Monday, March 14, 2011

Ratings for Books?

I recently received an e-mail asking my opinion about the idea of creating a ratings system for books, like the one we already have for movies, TV shows, and video games. About two days later, the same issue came up in an online forum. Seems to be a hot topic right now.

I have rather strong opinions about this (I know, jaw-dropping news, right?). After I wrote a long letter in reply, I realized it was practically a blog post, so this post is pretty much what I sent back.

Feel free to agree or disagree with me.

First off, as a mother, I can totally empathize with the desire to have a rating system. I absolutely see where parents demanding one are coming from. It's getting harder all the time to find clean youth literature. To make matters worse, publishers are quite happy to put out books with "content." A lot of people think that talking about drugs, sex, violence, language, and more is not only "real" but good for kids. Others say it's a great way to reach youth because parents are clueless and won't realize what's in the books their kids read.

Scary? You bet.

Another issue is clueless librarians who aren't educated on their own job. Neil Gaiman (who was mentioned in the e-mail) is a great example of this problem because he doesn't write just for kids. He writes for adults, too. So just because one of his books (like his Newbery-winning The Graveyard Book) might be suitable for kids, you can't assume they all will be. A librarian should know better than to shelve all books by one author blindly in the same area.

A librarian should also be savvy enough to know the difference between children's (or MG in my genre primer in THIS post) and YA. Hunger Games (also mentioned in the e-mail I received) is definitely YA, not MG.

In our library, you'll find stuff like Harry Potter in both the children's section and the YA section, so there is some overlap, but many books belong strictly in one or the other. I think the author of Hunger Games did some MG in the past, so we may be looking at a Neil Gaiman situation where the librarian is assuming that all of an author's books fall under the same category.

I also totally get that there's no way for parents to read everything their kids do—a common argument parents are given. But that's impossible if you have avid readers and more than one child. (Check and check, in our family.) Parents do need to keep tabs on what their kids are reading, in whatever way they can.

All that said, I'm very much opposed to a ratings system for books.

The movie rating system we already have is horribly flawed to the point of being almost useless. Some movies that I would never let my kids see because the content, for me, is absolute trash, are labeled PG-13 while others, which are otherwise wonderful films, get an R-rating for one extra use of the F-word but absolutely no other content at all.

The LDS film Saints and Soldiers was originally given an R rating. The producers knew, of course, that their target audience would never watch it. They did some minor editing, taking out, if memory serves, a few seconds' worth of blood on a wound or whatever—and got their PG-13 rating. Seriously. That was the difference between R and PG-13. Then I find movies with "good" ratings like PG that I find offensive. I can't trust a rating to be a no-fail, safe guide, especially when my kids are on the line.

I also really hate the idea of putting my decisions into someone else's hands, especially when the chance of being able to truly trust a ratings system is pretty small. I also think it's the wrong thing to do.

Think of the Young Women Choice & Accountability value. The whole idea is that we are accountable for the choices we make. But if we go strictly by ratings, we're letting someone else choose for us, which makes us what, feel less accountable for seeing bad stuff?

I think this is precisely why not a single general authority has mentioned any movie ratings—including R—in 25 or so years, not since the mid-80s, and why the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet doesn't either. I believe the Brethren know full well that going by ratings isn't the best compass, that we need to be selective on our own, to make informed choices, which means not blindly following ratings someone else has slapped on.

There's simply no way to know if some else's values match ours. Following ratings can even lead us to watching garbage when it's in a film with a lower rating (so we can justify watching it . . . it's okay, because it's not R . . .).

Another issue is something I've learned working with the Whitney Awards: everyone has their own definition of what's appropriate and what's not, even among active Mormons. Opinions vary widely. Some Whitney academy members have complained that anything with violence shouldn't be a nominee. (Good luck finding an epic fantasy without war of some kind, and second, have you ever read, oh, Alma?) The fact is, everyone's sensibilities are different.

What I find okay—or offensive—will not match someone else's definitions of okay or offensive.

I believe that the minute we have a rating system for books, we'll end up with all kinds of problems that already plague the film industry.

