X-Rated: Should YA Books Have a Rating System?

AtoZBadge-LetterXEarlier this month I wrote a post called “Dropping the F-Bomb in YA Lit” and cited a study done by Brigham Young University that counted the number of swear words in bestselling YA novels. The results? There is cursing in most YA books. This sparked outrage from some and a nod to reality from others. But this study didn’t just start a conversation about profanity, it trotted out the debate about whether or not teen books should have a ratings system.

An article in the US News asked the question: “Is It Time To Rate Young Adult Books for Mature Content?” What struck me about this article, and all the other articles and blogs that chimed in on the topic, is how they all use the words “children” or “kids” to refer to readers of YA. I want to correct them: it’s “Young ADULT” not “Older Kid” books. Teenagers are no longer children.

Even parents who encourage discussion about sex and drugs and other activities teenagers are curious about have a hard time seeing their offspring as young adults. It’s not that parents forget what they were like as teenagers, it’s that they fail to see that their child has crossed into young adulthood. And perhaps they do forget how soon that happens.

I hit puberty at the pretty average age of twelve. I wasn’t even officially a teenager, but it marked the start of me asserting my adultness (albeit behind my parents’ backs) by swearing like a sailor, being curious about drugs and alcohol, and thinking constantly about sex (long before I was actually doing it). Why? Because I was growing up and I wanted to know how to be an adult. It’s that simple. Rating, censoring or outright banning books is never going to stop or delay a child’s metamorphosis to adulthood. In fact, I’d argue that not letting them read “mature content” books is more harmful.

There wasn’t such a thing as YA books when I was a teenager, and I had to learn about sex and drugs and violence by reading adult books like PET SEMATARY and FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC. Not only did I emerge unscarred, I did not imitate anything I read. I repeat: I did not imitate the mature content in these novels.

I emphasize that point because it seems as if this is the main worry re swearing/sex/drugs in YA lit, as if teenagers would never think to engage in such behavior if they didn’t learn about it in a book. I wager it’s the opposite – teens already know about these things and want to know more. YA books are a safe way to learn, and teens will learn somehow – better to find out meth can ruin your life by reading CRANK than by doing meth in real life.

Still, what’s the harm in rating these books “mature content”? Well, that label would limit a lot of books to older teens when younger readers may need to read these books even more. After all, drug dealers don’t ID.

In conclusion, YA novels are a safe place to explore mature topics such as sex, drugs, violence and abuse. Restricting some books via a rating system won’t protect teenagers from these things, and may in fact do more harm by preventing younger teens from accessing information that could help them deal with these issues.

But what about the swearing? At least put a warning sticker on books that have swearing! Fine, but just so you know, that’s only going to encourage the “kids” to read them.


Next Up on the A to Z Challenge… Robin with “Y” and the “Yeti Inside My Head”

Next up from Heather… I haven’t written about Writing Craft in a while, so I’ll do something on dialogue or conflict or just finally writing!


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Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

12 thoughts on “X-Rated: Should YA Books Have a Rating System?”

  1. I love this post. It raises so many really important questions. I have to say that while in many ways I agree with you, I also I have mixed feelings.

    There is so much content out there for teens to read, the quality of that content really varies. Just because a book contains swearing or sex doesn’t mean that that book is bad for teens. Think of the book Eleanor and Park. It had a lot of swearing, the f-work on every page, I think, and yet that book is one that I would definitely recommend to teens. It’s the kind of book that teaches kids about the harsh reality that some adolescents have to endure, how they get through it, and what their friends can do to help. I also think of the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Another great book. Yes, it dealt with some harsh topics, but again, it helps kids make sense of the world. I love the books by Sarah Dessen. They contain realistic characters–maybe some swearing, maybe some making out, but they contain teens that are realistic and, again, these books help teens make sense of a complicated world.

    Now compare those books to John Green’s Looking for Alaska. I know that Looking for Alaska is a best-seller, but I don’t like it. I felt like the book was glorifying swearing, drinking, and sex in a way that the book was telling teens, “hey, this is what normal cool kids do.” The book didn’t really present the consequences of such actions (the root of Alaska’s problems was her mom dying while she was a child not her reckless behavior as a teen). If I had a teenage child, I wouldn’t really want him reading that book. I don’t know that I would forbid it . . . but I wouldn’t be heartbroken if he read other things instead.

