Friday, March 23, 2012

Should children's books be content rated?

"What content-rating would you give the Hunger Games book?" my friend asked me.
"Probably the same as the movie.  Thirteen and up, for most kids." I said.
"Why don't they put ratings on books anyway? They do on music, TV, video games, and movies but children's books are so inconsistent. I feel like I have to screen every book my eleven year old picks up."

I couldn't answer my friend except to say that children's books target a broad spectrum of ages, emotional maturities, and reading levels making any rating system difficult if not impossible to apply. Not to mention that everybody seems to have their own opinion of what is appropriate and inappropriate for children.

If I were to draw a spectrum of children's books it might look like this:

Depending on the bookseller, the ages might be different on each of these sections but not by much.

So, what determines where a book falls on the spectrum? It comes down to what ages the book is accessible too, i.e. most of that age group would understand the book and find it interesting. Usually the age of the main character is a good indicator because if the character is having realistic, age appropriate experiences, the book will naturally fall into place on the spectrum. Vocabulary also tends to increase as you move left as does the complexity of the plot and characters. Some people say that MG books have main characters that are more internally focused where YA characters are externally focused but it's not hard to come up with exceptions to that rule.

So why do I think it would be almost impossible to rate books like movies? Children develop at different rates and have difficulty with varying aspects of life. A twelve year old (sixth grader) might not be able to read Harry Potter before bed without having nightmares but could read Wintergirls and have a deep discussion on the real threat of anorexia. For other kids it would be the opposite. Some people are sensitive to any sexual content. (I believe this was why Scholastic dropped Breaking Dawn). Others don't like violence, drug use, or swearing. All of these become more prevalent as you move left on the spectrum but it really depends on the book. 

Also, I think there's a vast difference between what we read and what we see. When we read, our minds must produce the picture from the words and if you don't have the life experience to produce that picture accurately you won't "see" it. For example, a young person who reads Breaking Dawn might have a very different picture of what happens in the bedroom scene than an adult. That's very different from TV, video, or movies where the picture is painted for you.

What do you think?  Should children's books be content-rated like movies or TV shows? Do you think there are topics, words, or experiences that simply don't belong in any children's books?


  1. This is pretty much right on in my opinion. When I was working in a bookstore I both loved and loathed when parents asked for recommendations for their children. It's so hard knowing what will offend someone.

  2. I'm going to half agree, half disagree on this one.

    Disagree: it's too hard to judge what's appropriate for a given age, so we shouldn't try. Everyone else does this, slapping a PG-13 or PG or G label on a movie based on a given standard. Then THE PARENT has to decide whether their 7 year old is ready for PG-13 material or not. But at least the parent has some kind of guideline to go by, something notably absent with books (I'm very grateful to Common Sense Media for the ratings they give on books, as well as Reading Teen, who does content ratings for YA.)

    Agree: There's a vast difference between what we read and what we see. I'd go one step further and say there's a difference between what we see and what we play (videogames) as well. So, there can be beheadings and mutilations in a book, and a 10 year old's vision of what that means is totally different from a 35 year old producer's vision. At the same time, books grip our imagination in ways that visual media can't, so I think the emotional impact can be MORE profound ... but in a way the child usually can handle. Games, on the other hand, put the child in an active (rather than passive) role of actually doing the beheading and dismemberment. Which is why I'm actually more stringent on games than I am books or movies.

    But I'm pretty conservative when it comes to media consumption! :) The most important part (IMHO) is that PARENTS need to be aware of the content that's fed into kids' minds - so they can talk about (or delay) them being exposed to that content.

  3. Each child is so different. My 13 year old daughter is advanced maturity and reading wise. She doesn't enjoy all the trendy YA books and goes right to the literary books like If I Stay and others like that. And I allow her to read adult mysteries because they're clean. I take that back, I allow her to read pretty anything but I did say no to The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and the George Martin books - Game of Thrones.

    But I can't keep up with her reading if I tried. I do remember when she picked out a book when she was younger and I almost died later when I read it and there was one line that contained sexual content that I had not exposed her to yet. It would've been nice to know it was there.

    I also realize and wouldn't want labels on all the books either. But the parent in me wouldn't have minded it.

    When it comes to Hunger Games I probably wouldn't let my 3rd grader read the series even though I know a lot of them probably are.

  4. that's a tough one. I think if there's something's particularly graphic that we wouldn't normally expect in YA (like a rape scene or something), perhaps that would warrant a rating. Otherwise, reviews are so publicly available, it's not really hard for a parent to do a bit of research and determine if a given book is ok for their kid. I even had one mom send me an email asking me if I thought it would be ok for her 13 year old to read my book. Maybe "ratings" would make it easier for parents on some level, but what about the Indies? Who decides what rating they get? There's really no way to standardize it that I can see.

  5. I will have to say no on the ratings, for a variety of reasons. First, I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against anyone telling me what I or my kid should or shouldn't read.

    Second, I think Jessie hit on the big reason against it, who decides? Who enforces? With movies, the MPAA has a lot of funding and history so they have the mechanism in place for rating every movie that goes to theaters. But what about the ones that got direct to video? No ratings there.

    Since there is no such agency for books, it would require a lot to set one up, and get everyone to agree to it. Then the rules would have to be created... It just gets to be unwieldy. Especially at a time when self-published/ independently-published books are becoming more common. Again, as Jessie pointed out, who rates those?

    The next big point is enforcement. How do you keep kids from buying/ reading books they aren't rated for? Remember the music industry example, when they were forced to put on the "Explicit Lyrics" labels on music, the labels became a marketing tool. Kids actually bought the CDs with the labels more than the ones without. With movies, the theaters are supposed to deny entrance to under-age children (not that they always do). But are bookstores going to be parenting our kids too?

    In theory, I think it could help if parents had a way to find if a book might have objectionable content in it. Luckily, that way already exists. Try reading reviews, even the Amazon reviews. For popular books, everyone will have a review, especially the sorts of groups that a concerned parent might want to check. And even for relatively unknown books, there will likely be at least something out there, if you look hard enough.

  6. Rating children's books is tough. Like you said, everyone develops differently. As a teen I used to read Secret of the Unicorn Queen, which is WAY different than The Hunger Games. Times have changed as well. What used to be rated one thing in the 80's is probably not considered as bad now.

  7. It's an intriguing topic, and in theory I can see how it would be beneficial to parents, but in practice it seems like a kettle of worms for all the reasons mentioned above.