That said, the one thing I would be in favor of is something like those movie sites that list specifically what is in a movie (such as which swear words are used & how many times, if there's nudity it says what kind it is, if there's violence it says specifically what happens, and so on).

That way I can make an informed decision knowing exactly what the content is without someone else interpreting the content by their standard.

Problem: That's not something the book industry could take on (pretending for a minute they'd be willing to). It would have to be a private enterprise, like those movie sites are.

So what can we do as readers and parents?
Talk to other parents and get recommendations about what their kids are reading. Talk to other librarians. School librarians often have a better pulse on the youth fiction market than public librarians, and they're often pickier about what is in their libraries. They also listen to parents more, but not if a parent is constantly in their face, and not if the parent complains about small stuff or about books they have only heard rumors about and haven't actually read. Before bringing in a complaint, be informed and pick your battles.

One thing I've found very useful is to visit Amazon and look up books you already know are good. Then click on the button for recommendations for books similar to it. Then read the reviews. You'll often get a good feel for content from them.

You can also find lists of "clean reads" for youth online, but be aware that there is really no way to concretely define "clean" or "offensive."

Janette Rallison, who is LDS and a national YA author (and a good friend of mine) has been added to lists of clean teen reads, and she's rather proud of that. She's fighting the fight to have good, clean books out there for teens. My girls adore her books; they're great, laugh-out-loud funny, and (by my definition) safe.

One fascinating thing happening right now in the national market is the huge influx of LDS novelists writing for youth. Some people, especially in the NY publishing scene, have talked about how there must be some kind of conspiracy (you may have heard about the supposed "Mormon Mafia") because so many Mormons are publishing youth fiction now and being wildly successful at it.

That's great news for those of us looking for cleaner reads. Although those books may still have violence, a swear word or two, or maybe some other mild content, you can bet they will downright squeaky compared to 90% of whatever else is on the shelves.

(Note from THIS POST: I'll still write up my tips for getting kids reading. I will, I will!)


Melanie Jacobson said...

Totally agree with you. This topic comes up often at my book club, especially from moms who have older teens. And I definitely wanted to scrub my eyeballs after reading a few YA books that I had no idea would have "content." But I think it comes down to me teaching my kid what's okay and what isn't, ratings aside. At the very least, you can pick up a book and skim through it to look for problem areas like sex scenes or language. A good fifteen minutes will give you a feel for whether a book is appropriate for your kid on those metrics. As for themes, well . . . that will take reading the whole book, definitely. But we're not TOTALLY without strategies as parents, here.

Rebecca Blevins said...

Guess what? I agree. I would also love a site with reviews as far as types of various content and how much is in the book. I began reading a science fiction last night and had to stop because of smut. It would be great to get a feel for certain books instead of a hit-or-miss approach.

Probably the best thing I can do for my kids as they get older (because we're all avid readers here too) is to teach them what's inappropriate and tell them to follow the feelings that will occasionally tell them to stop reading.

Chas Hathaway said...

I can totally understand that point of view. It's so easy to get lazy and let others filter our media, allowing us to justify watching/reading trash on someone else's standard.

At the same time, I find myself getting more and more frustrated with starting a book I'd been told is fantastic, only to find out it's trash. Certainly we can't give a blanket PG or R rating that will cover everything - clearly our movie rating system is flawed.

But for me and my family, the movie rating system is one of the early filters. Some call us extreme, but we don't watch PG13s. Are we missing out? I don't think so. There's far to much media out there to say that we'll miss some great mandatory life lesson by not watching a certain film.

At the same time, there are some 13s we do watch, because we know that the content is... well, like Alma, if that makes sense. There are also scads of PGs, and even a couple Gs that we won't watch.

Then once we're watching a movie, there's still the moral filters that are constantly on guard if something comes up that we know we shouldn't be watching. Actually, shutting off a movie halfway through with your kids there is a great way to teach them that they can and should do the same.

The rating system is not the primary filter - it's just one of the early filters. And while social filters (what have my trusted friends said about it) are even more powerful than ratings, it's kind of nice having that rating system there as an early filter.

