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!)