Jami Gold July 31, 2011 at 9:12 am

Hi Fiona,

Oh my gosh! She watched True Blood? That show is on the edge of my tolerance, much less a teenager. (I’m a season’s-worth of episodes behind because I often have the same reaction that she did – boring and no story. 🙂 Then again, I get bored with much of serial TV because nothing much happens in each episode.) I’m glad you were able to have the conversation you did with her. As you said, you want to test and learn to trust their decision-making ability while still being aware of what decisions they’re facing. Thanks for the comment!

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Murphy August 3, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Hi Jami!
Coming a little late to the party, but at least I’m dressed. 🙂 I love your take on a rating system, but I also agree that kids will make the right choice if given the chance…which backs up the arguement that a rating system of somekind would be useful even t0 them. Maybe a rating system that’s designed for child/teen specific instead of parent/guardian specific? That seems to be the defining issue. Is it the parent who is making the ultimate choice for their teen or the teen/young adult who is making the choice for themselves. I’d hope it’s the latter as any teen today who is reading books instead of staring mindlessly at a TV probably has the sense to know what their limitations are as far as content. I know I did when I was younger. Just my .02.
Great discussion!

Murphy

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Jami Gold August 3, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Hi Murphy,

Yes, good point! The disclosures on MG or YA books might look different if they’re geared toward the kids instead of the parents. I’m not a YA author, so I can’t begin to guess how, but it would make sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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cetiken August 8, 2011 at 8:53 am

Hello,

I think the discussion is useful, but I am always weary of such moves. Cries of ‘for the children’ simply fail to impress me anymore. I’m probably jaded.

Its worth noting that such a system would have to be both able to change dynamicly. Why? Well consider the wikipedia article about the Comics Code Authority (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comics_Code_Authority) established in the 50s by comics companies themselves this group would place its seal on comics to let parents know that their contents were ‘appropriate.’ While many of the aspects of the original code seem odd today like the prohibition of zombie stories, the truth is the CCA prohibited any Gay or Lesbian stories from ever being told. It still makes my blood boil as proud gay comics fan.

I think ratings systems like this will inevitably limit what publishes will sell even if they aren’t so hidebound. In this day and age parents should at least be reading the wiki summaries of books their children are reading if they don’t have the leisure to read them themselves. The idea that parents need some third party to dictate acceptable use is frustrating to me.

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Jami Gold August 8, 2011 at 10:15 am

Hi Cetiken,

I agree that any ratings or disclosure shouldn’t necessarily be done by a third party. I’m more for factual disclosure of information rather than an actual “good/bad” rating. In other words, I wouldn’t want to see certain topics prohibited either. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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cetiken August 8, 2011 at 10:27 am

After typing my post I went back and looked at my shelf to examine Marvels current rating system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvel_Rating_System) and how it actually hashes out. I personally pay it no mind when buying a book (I’m more interested in who wrote it and the artists style), but the majority of books were rated T+ and only a handful had the parental advisory tag (which is much more visible than the T+). I don’t even have any Max rated books (though I’ve heard good things about The Hood so may pick it up eventually).

If it wasn’t obvious I’m one of those followers you picked up with your series on the GL movie. But I’ve stayed due to insightful comments and look forward to seeing your published work in a bookstore!

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Jami Gold August 8, 2011 at 10:38 am

Hi Cetiken,

Interesting! Thanks for sharing that link and information. To be honest, I had no idea comic books had ratings. 🙂

And thank you so much for your kind words! Welcome, and I appreciate you adding your insight. 🙂

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Maureen Crisp August 10, 2011 at 7:22 pm

This is a great topic and one that always stirs up writers whe you even hint censorship… As a mid gread teacher I have found that kids will regulate themselves pretty well. jemi Fraser put it very well with the comment of below at above grade level for content. As a parent of a teen I have been happy that they are reading and try not to influence them too much although I have tried to obliquely question their choice if i think the material is too dark for them. As a children’s writer I know that my biggest learning my craft curve is when I am challenged to write the emotional punch in my stories. I want to run away and hide but i force myself to do it and my story is stronger for it…and so i hope is my reader.
I will link to your post in my weekly round up of great links for writers…thanks for the discussion….and the plot vs character one too…You are always a good read!!!!

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Jami Gold August 10, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Hi Maureen,

Thanks for the input from a children’s teacher and author! And I agree – I think will self-regulate themselves pretty well, and a disclosure would let both the kids and the adults know if something should be “obliquely questioned.” 🙂 Thanks for the link and the comment!

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Cathy Lim September 20, 2011 at 11:09 am

I agree with your ideas. I definitely don’t want anything to be censored, banned, or so on. But as a parent and as a serious reader myself, I have found that there are certain types of content I’d rather not read. I think that any kind of ratings system will be imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; some information is better than the none we currently have. I started my own website to assign really basic ratings to books, but the reviews include a detailed paragraph saying what types of content the books contain (vulgarity, language, sexual content, violence, dark or mature themes, etc.). I know of other websites that give detailed information on each of those types of content as well. It’s impossible for any of us moms who have websites to be all-inclusive, so it would be great if publishers offered up at least some basic information to us as parents of readers and readers ourselves so we are better warned of possibly offensive content. Again, no system will be perfect, but any information is power.