I've heard some people use the same argument you gave (not that you are, of course), that the rating system is flawed, to justify watching some pretty raunchy R movies, too. So the blind watchers are on both sides of that argument.

Again, I totally understand your point, and I'm not hard-core against it, but I do personally disagree, and wish we could implement some kind of rating system for books. I can't say for sure whether or not it would help society at large, but I think it would help me and my family.

One thing that people would have to be very careful about if there was such a rating system is the pointing fingers problem. "Oh my gosh, he's reading an R book!" But I guess that's just another form of blindness...

Okay, enough of my babbling.

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

I have actually been thinking about this very thing and was planning to post on it tomorrow. I'm not a "dark and edgy" author. It's all fairy tales and happy endings with no ick to sift through and that's what I prefer to read, too.

Amie Borst said...

I'm not sure I agree.

I don't think that having a rating system is CHOSING FOR US. In fact, I think it's the opposite. It says, here's where we think it falls, judge for yourself. A warning, if you will.

Why not have a rating system for several categories?

Your child can't handle violence? Then don't have them read a book that is R rated in that category.

Your child (and you) are okay with some blood and guts, but would rather not have sex/intimacy, then you'll have a better idea of what books to stay away from and which ones might be better choices.

I think it's a good asset especially to parents who might not be avid readers, or who can't keep up with all the books their children read. And what parent can't use all the help they can get in this modern world?

TisforTonya said...

this is great! and a very good answer to a question I actually get asked quite often...

Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) previously wrote an awesome series for MG and a child's picture book - so I wasn't surprised when Hunger Games originally got shelved incorrectly, but it's been awhile now and they've had plenty of time to correct that.

Annette Lyon said...

Great comments!

Chas and Amie, I think we're closer to agreeing than not. I did say I'd like some way of knowing what the content is in advance--just not a blanket rating. A blanket rating *wouldn't* tell me if it's rated high due to violence, suggestive material, or whatever.

I will say that TV ratings, with the letters below them, are probably headed the right direction--it gives us some clue as to what the content is and the WHY behind the rating.

One issue with ratings is something Chas brought up--people judging others based on the rating of a book. It *would* happen, especially in the LDS world, where we're already so aware of movie ratings.

Like he said, ratings really should be the first filter--but so many people really do use them as a justification and as the ONLY filter, and that's part of my issue with them in general.

(And for the record, our family doesn't watch R-rated movies. Not making any kind of justification here, just making a point.)

Susan Anderson said...

I agree with you, Annette.

Having said that...and in an entirely different vein...what I really wish I had was a group of online friends with similar values with a forum where they would rate books and authors for sexual content. There is nothing worse than getting blindsided by what amounts to soft porn, and you can't always tell by the cover anymore!

I'm no prude, but some of this stuff is pretty outrageous.


PS. Hey, maybe I shoud start such a site myself!

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Annette, this post is absolutely brilliant. I'm not going to bother typing up my opinion on the subject, because I can just share the link to this post.

Kim said...

I think you might be surprised at how many blogs and other websites there are out there that give content ratings to the books they review or at least give a warning about objectionable material. Mine is one of them but there are plenty more. It may take a little effort to find them but there are plenty of wonderful "clean" books out there.

By the way, Annette, our daughters are friends in Ms. G's class.

Jenna said...

LOVE this, Annette. I agree with you. We do have to be accountable for the choices we make, and be okay shutting the cover of a book that we find offensive, just as we would walk out of a movie theater. A content screening site would be incredible, though so much work, true. But, like you mentioned, people that avoid ANY sexual content or violence, can't even really justify reading the scriptures. It's all in how that kind of material is handled. Those are two pretty big themes of life and history.

Jenny P. said...

We have long since given up on movie rating systems. There are so many PG13 movies that are filthy from beginning to end. And The King's Speech, rated R for language was one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. We go to Common Sense Media, or Kids in Mind and make an educated decision based on content.

