July 28, 2011

Should Books Have a Rating System?

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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Comments — What do you think?

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Jill Kemerer

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.

Joanna Aislinn

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!
The Wild Rose Press

Laura Pauling

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.

Melinda Collins

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. 🙂

Shain Brown

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.

Kait Nolan

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.

J. M. Dow
J. M. Dow

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…  — Read More »

Raelyn Barclay

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.

Ron Leighton

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.

Tiffany A White

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.

Jennifer K. Hale

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!


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.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

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.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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.…  — Read More »

Mary Kate Leahy
Mary Kate Leahy

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 🙂


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.

Tahlia Newland

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.

Sonia Lal

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.

Darcy Peal
Darcy Peal

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!

Gene Lempp

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.

Tami Veldura

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.


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.

Clay Morgan

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.

Susan Sipal

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!

Deri Ross
Deri Ross

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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