Should books be rated for mature content?

As I was perusing the ALA Banned Books Week site—and their nifty 30-year timeline -- I stumbled upon the 2009 entry. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky had been challenged by one of my local school systems that year. Yikes! Happily, the resolution was that the school board would NOT ban the book. (Whew. You can read the story here. ) However, the Roanoke County Schools did something interesting (good interesting or bad interesting, I’ll let you decide). They didn’t take the books out of the library, but they required students’ to have their parents’ permission to check out Perks. Essentially, the school board decided to give the book an R-rating. (The movie version that’s out now is PG-13, by the way.)

I’m not saying I necessarily agree with the school board, but it got me thinking. What if we gave books ratings? Video games, music, and movies all come with a parental rating or at least guidance as to content. Actually, in a US News article earlier this year, a BYU researcher proposed a rating system on book jackets. She states, "I thought long and hard about whether to do the study in the first place—I think banning books is a terrible idea, but a content warning on the back I think would empower parents."

If I were a parent, maybe I’d agree. But, I think I buy YALSA director Beth Yoke’s argument. In the same US News article, Yoke gives a very cogent rebuttal, which I won’t restate here. I agree with her that kids should have a safe place to explore issues like sexuality, violence, drugs, etc. Bottom line: ALA’s position is that “any rating system for books is censorship.”

And it is censorship. Think about the movies. If a movie gets the dreaded NC-17 rating, studios re-edit the hell of it to get it down to an R. The people with the money see NC-17 as the box office kiss of death. So the rating drives content. That’s de facto censorship. No one forces the studios to cut scenes, but the effect is just the same.

Imagine putting publishers in the same position. What if school boards or certain book chains decided only to carry PG-13 children’s books? Would that pressure publishers to change editorial policies? Would works like Perks or Crank get sanitized for kids' so-called protection? Would challenging books get published at all?

Ok, the effect might not be as drastic as that, but, as a writer and reader, the idea of a book rating system gives me the willies.

What do you guys think? Should there be a content rating system for children's books?


SM Johnston said...

I don't think books should be rated to restrict, but to inform. Even if there's no age rating, content advice would be good for me as a parent to I know if I need to broach any sensitive topics with my son. I usually read the books my son reads anyway. But not all parents are into YA.

If ratings are given by one overarching body, like with movies, then I hope it would be harder for other groups to put harsher ratings on them.

I have no issues with movies being rated, so as long as its advisory only and not actually restrictive I wouldn't have a problem with it.

(FYI - I'm Australian and we have no rating system with books, just category sections in the book stores and libraries)

Heather Kelly said...

I totally agree that "any rating system for books is censorship." And I am a mom. I've actually researched this issue a bit (and then came to my own emotion-based conclusion :)).

I have found that some of the parents who are really motivated to have ratings for books are parents who want the work to be done for them. But even so, who is to say what is appropriate for my child? A rating board who doesn't share my values? Or me?

When the Hunger Games movie came out, I saw the book being passed around by 4th grade girls at our elementary school. One mother approached me, and asked me if I thought it was appropriate. I told her that I loved the books, and that my son in 6th grade read it, but that it might not be as appropriate for her younger daughter. But that she should read it herself before she decided. She decided that she didn't want her child reading it, after she did read it herself.

If that book had a rating on it, then she wouldn't have been as involved in what her child was interested in. She couldn't have had that conversation with her child of why that book wasn't something she wanted her to read right then.

I am the only person in my kids life who will ever restrict them from reading books--based on their maturity level. I don't want them to read a book they aren't emotionally ready for.

But it would be horrible if books were kept out of kids' hands because a power-that-be decided that no child under the age of 10 should read about gay parents. Or some other moral issue, which I want to expose my children to.

We all have different values, and children mature at different rates.
My advice to parents is to read what your children are interested in. You will have more ways to connect with them and just might find a great book.

Katie O'Sullivan said...

I'm against the idea of anyone deciding what is appropriate for my children. That's my job as a parent.

I agree with Heather's statement that "the parents who are really motivated to have ratings for books are parents who want the work done for them."

If you look at the reasons listed on the ALA website that parents ask books to be banned - the majority are banned for mentioning God or Jesus in a disrespectful way. Of Mice and Men was banned in Ireland for many years for just that. That wasn't what the book was about.

Parents need to take responsibility. Read the books you think might be questionable, and decide what age is appropriate for your child - every child is different.

Laura S. said...