As for books? I think a rating system would be too much of an undertaking. Word of mouth and parent to parent recommendations are the best way to go with books. It's so subjective, you know? For example, I read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. I know full well there are a lot of people that I know that I could NEVER recommend the book to. Others I'm sure would enjoy it. (Though I'm certain I absolutely wouldn't want to watch the movie) It's just difficult to draw a line around what words will make people uncomfortable. Know what I mean?

Scott said...

Only if they're like the TV ratings. I like those better than movie ratings. With movie ratings are "like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get" (couldn't resist!). No ratings for books. What's the famous line? "I teach the people correct principles and let them govern themselves."

Lisa Loo said...

Its not just YA and children that I worry about! I just bought a book from an author who was signing at Costco (to be nice, Annette) and like someone said above, I have been scrubbing my eyelids ever since.
That said, I agree with you on the no rating system but something needs to happen because I am sick to death of either paying good money to just throw it in the trash or re-reading everything TO DEATH because its all I can trust.

Sorry, but you have no idea how that little soapbox has been building up inside of me! I will be watching all of this with great interest--perhaps I will even form some strong opinions and get involved! *gasp*

Raejean said...

I love Rated Reads. It's still someone's opinion but they also give an idea of how many swear words the book contains. It's nice to be able to make a little more educated decision before I read the book. My only wish is there were more books rated.

LisAway said...

This is me reading your post: "Oh, yes! Ratings for books! Yes...yes..yes... totally agree with all the reasons. Flaws in rating system? Problems with going by a rating, totally on board. (I actually almost skimmed because I never rent a video or see a movie without researching what the content is, often even for PG, some of which are pretty terrible in their own right)...YES! Exactly. What's the content? That is all I care about! (well, assuming the theme isn't bad).

I really, really, really want to start the big huge book rating site that will have the ratings in each subject and reasons (5/10 in language for use of these words this many times etc.)

I look forward to the day somebody does that.

Melanie is right, of course about skimming a book. But 15 minutes per book when you have a house full of avid readers could have you skimming for hours every day. :)

~T~ said...

I just feel sorry for the reviewers who have to read or watch all the smut and catalog it. But I appreciate their work with movies, and it would be helpful for books!

Sadie said...

Excellent post. It has been a hot topic lately that I've discussed with friends frequently. I haven't formed a concrete opinion yet. I won't let my daughters read Junie B. Jones if that gives you an idea of how picky I am. ;) There is so much good material out there, I hate it when an average or downright ridiculous book becomes popular in school and all the kids want to read it just because it's popular. I would love to see a website that gives heads up on scum... but then again, who has to sort through the scum?

Chantele Sedgwick said...

I agree with everything you just said. This is such a great post, especially with the rise of so many teen books with so much crap in them now. I'm surprised how much authors get away with in the YA market now. Janette Rallison is one of my favorite authors. She is awesome, and so are her books. I'm so glad she's kept her morals within her books. I'll definitely let my kids read them! :)

Lara Neves said...

I've thought about this a lot lately as Bria is getting more advanced in her reading and interested in things I have not read or don't know much about. I've read some of them, but it's a lot of reading to do when I have my own pile of books!

I agree with you about rating systems. But I like the kids in mind type websites, which are very helpful. So I agree that something like that would be much better for books than a blanket rating system.

Taffy said...

I LOVE Janette and her stand on clean YA. I know any book with her name (or St. James) on it will be clean for my girls.

I have a rating system on my reading blog. I also have a code word for a friend that warns her not to pick up the book I'm rating because we share similar tastes in books.
I'm glad so many clean read books are doing well! We complain about pollution and its not just the air quality...

Braden Bell said...

Well said, Annette. Really great thoughts. Let's give descriptive info and let people use their agency and sort it out. LOL about Alma.

cathylim said...

I agree with you in the sense that it's folly to have a system that simply slaps on a rating with no further information. I think it's valuable to know exactly WHAT the bad content is so we can make our own judgments on whether we'd like to read it or not. That's why I started Rated Reads. Raejean mentioned it. She also mentioned that there aren't as many reviews as she'd like. That's why I'm constantly looking for more reviewers. The more reviewers, the more reviews, the more information for us all to make more informed reading decisions for ourselves and our children.


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