WARNING: On YA, Ratings, and “Censorship”

The YA world is in an uproar over a recent study by BYU professor Sarah Coyne, featured in an article by U.S. News and World Report (among other places), that recommends that a ratings system for YA books be put in place to warn parents of profanity and other “adult” themes. Some are crying censorship, including many prominent YA authors, and the American Library Association’s offshoot Young Adult Library Services Association is joining in the chorus. The article includes a YALSA quote that seems to compress all of the arguments against a ratings system into one concise soundbite: “ALA’s interpretation on any rating system for books is that it’s censorship.”

Be warned: I’m going to flat out disagree with that assertion. This report does not promote censorship.

Before you light the torches and storm the castle, it’s helpful to define the issue at stake.

According to Merriam-Webster,

censor: to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable <censor the news>; also: to suppress or delete as objectionable <censor out indecent passages>

In comparison,

rate: to set an estimate on; or to determine or assign the relative rank or class of

Nowhere in the definition of rate does the issue of suppression or deletion appear.

This is not to say that censorship is not an important issue. Censorship is still alive and well in the U.S. as Banned Books Week reminds us every year. Books are challenged and banned on a regular basis, and more and more, those books challenged are ones written for teenagers. The lists of banned and challenged books include many considered “classics” that often appear on high school reading lists, like To Kill a Mockingbird, but they also include books published in the last several years that are specially targeted toward young adults, like the Gossip Girl series by Cecily von Ziegesar. Actual, real censorship exists and deserves to be taken seriously.

But this report is not suggesting any kind of censorship whatsoever.

Put aside your preconceived notions and take the report at face value. There are a few relevant and important takeaways:

1. Profanity is not the only measure of a book’s content, but it is one measure. And it is often a good marker of situational content that is harder to gauge. A book whose worst curse word is “damn” is likely going to be a very different book than one that sprinkles in “p***y” or “c**k.”

2. Not all books in the YA section of a bookstore are suitable for every young adult that shops there. Having managed the Children’s/YA department of a Barnes & Noble for over a year, I can tell you that the standard age recommendation for books shelved as YA is 12-18. There is a huge maturity gap in those 7 years, not only physically, but emotionally and psychologically, too.

3. Ratings are guidelines, not rules. While ratings systems in other forms of media are often political and controversial, a ratings system for YA books doesn’t have to be so. Movies, video games, and TV shows are given ratings to provide explanations of content that might be objectionable to certain audiences. There should be no requirement to show ID when buying books, and bookstores should not be limiting purchases based on those ratings.

4. Ratings are a tool for parents and teens. In an ideal world, parents would be monitoring and co-reading everything their kids were reading, but in the real world, that’s just not possible. In the midst of the backlash, objectors are claiming that parents who cannot monitor are neglectful, or that the ratings would be a method of “outsourcing” their parenting. Ratings in this case would actually enable parents to be more aware of what their kids are reading, not less.

5. Ratings are useful to teachers, librarians, and booksellers, as well as parents. As a bookseller, I was often asked to recommend books based on age appropriateness. There was no way that I could’ve kept up with every book in that section, nor can any of these other groups who interact with and encourage kids to read on a regular basis. I would have welcomed a ratings system, and I never would have limited what a kid could buy based on those ratings. I don’t believe the researcher behind the study is advocating any such system either.

For those reasons and many more, a rating system could be incredibly effective and helpful. The ratings themselves are not a form of censorship; the stores and booksellers that would use those ratings to restrict purchases – they are the ones guilty of censorship. The ratings are NOT.

When it comes to First Amendment rights — consistency counts.

In some ways this controversy is schizophrenic: Do a better job at parenting! But don’t restrict what your kids are reading at all! Yes, books generally are a healthy and safe outlet for teens who want to explore darker territory, and they will and should read whatever they want. But let’s not forget that some libraries have banned 50 Shades of Grey, which is for all intents and purposes fan fiction of a YA series. And that the literary and parenting worlds were outraged when Amazon briefly sold the self-published ebook, The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure.

Many of the same people who are in an uproar about a ratings system for YA books were also calling for Amazon to stop selling a book promoting pedophilia.

My point is: you don’t get to pick the times that the First Amendment is upheld — it’s an all-or-nothing deal.

There seems to be such a fear surrounding possible censorship issues and parenting issues that we’ve lost sight of the nuts-and-bolts idea that teenagers are confronted by content ratings in nearly every other aspect of their media-driven lives. How can we possibly expect YA literature to not do the same, to not travel the same road?

I know that a ratings system for books is probably a long way off, if it’s ever coming at all, but in the grand scheme of things, this controversy is all about rhetoric and reactionary accusations. We are making zero progress in actually having a constructive conversation about YA literature and potentially problematic content if we jump from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye.

Can we please put this controversy in reverse and start over? We owe it to the teenagers – they are, after all, the readers that matter.