Ratings for movies, video games, and TV don't seem to do much. I see little children in rated R movies all the time and know young kids who play M-rated games. Rating books would probably be just as pointless.

I guess it might help some parents who are concerned about some material for their children. Books are most enjoyed when the reader understands it, can relate to the characters, and can get something personal from the story. A kid who isn't yet emotionally and mentally mature for a certain book won't get any of that, and it might turn him or her off to those kinds of books in the future. That would be sad!

When I was kid, my Catholic school didn't ban any books, but there were a bunch of books you weren't allowed to check out unless you had parental permission. I remember I had to bring in a note from my mom to check out "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." I think that's a smart way to go about it instead of completely banning books. Strict parents are satisfied because their kids won't read books they disapprove of, and lenient parents are happy, too, because their kids can read whatever they want. I'd much rather schools and libraries implemented that kind of system rather than banning books or rating them.

Anonymous said...

I think that if parents are concerned about what their kinds are reading, they should read it first themselves. They know what their kids can handle better than others, but I agree that these are usually the parents that want the work done for them.

Just a story: I was in a bookstore (around the time the movie version of the Hunger Games came out) and there was a mother asking one of the employees if her 9 year old would like the book! I'm 19 now and I thought it was violent when I was 16 and started reading them, and still think its violent. Honestly...

Matthew MacNish said...

No. Absolutely not. Nothing should ever be done that could have even the slimmest possibility of discouraging a young person to read.

Konstanz Silverbow said...

Not on the book and not set by a "higher power". I see a lot of book blogs that give the books a rating in their book reviews. Even I did a few times while trying to figure out what worked best for me when putting a review together.

But I think you're right, putting it on the cover is going to affect what is published. And more importantly, what isn't published.

And by those ways, means that the book is going to be changed from what the author made it.

Konstanz Silverbow

Curtis Johnson said...

The concern we've had in our school district is not that some book exists OR that some book doesn't have a rating. The concern is that the teachers, to inform parents, send home a list of required and optional reading at the beginning of the semester with 20 books on the list. As a parent, it's not possible to read 20 books in one week so that you know what your kids will be reading next week in class. In this case, it would be helpful to have some type of rating or something. But I have a concern about censorship as well. Our solution here was to start our own website ( with all of the books used in the high school and list any potentially offensive stuff. If I go to the website and there are 200+ F-words in a 150-page book, I just assume it's not worth reading. I don't think I'm missing out on too much by skipping that book, especially since there are tons of good books for the kids to read, same subject matter, same difficult subjects (sex, drugs, suicide, etc.), but less smut. And it's not just about the parents controlling the kids. Some kids don't want to read smutty stuff either. And there's no way for the kids to know what's in the book until they've read it.

It seems like "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is one of those books that I wouldn't recommend to my 15-yr-old. Case in point: “And the boy kept working up the girl’s shirt, and as much as she said no, he kept working at it….Pretty soon, he took off her bra and started kissing her breasts. And then he put his hands down her pants, and she started moaning…and she grabbed his penis with her hands and started moving it. …After a few minutes, the boy pushed the girl’s head down, and she started to kiss his penis…Finally, she stopped crying because he put his penis in her mouth.” SARCASM ALERT: That's some quality literature. It's important that kids read this so that they understand the real world. They'll never learn to kiss a girl/boy if they don't read this. SARCASM ENDED. This basic scene is recreated approximately every 25 pages or so with variations that throw in homosexuality, drugs, and alcohol, unprotected sex, hitting your girlfriend across the face, abortion, a girl masturbating with a hot dog????, and more potty words. I don't think there's anything wrong with the teachers including a warning about this book like "If you picked a random sentence out of this book and printed it on your T-shirt and wore it to school, you would be asked to go home." or "If you were caught reading something with this content (or depicting similar content) in the school computer lab, you would have computer privileges suspended."

There aren't any easy answers here. People should be free to write and read whatever they want without censorship. By putting an "R" rating on a book, I would miss out on reading some good books by skipping over all of the R-rated books. I think our website created locally is a good compromise. Now there's someplace to go to get some information before you choose the book to read. But nothing's perfect...some kids probably use the site to find a dirty book to read. ???

Jessi L. Roberts said...

