metteharrison (metteharrison) wrote,

Book Ratings: An Open Discussion

John: My wife came home yesterday piping mad. I guess she started reading Divergent to the  class, and they were loving it. But then my 14 year old told her that the second book had some objectionable stuff in it, which was of a  nature that meant Nellie wasn't going to be able to offer it in her class. She's finding like 5 books a year that she can use, and the abundant profanity and  mature/objectionable content is really starting to annoy her.

 We talked about it, and we decided that we need is some kind of kids-in-mind like rating service for books. Or some MPAA rating system, as imperfect as that is. This will allow her to easily find
 what she wants. Publishers should voluntarily come up with this to improve their customer service. For example, Scholastic at least labels "mature content" books in their catalogs, which is still very
 general but better than nothing. But even if publishers are idiots and don't see that a huge swath of their customers want this, there should be a service somewhere. I can't imagine Nellie is the only teacher (or school librarian) frustrated with this part of YA. Do you know of any YA
review sites that perform this service?

Me: Everyone in the industry is really pushing back against the idea of a rating
system. Let me see if I can explain why.

A friend of mine, wrote a book recently that has a homosexual character in it. It's a soft, quite, sad, moving book. And it would be part of the "rating" system and banned from a bunch of schools in Utah.
So would her book about teenage pregnancy. Also beautifully written, kind, compassionate. But it would get tagged by schools as "inappropriate." Schools here in Utah say that teachers are not allowed to "promote" homosexuality or anything other than abstinence. I think this actually means they can't
normalize homosexuality or teen sexuality. But who decides where the line is? I think it's a tricky call, and I don't want some rating system to do it for me or my kids. But you can bet that teachers afraid
for their jobs are going to steer clear of anything that remotely resembles something they
might be challenged on.

I don't see any way to have a system that distinguishes between books that I see as anchors to kids who need help and those books which I see as genuinely offensive and encouraging bad teen behavior by glorifying it. The only system I know is me recommending the best books I see. And I'd much
rather see librarians and school teachers go through books on a case by case basis, deciding whether they personally think it fits the values in their community than to have someone else not attached to the community do the same thing.

As for the industry push back, it reveals a bit of arrogance, I think. And a lack of imagination :) And it suggests their true concern is sales.

Here's what I mean by lack of imagination. Look at the kids in mind rating system. It rates movies 1-10 on sex, violence, and profanity. There's no age stipulation. No children under 13 not admitted. No recommended range for this or that group. No good or bad. It just rates the content and gives it a
number. You as the user determine what level you're comfortable with and then find the movies that fit. I'm a 4-10-4 on sex, violence, and profanity. That's not good or bad, just what is. If they were to use something similar, every librarian could peg the levels they wanted in their school and be
done. Write about homosexuality, rape, whatever. You can write a story about those themes that scores low on explicit sex and profanity.

Here's more on their lack of imagination. If librarians wanted to know about books with special themes, or strong themes, or sensitive themes, then flag them. Just give them the information. Homosexuality, rape, etc.

Here's where they show their arrogance. They seem to think librarians are mindless idiots. If a librarian is tuned into the needs of her community but thinks homosexuality would be important, should could search on that sensitive theme and her svp ratings. Problem solved.

Here's where they show their arrogance again. Who are they to override parents? Someone in an office in NY city knows what's best for my child? It's true that being a parent doesn't mean anything goes. Just because you're a parent that doesn't mean you can beat, pimp, or starve your child. But we're not talking about that. This holier than thou attitude is a bunch of nonsense. They've got a book they want to sell. That's it. And they don't give a damn about what a parent thinks. If they did, and they realio trulio cared about the topic, then they'd publish a book on it that the majority of parents and school districts would be comfortable with.

You can see I think the industry's stance is a crock. Sounds to me like the issue is money. And a disregard for their customer.


I think I will still have to disagree with you. Perhaps there is some arrogance involved.

Two comments:

1) When I was a kid I read lots of stuff my parents would have disallowed, if they'd had any idea what I was reading. I loved the freedom that gave me. They wouldn't let me watch TV shows I wanted, but they didn't screen the voracious number of books I read. Since they never bothered to tell me anything about sex AT ALL, I have to say that I was glad to find out at least something from the books I read secretly. I read many of the books my kids read, but not all of them. I assume this is good for them, on both ends.

2) If you don't watch the ridiculous lists of banned children's books that come out every year, you may not realize what happens when people get it into their heads that the "language" or "content" of certain books is objectionable. Huckleberry Finn is banned constantly because of the ironic use of the "n" word. I still remember trying to explain to a friend of mine why Shakespeare's plays were worth watching, even though they had "dirty words" in them. And thinking that if only people understood what Shakespeare was saying most of the time, they would probably ban him a lot more often.

I tend not to trust book banners as good readers of content. And I suppose that makes me sound pretty arrogant, too. I'd prefer readers to be in charge of decisions about a book's value, and I have no problem with people creating sites where they share information about books. You think I should be doing this myself as a writer, or that my publisher should be doing it for me, but I hate what has happened to the movie industry, where the creators purposely add or subtract content because of a particular target audience. I don't want other people to decide what should go into books. I hate that The King's Speech, for instance, got an "R" rating when it was the best movie that year for families. I also hate that Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the most offensive and immoral movie I have possibly seen in my life, gets a PG rating. Judging books on a checklist of content ends up with superficial judgments.


It’s not superficial. It’s just how people make choices. You want food, you make choices based on cuisine type—Thai, Italian, etc. It’s just one piece of data that goes into the decision. And people are already using it. It’s just that publishers are making it hard to find.

As for sneaking books in under parent’s noses. Mette, is this really what’s this is about? Then we should put porn in Little House on the Prairie covers. Start a clandestine defy your parent program. A book underground. Come on. This is a business. It’s about servicing the customer. If you think some book needs to be sneaked into kids hands, then start movement. But if you want to sell books make it easy for the customer to find and buy.

You can see John's final ideas here:

I don't know if it's cynical of me or arrogant, but this is what I see happening as soon as a rating system is agreed upon and systematized:

My local school board decides that any books with a homosexual theme are immediately banned from all school libraries across the board. Ditto any book that has any rating above a "5" on any of the three areas John suggests. I don't want that to happen. I want people to at least try a book out before they decide whether or not it offends them. I also want kids to be able to read books in libraries and schools that they choose for themselves.

You can see that he and I are both very passionate about our opposing points of view, but we are trying to be reasonable and respectful to each other. Hopefully this will inspire others likewise.

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