    I think the key idea here is that parents need to be involved in their children’s lives. They need to be talking about the ideas teens bring home from school and the ideas they get from in books. Too many parents don’t bother. I don’t know that YA books need a rating system, but parents do need to pay attention to what their kids are reading and keep up with reviews or follow websites that can give them an idea of the content . . . and not be afraid to talk to them about it.

    I agree with you that just because a teen reads something in a book doesn’t mean he will go act it out in real life. But I disagree with your statement that teens are little adults. As a former middle and high school teacher, I can assure you that teenagers really are still kids. You would be amazed at some of the flippant decisions teens make that end up affecting them for the rest of their lives. Not all of them, I know, but many. This is especially true of their on-line behavior. We’ve had parents in the school office in tears, discovering the content their innocent, responsible daughters were posting online. I’d consider them kids until they are able to understand long-term consequences of their actions and make their choices in a way in which they care more about what is “right” than what would make them look “cool” at the present time. It happens at different times for different kids, but I’d say most teens are still kids.

  2. I think standards have changed a lot since we were that age. I’m still surprised by the content of popular music nowadays, and frankly, I find it a bit silly to hear swear words bleeped out of songs containing other highly graphic content. “Kids” already know this stuff exists – and if they’re going to be exposed to more “adult” material, I’d just as soon they get it from reading.

  3. Great post Heather – and it’s true – my daughter is now officially a teen and knows more than i ever did at her age. I had to rely on Harlequin Romances (Millis and Boons at the time) for my intro into adulthood 🙂

  4. Great post. I recently participated in World Book NIght and gave away 25 YA books. You can imagine my surprise when my 11yr old granddaughter told me there was a fresh mouth kid in the story who kept using the “F” word. She knew the language was wrong and that there are too many kids using those words. We didn’t take the book away. I agree a warning would have been helpful. Not everyone would let their child continue reading the book. I’m hoping not to hear back from other recipients of the book.

    1. I agree having a dialogue about those words instead of pretending they don’t exist or banning them from the reading material is a good approach. And the story is what’s paramount! Hope your daughter enjoyed it. And World Book Night sounds amazing! I’m going to see if they have one of those in my area.

  5. L-O-V-E your post, Heather, and I can feel my blood racing. As as high school teacher, assistant principal, and mother of two teenage boys for a number of years, I am passionately in your corner. I’ve ALWAYS given “kids” credit for being able to know the right thing to do, whether they were in my classroom, in my office, or at my kitchen table. And I’ve never been disappointed in them. I think empowering teens to make their own decisions is vital, and they’ll never become healthy, functioning adults if they can’t experiment in their younger years. Why are we so afraid for them? I don’t get it.

    1. Caryn, your sons and students were lucky to have you! When you’re a teenager, it’s such a good feeling to have an adult actually trust you, and I think leads to better decisions because of that trust.

  6. Heather, I am unalterably opposed to ratings which (IMHO) is shorthand for censorship. People cannot control the thinking nor the actions of young people who quite naturally explore their world. Rather, the answer is communication and dialogue. Surprisingly for the times (late 1950’s) my mother let me read anything I had an interest in. Her only restriction was that I ask her if I had questions. She brought together a group of my girlfriends and, medical book at hand, answered the questions we all had (since some moms wouldn’t discuss the body or sex). I have been grateful my whole life that nothing was taboo. I grew up without body hang-ups and I think I am mentally healthier for that. Nothing in YA or NA books isn’t already out there in some other form. Let’s talk about the issues instead of pretending they aren’t there.

  7. Yeah, I got my sex eduction from Harlequin paperbacks when I was 11 (I read my mom’s when she wasn’t looking, lol), and I was reading Stephen King/Dean Koontz by age 12. I survived relatively unscathed from the exposure 🙂

    However, as a mom myself now, I do go back and forth about this-my oldest is 9 and she hates reading, so I’m open to whatever I can get her interested in right now. She likes graphic novels and is currently reading Coraline, which isn’t really a children’s book (it’s labeled YA horror mostly). It’s hard to find that balance between encouraging reading and giving kid’s and teens the freedom to explore literature, and the desire to protect them from certain ideas/realities, as long as possible.

    Good post for the letter ‘X’!

    1. Aw, yes, my mom had a bunch of Harlequin paperbacks lying around too, but she actually let me read them! She even gave me permission to read Flowers in the Attic. At the time I found this incredulous because my family was fairly religious (no sex before marriage), but perhaps she thought reading was a good way to satiate my curiosity.

      Hope your daughter enjoys Coraline. I absolutely loved creepy horror stories as a kid.

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