I tend to dislike lots of swearing or graphically described romance in books. Because of this, I rarely go to the adult section even though I am an adult. I'm probably missing out on a lot of good books because I'm afraid I'll pick up a bad one. If books had ratings, it would help me find more good books and I'd waste less time reading ones that weren't good.
I think the best thing would be if the ratings were voluntary, set out by the publisher of the book, or maybe the author could ask if they could have their book rated. I know Amanda Hocking has a note on the description of her Hollowland book saying it's for 16 and up then listing why that is. I really appreciated that.
If I got my book published, it wouldn't bother me to have a fair rating on it. I don't want kids reading my book if the parents wouldn't approve and I don't want a really young kid reading my book and being traumatized by all the death.
With ratings, they'd need to be specific, like if the book is R for language, sex, or violence. Some people have a high tolerance for one thing but a low tolerance for another. (Violence has to hit R before it bothers me but if language or romance goes past PG, I'm uncomfortable.)
Also, when it comes to ratings, keep in mind many kids want to sensor what they read. I know many teens who try their best to sensor what they read and also avoid the more "mature" things. Some may want more mature R rated stuff while others would prefer to stick to PG. With voluntary ratings, it might help readers find the books they want and add to the reader's enjoyment, not take away from it.

Mandy P.S. said...

I've wished books were rated since I was ten years old and read a sex scene. It was a book I thought I could trust. (I checked it out from my fifth grade library for goodness sake). In retrospect, it was probably only PG-13 level. But at the time it was horrifying. I was ten. I was in the fifth grade. I didn't want to read that.

And because of it, I almost stopped reading.

Books stopped being safe. I couldn't trust them. Things I had thought were my friends actually weren't. The blurbs on the back wouldn't warn me about strong language, graphic sex, or graphic violence, and I didn't want to read that stuff.

Lucky for me, my uncle got me into Star Wars books, which were (then...I don't know about now) all safe. Very light cursing. Not graphically horribly violent (though there is violence). No sex. And I read Star Wars books exclusively until Harry Potter came out my seventh grade year.

You might argue that it's a parents job to read what their kids read, but my parents had full time jobs and I read three to four books a week in middle school. And I was one of four children. How are they supposed to keep up with that? Tell me to stop reading? Only allow me to read books my older siblings had read? Limit and censor me far worse than a mere rating system?

Granted, things were a lot worse back then because of limited internet and a really tragic Middle Grade section of the bookstore (luckily, Harry Potter changed the latter).

But yes, I wish books were rated. If they had been I wouldn't have picked up A Game of Thrones at age sixteen and been scarred for life by the horrifying levels of sex and violence and violent sex. But how I was I to know? Those books were sold in the same section as The Wheel of Time, which are all fairly PG-13. (That's when I stopped reading books that hadn't been recommended to me by two different sources...and thus vastly limited my reading).

So yes, books should be rated. Because a kid should be able to trust books. Not be scarred for life by them.

Pixie said...

As a parent I have a HUGE issue with ratings. Sure they sound like a good idea.. but in the long run they are censorship.

Reading is based on imagination - everyone sees the book differently. How do you rate imagination?

Guidelines may work but then again everyone image stuffs differently - For instance Hunger Games was flagged for violence(obviously, that is in the book) but it was also labeled sexual explicit - why? I have read/reread that book and there is not one scene I would consider sexually explicit. Where do we draw the line?

Denise Baer said...

I was just talking to someone about this recently. We all need some sort of system to follow, and I'm actually all for rating books. The other industries have it, and it's a way for society to protect children against subject matters that they don't need to know about NOW. It doesn't have to be the same standards as movies.

As an author, you should already know your audience, YA, Adult, etc. so the rating system shouldn't affect your audience that much anyway. It's not censorship. It allows parents to make an educated decision as to what they feel is right for their children. Without reading the book, they don't really know if it's suitable for their child.

My book was written for adults and would probably get an R-rating. There are some adults who probably wouldn't want to read that rating, which is fine. We have our levels, likes and dislikes and we should have the proper information and the freedom to make personal choices.

Mary Aalgaard said...

Alright, as a parent, I do want to know the content of something that seems questionable. Not every book (movie, game, play, etc) is for every person. Age does matter. I called a theatre to ask if about a play that I wanted to bring my son to. It is billed as being for a mature audience. OK, what does that mean for this theatre? I got more specifics when I called. I told my son what those things were. I also asked him, "What would make you uncomfortable to watch/hear with your mom sitting next to you?"

We need to keep the freedom to choose. We also need to use our own brains and ability to research what is out there to view and read. We're not all the same and no one should try to control other people and what they want to read or see.

Angie Smibert said...

Thanks for all the great comments everyone!