Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sex, Language & Violence in YA

Exploration of a Potential Rating System

Sometimes when I’m reading a YA book, I think: “Is this really appropriate for 13 year olds?” Most of the novels I read are appropriate for the older teen crowd, but sometimes I wonder about those just-out-of-middle-school kids who pick up the same book, and how they will respond to its content.   

It’s important to be true to the teenage experience. In today’s society, this experience can mean a variety of cuss words, sexual experiences and underage drinking.  Teens can make bad, controversial and even dangerous decisions because well, they’re teens. They are testing out the world, and the people they want to be.

Authors should be true to the teenage experience. But, some readers may not be ready to read all those experiences. So, how should parents and teens know what’s appropriate for them to read? Well, there’s been talk of a rating system, which would not be dissimilar to the MPAA (movie) ratings system. 

Although I believe that the idea of a rating system has good intentions in terms of informing parents what is appropriate for their teenage children, I fear the effects for the actual teens. A ratings system can be stark and inflexible. Instead of reviewing the book description to see if the book has potential educational purposes or a positive message, parents and teens might rely on the ratings system, and automatically discount anything that doesn’t meet their standards. I believe that reading the description, spoiler-free reviews and even skimming the first chapter are important qualifiers for if a book goes home with me.

Also, what would the perimeters of this rating system be? Is sex more offensive than language? Would the rating jump with each base (first, second, all the way) the character travels? And not all drug/alcohol references are the same (think marijuana vs. heroin or beer vs. absinthe). Can you rate violence in the written word? The MPAA Ratings board has been in place for decades, and has seen its share of controversy. It would take years to establish a similar system for use in the publishing industry, and it would be considerably more difficult.

I prefer to leave the selection of YA books to the teens that read them. However I understand that some parents like to have a hand in the selection. If a parent needs to provide approval to their young teen (or the occasional older teen) then I would advocate a parent touching the book, reading the book description or even reading the whole thing before their teen. No time or interest? Then at least check out Common Sense Media, a website that gives ratings but also descriptions, reasons and rating categories to help parents and teen select age-appropriate books.

In the end, I defer to personal experience. I read Judy Blume, Harry Potter, books with language and the occasional sex scene during my adolescent years. And I turned out just fine, if I do say so myself.


  1. I read like crazy as a young teen, and I also ran into subject matter that probably would have been more appropriate at a later age. I agree, though, that generic ratings (like G, PG, PG-13 etc.) don't help much when it comes to deciding what book (or movie) is appropriate for what child.

    As a parent, I definitely plan to watch what my kids are reading, either by reading the books first or researching them, but I think something like Common Sense Media would be more helpful. It sounds like the Parent's Guide on IMDB--they list every possible item of content that a parent might be concerned about. Then I, as the parent, can scan through them and decided what, for myself, is no problem, what is okay though I'll want to discuss it with my child, and what is better left for when they are older. That set-up for books would be informative and useful without trying to assign degrees of morality in a world where many people have different feelings about what is appropriate and what isn't.

  2. I agree. When I stumbled onto Common Sense Media I was impressed by its detail. A rating system wouldn't go far enough to thoroughly assist parents. Also, I like the idea of discussing questionable content with children or teens before they read the book. That's something I hadn't considered!