A recent study poked the slumbering YA giant by evaluating the instances of profanity in 40 top selling children’s books and calling for a rating system in order to help parents make selections for their children. (You can read the BYU press release here.) Needless to say this suggestion has been greeted with the usual eyeroll and a ‘here we go again’ sentiment, an attitude that falls between “Why are people trying to outsource the duties of parents to determine suitability of what they read?” and “As children progress differently in terms of maturity and reading ability, what is the rubric that could possibly be used to determine age appropriateness?” In this era of the overscheduled child, the parents of said child don’t have the time either to evaluate anything but rely n blurbs and reviews of packaged products that outline all pros and cons. Even then, I’m certain there would be the usual headaches from people complaining that their child was reading something too advanced or being denied reading something that the parents feel they are mature enough to handle. If the people who want ratings systems really meant it, they’d offer to answer the complaint calls.
I got my hands on a copy of the study in question, but in reading through it there are still a couple of questions regarding some of the choices made in the study.
- Why was the date range of June 22nd to July 6th, 2008 chosen? Was this a random determination or a targeted date range?
- Where the profane words simply counted as they appeared? Was there any notations taken regarding the context in which they appeared? (I see that rich, attractive, and popular characters were noted as swearing more, but not the situations in which the swears appear.)
As the study itself indicates, it simply covers the use of profanity. No sex, no drugs, and no other situations or topics that make some adults uncomfortable are covered. It does leave a lot out in terms of the overall content of YA book which would play into any rating system scheme. Personally, I thought the most fascinating line in this article came from the conclusion:
“We are not advocating that book covers be required to contain content warnings regarding profanity. We understand that providing content warnings on books represents a very hot debate, and that inclusion of such warnings is extremely controversial.”
Given what Dr. Coyne has told the media, she appears to be diverging from the written conclusion made in the paper. I’d be curious as to how the language was agreed upon with her fellow co-authors, but I guess the question is really moot.
If people like Dr. Coyne backed away from an age based rating system, they would have a better and more dangerous argument in favor of content labeling systems. Rather than say that this book is for a particular age, it would give a rundown about what potentially objectionable content exists in the book. Movies, television, music, and video games have taken it upon themselves to offer this kind of labeling on their products. Yes, the movie rating system is ancient and archaic; the television one is a bit more specific in labeling yet still limited; music is a binary labeling (it either has explicit lyrics or it doesn’t without saying what those lyrics are explicit about); and the video game is extremely detailed in terms of content but still tries to box games into a small number of ratings. These are entertainment industries that have opted to self-police rather than deal with government intervention or interference; it logically leads to the question, “If these people can do it, why not books?”
In answering the idea of book labeling, I found YALSA Executive Director Beth Yoke’s answer a bit unfortunate: "ALA’s interpretation on any rating system for books is that it’s censorship." I say unfortunate because I think there is a better counterpoint to make that hones in on the actual effect of a label system and that is this: putting age or content labels on books is equivalent to putting bulls eyes on books. Rather than read and evaluate a book on its merits and context, such labels would be a short cut for people who want to challenge any book that contains content that they find distasteful. It removes the individual responsibility for personal conduct and places it in a rating system that may or may not be universally objective. In addition it moves judgment from the content level to the book spine label, providing the instant outrage when someone happens upon a book that is rated 17 and older in a high school library (what if a 15 year old found it?) or a book that has sexual situations in the YA area at the public library (think of the children!). And yes, it would lead to people deciding against the purchase of certain books because of specific content labeling. Either there is some internal staff rationale presented or they simply don’t want to fight people about the contents on their shelf. In either event, the label would prove to be a barrier to purchase.
Personally, I do find book labeling to be odious and unwelcome, a concept that would become a circus sideshow and a distraction to many libraries and librarians. But my pragmatic side tells me that any labeling system should originate from librarians to do the self-policing, not publishers, retailers, or the government. If the social and political winds were to change in that direction, librarians better have a damn good labeling solution to put forth rather than simply intensifying resistance. At such a point we might not be able to control the outcome but we ought to retain control over the implementation. In the meantime, one study is not enough to change the whole scheme of things. It’s the studies in the future that we have to be mindful.