Tuesday, May 22, 2012

on rating ya books for mature content

Now that Carson's 13, I can officially claim to be raising my second batch of teenager(s), and, consequently, I'm feeling a little cocky and veteran-like. On the soccer sidelines, when moms going through it the first time wring their hands about homework and curfew and first-person-shooter games, I'm the old hag, er, sage, wistfully gazing off in the middle distance before spouting off my advice.

And now that I seem to be writing for teenagers as well as raising them, my opinions are not merely confined to the sidelines. Especially when it comes to articles like this one, in US News, regarding rating YA books for mature content.

Yep, a rant is coming.

We love numbers in this country. Love them. Scales, rankings, acronyms, all these shortcuts that are supposed to seamlessly quantify our potential experience. Whether it's the level of spice in our salsa or the amount of lycra in our Spandex, we want to have some third party to translate our expectations before we fork over the dough.

But here's the thing. Saucy, juicy edgy young adult books are largely passed from kid to kid via word of mouth. It's always been that way. When I was in 7th grade, Judy Blume's Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret was the cutting edge adult subject matter book that made the underground circuit. And, it was at the center of controversy -- yanked off shelves and banned from schools. But still, all the twelve and thirteen-year-old girls I knew found a way to read it. Putting a number that connotes "mature content" on a young adult book will be like locking a hungry bear in a room with a platter of salmon. So, there's that.

The other thing, the more egregious piece of this cloaked move towards censorship, is that it's one more feather in the cap of the freaked out helicopter parent brigade who believe that the secret to keeping their children pure and sweet is to erect barriers to their curiosity rather than meeting it.

I'm not advocating taking your grade-schooler to a sexy, violent R-rated film, but I am all for encouraging conversation surrounding adult themes when it's clear that your child's radar is tuned to them. If I thought slapping a number on a young adult book would encourage a proactive approach to those parent-child conversations, I would be for it. Clearly, though, this is about categorizing books in terms of the number of "fucks" or "blowjobs" that appear on the page, and will amount to the usual parental avoidance regarding uncomfortable subject matter--and, worse yet, will be one more invitation to publishers to make editorial suggestions based upon abstract marketing decisions.

Any thoughts?


  1. Anonymous7:30 PM

    Such great points.
    I always thought I'd be more like that until my oldest. I'm so torn between my dyed-in-the-wool belief in freedom of bookreading (is that Amendment 4 or 5?), but some of the subject matter is just too much for sensitive kids. I don't have a problem with language at all, but especially with a circumspect kid, I worry that she won't have the tools to process the info and won't ask. Therein lies my dilemma. Nothing freaks me out more than a group of god-knows-who getting together and rating books, yet I'd love a clue as to what's in it without having to read every single book out there before her. Plus, I don't want her to feel I'm censoring her, yes? I mean, I was reading Stephen Kind and Danielle Steele at her age. But I was such a different kid.
    We've worked it out now because some of the more adult YA (I'd put them at 15 and up for a kid like her) she's read and put down herself because she was frightened by the subject matter, paranormal, etc. I could care less about the sex, it's just the violence that I don't want to subject her to until she deems she's ready.
    What's a mom to do?

  2. Lyra! Thanks for your honest and thoughtful comment.

    The thing is, you know your child, and you're best equipped to help her choose books that speak to her and meet her particular interests and enthusiasm, and it sounds like she's self-sensoring, which is, at the end of the day, the "wings" part of "roots and wings" so -- good job, mom.

    The thing about blanket ranking that most rankles me, is it tries to apply an across-the-board categorical statement to a range of possibilities. What is mature subject matter, exactly? Is it the word "fuck"? Is it a sex scene? A kissing scene? A kissing scene with tongue? First base, third base? Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it War? Is it prostitution? Is it Cinderella's stepmother whipping her with a broom? Is it Der Struwwelpeter -- where a boy's fingers are snapped off by a tailor when he sucks his thumb?

