Should Young Adult (YA) books be given movie-style ratings?
Yes, according to Dr Sarah Coyne, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, who is one of four authors of an academic journal article published on May 18th, detailing the prevalence of swearwords in YA books.
As for who the ratings would be designed for, Coyne explained to US News and World Report, "a content warning on the back I think would empower parents."
For what might parents need empowering? Buying a book containing words or actions that they don't approve of, perhaps.
"Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books," wrote Meghan Cox Gurdon in a hotly disputed WSJ article in June last year.
I'm not a parent, but I can understand the desire to model certain forms of behavior, and to shield particularly young teens from certain kinds of content. I'm not sure it'll ever work, but I can understand the parental desire.
As Charles Wheelan wrote, in an article adapted from his new book 10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said:
"Your parents don't want what is best for you. They want what is good for you, which isn't always the same thing. There is a natural instinct to protect our children from risk and discomfort, and therefore to urge safe choices."
That aside, is the idea of a ratings system so crazy? After all, don't we (or at least a self-appointed cabal of parents) rate movies for their suitability for different age groups?
There are a few major differences between the two media, and their histories.
Firstly, our brain processes visuals in a more direct manner than through the mediation of written language. Though their comparative impact has yet to be closely studied, there does seem to be a significant difference how they are processed and understood. (Not that this is the MPAA's argument for movie ratings.)
Secondly, perhaps most importantly, movies were seen as worthy of rating and censoring because, in the patronizing words of the Hays Code of 1930, the first nationally agreed form of self censorship for the movie industry,
"The exhibitors' theatres are built for the masses, for the cultivated and the rude, the mature and the immature, the self-respecting and the criminal. Films, unlike books and music, can with difficulty be confined to certain selected groups."
What later emerged from this code was the MPAA Ratings board, which defines its mission today as "to inform parents about the content of films."
Print hasn't always escaped the notice of concerned parents. Following general outrage and city ordinances against certain comic books read primarily by teenage boys in the early 1950s, comic books adopted their own now-risible code of conduct in 1954, called the Comics Code.
Lest we forget,
"Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered. A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for moral distortion,"Holy preposition followed by a noun, Batman!
and for that matter,
"Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and wherever possible good grammar shall be employed."
The result? The mainstream became anodyne enough to satisfy advertisers and the courts, while underground comics grew and thrived.
According to an article on CNN.com, comic books and their authors were spoken of in similar, albeit slightly more dramatic terms, to those accusations made against "corrupting" or "perverse" YA books today.
With the benefit of hindsight, the introduction of such codes and regulations look like little more than thinly veiled paternalism and self-censorship, stirred up through melodrama and hyperbole to satisfy prudish religious figures and conservative politicians.
In an internet age, not to mention a country in which the first amendment is so highly prized, it seems doubtful that a new restrictive code either should or could ever be applied to books of any kind.
But that isn't to say that some form of guidance about content wouldn't be useful for parents, and teen readers alike.
For that, I recommend turning to Common Sense Media. Others exist in the field, but this non-partisan group seems to offer the most sensible, free advice about the content of books, as well as movies, videogames, apps, TV and more. (Disclosure: Common Sense Media distributes some of its free content via The Huffington Post and its parent company, AOL, among many other media outlets.)
Though I'm a little doubtful about its "Quality" rating and criticism, it provides what seems to be calm and sensible guidance regarding material and its content, evaluated -- most crucially, and unlike the study referenced at the top of this article -- in the context of the narrative presented.
For example, the report for Lauren Myracle's l8r g8r, one of the most banned and challenged books of last year, says that "young adult readers who are ready for the mature content will find a decent beach read about three very close, caring, and unique friends."
The website's reviewer gives her own guidance for recommended age limits for the book (14 year olds might be ok, while the average 15 year old won't have any issues with the content), and both parents and young readers get to write their own reviews as well (on average, parents recommend a 14-year-old threshold, while teenagers say it's fine for 13 year olds - which could well both be true, and more than most parents want to know.)
The Common Sense reports contain few plot spoilers, and are surprisingly free of hyperbole. And although the site is designed for adults, in fact young readers will probably find it an incredibly useful weapon in the battle to calm their over-reacting parents who fear for the poor, delicate eyes of their baby.
Rather than mandatory ratings, a visit to Common Sense should be enough; perhaps bookstores and libraries in particularly concerned neighborhoods, rather than refusing to stock books suitable for older teens, could print out relevant sections from the site to make available next to their shelves.
Ratings of a kind then, but regularly updated, in context, and taken as guidance rather than mandate. After all, an NC-17 rating on any book would demand far more questions than answers.