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Jami Gold September 20, 2011 at 11:33 am

Hi Cathy,

no system will be perfect, but any information is power.

Great point! Right now, we’re stumbling in the dark, so any amount of insight into a book’s content would be helpful. Thanks for the comment!

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sara January 23, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Hi,

I’m starting a pre-teen book club at my mom’s bookstore. I don’t want to upset any parents by letting the kids pick a book that would not be deemed appropriate. I found this great website, that has a 1-3 rating for violence, sex, drugs, language etc. It’s a great resource for parents! Just type in the name of the book your kid is looking at, and within seconds you get a good idea if you want your kids reading it or not. It’s an easy, at a glance, picture icon rating system.

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Jami Gold January 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Hi sara,

Thanks! Yes, I’ve used that website before for movies. I haven’t played around with it as much for books. Thanks for the tip! (And I fixed the link in the comment for you. 🙂 )

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Tricia Knox April 18, 2012 at 6:15 am

Hi Jami,

I totally agree with establishing a rating system on books for all the arguments mentioned above. I was horrified a few years ago when I saw an elementary student reading the Twilight series! And the book was available in our school library! Just because a fifth grader can read on this level doesn’t mean they should. The rating should be similar to the TV ratings – Y7, Y14, M, etc… and also give reasons: V (violence), L (mild language), PH (potty humor), S (sexual content), etc… I can’t remember the specific ratings I’ve seen on TV but it does really guide me in what I allow my kids to watch.

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Jami Gold April 18, 2012 at 9:56 am

Hi Tricia,

I understand. I just heard of a 9-year-old reading The Hunger Games. *sigh* I’m sure some kids that age are ready for the story, but I know this kid and he’s not mature for his age. The parents probably just didn’t want to deal with his whining when his older brother was allowed to read it.

I’m with you, just because a kid can read at a certain Lexile level doesn’t mean everything at that level is appropriate for them. Thanks for the comment!

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Shelby November 28, 2012 at 11:52 am

Great post! I absolutely agree with you 100%. I’m actually writing a paper on this topic for a college class. Hope you don’t mind if I quote some of what you said. Good stuff, here! Thanks so much!

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Jami Gold November 28, 2012 at 11:56 am

Hi Shelby,

Just include a link to my site and you’re all good. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Jennifer February 12, 2013 at 12:04 pm

I just stumbled on your article as I’m currently struggling with my son’s school and the books he’s bringing home from school. I am not in support of censorship and welcome different ideas, my struggle comes from the fact the books he’s bringing home are violent and not age appropriate.

I know Disney has done a great job of glamorizing pirates as but let’s face it, they were violent. One of the books went into great detail about how to create torture devices and how to mix up concoctions to make those wounds hurt more. Pictures accompanied the text which showed dripping blood and of prisoners being dragged under a boat. The next few weeks saw books about murders and hangings coming home in his backpack. I finally had to have a conversation about the reality of pirates which probably should have happened sooner but I was disappointed that we had to go there in the first place. Oh, did I leave out that he’s in Kindergarten!!!?

We spend lots of time and effort on the types of food that goes into our children’s bodies and the kinds of calories that aid in their scholastic achievements. As you mentioned, we rate movies. I would like to see some effort going into a rating system that helped guide parents, teachers and students alike chose those books that are age appropriate. I don’t mind my 12 year old reading something that has dark elements in it so that this more mature mind can grapple with and learn about mature subjects. Please, I’d like my 6 year old to read about subjects that aren’t going to scar his developing psyche. Can we have just a few more years of Captain Underpants?

So where do I sign up for this rating system? (ok, a bit of sarcasm and frustration that after a week, I can’t get my school to call me back to discuss the subject)

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Jami Gold February 12, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Hi Jennifer,

Wow! Those don’t sound appropriate for any Kindergartners I’ve known. Are these being assigned in class? Or is he bringing them home from the library because he’s interested in pirates? If it’s the former (and if I were you), I’d speak with other parents to know if they shared the concerns. If it’s the latter, maybe a conversation about which library sections are at his level (with either just him or him and the school) might help. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Shaun Zhang November 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I would like to express my opinion on whether a book should have age and content warning or not.
There are books that contain violent scenes, such as kidnapping, torture, and execution of innocent people. I believe these kind of books should have an age and content warning, e.g This book contains contents that are not suitable for anyone under the age of 18.
What do you think?

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Jami Gold November 25, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Hi Shaun,

I don’t disagree with content warnings–even adults appreciate knowing what the story entails. The age restrictions (especially a bar of 18 years old) are a little trickier. Many middle grade and young adult books contain controversial content–think of Hunger Games and how some adults don’t want to read those books. So an age factor is difficult when each child is different in what they can handle.

On the other hand, many authors of explicit sexual content (i.e., erotica and the like) do have “for adults only” in their book descriptions. However, the new New Adult category is blurring the lines between young adult and adult stories, especially when it comes to sexual content.

At the very least, I want readers to be informed so they can decide whether or not it’s suitable for them or their family. Thanks for sharing your take! 🙂

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