    When I was 13, I liked nothing better than to pull one of my Dad's Playboys off the stack behind the toilet. I loved reading the interviews with the Playmate of the Month, in particular, I was intrigued to know what these women considered "pet peeves." My second favorite books were his medical anomalies reference texts that I'd steal from his office. There were descriptions and pictures of testicular elephantitis and women with 3 breasts. Precocious kids will find inappropriate material regardless. Kids who aren't ready to push those envelopes will choose to read tamer books, or skip the parts that gross them out. That's the beauty of the written word. It cannot proceed without a reader.

    1. "That's the beauty of the written word. It cannot proceed without a reader."

      Yes. When my children were small I worried endlessly about this sort of thing. And I still believe in attempting to give kids a childhood – not the easiest thing in Vegas, with every other billboard advertising a strip club or raunchy topless revue. But in spite of the environment, all three of my kids are very steady, slow to leap into sexuality, easygoing. I think it's because we've let them find their own way into the world, by keeping adult topics within reach but not in their faces. Books are perfect for that. They only read what they're ready for.

  3. during a sleepover at my next door neighbor/best friend's house during the fifth grade, we stayed up ALL night reading Flowers in the Attic with a flashlight after her mom had went to bed.

    it still may be one of my most favorite books and i haven't read it in decades. just writing about it brings back the feeling i got reading such taboo material. at that time in my life as a reader it was...awe-inspiring. i couldn't believe someone could write such things---put stuff like that out into the world. i wasn't scared by the content, i felt excited by the idea that such stories even existed. ("what else was out there!?")

    i love the idea of pushing boundaries. opening new worlds up to young adults through reading.

    i like to believe that it's not music, books and art that corrupts our children, but misguided and uninformed adults. of course, my daughter's still reading Junie B. Jones, so what do I know. (very little)

  4. Flowers in the Attic! VC Andrews, right? Omg. Been there with those friends and that flashlight. God. Makes me goosebumpy with nostalgia.

  5. Any thoughts? Thousands!! The whole banning of books and some "entity" thinking they need to control books by a numbers game is so ridiculous, I always wonder how it even comes up for conversation. Do these people not have other things to do?

    Not only will all of the kids figure out how to read these books, even MORE of them will read it because it's forbidden. I mean, come on. Were none of these grown-ups ever kids themselves???

    In my days, I remember GO ASK ALICE as my first forbidden, and then it was the V.C. Andrews books, which I absolutely devoured. But I was also: age 11, sneaking into Uncle Joe's room and spending time with his Playboys and Hustlers --- I loved those Honey Hooker cartoons! And by 13 I was reading my mother's Betty Friedan books. So I was pretty much a lost cause.

    1. Oh my God. Remember Marilyn French and her "The Women's Room"? And Jacqueline Susann? And all those Playboy Party Jokes with the bonered-up Santa chasing the booby secretary around the desk?

      And we ask ourselves why the Grey books are selling like rubbers at high school dance. Jesus.

      C'mon Bracelet Girls. Let's get busy!

    2. Marilyn French's The Women's Room is that book for me. The first time I read it was in high school. That and Erica Jong's The Fear of Flying. I read them both in the same summer between 9th and 10th grade and knew I wanted to be a writer before I read them, but they showed me the type of writer I wanted to be.
      I have pictures of both women framed on my bookshelves. Have you read Erica's Seducing the Demon-Writing for my Life? I loved it (and now think I may go get it off my bookshelf and read it again.)

      (and yep, VC Andrews...I can still remember the book club edition hardback we had sneaked into her room. Black jacket cover with the green vine and the attic window with the two haunting child faces.)

  6. I can't support a rating like that. For all the reasons everyone has already covered, I think it's better to leave those kinds of decisions up to the parent and the child. We were always more concerned about violence than sex when it came to what we allowed our children to access.

    I was one of those kids who looked for the titillating books and other material. I also had the benefit of an older sister who had books like My Darling, My Hamburger and a couple of books published by National Lampoon that were full of "questionable" material.

    However, since my father's taste in porn leaned more toward the raunchy and we knew where he hid it, I was just as likely to read Penthouse Forum as I was to read a Sidney Sheldon novel when I was 12.

    That probably explains a lot.

    1. What is it about us bracelet girls and the father-porn connection? Wait. Don't answer that.


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