Monday, 26 September 2011

Should YA come with a warning label?

I visited Waterstone's this week (for non-UKers, Waterstone's is the main bookselling chain over here - in fact, just about the only, since Borders and some others closed down). Browsing in the YA section, as I always do, I saw that some books had huge purple stickers on them that read: "Not suitable for younger readers".

As an adult, child-free reader of YA, I admit my first thought was "Oh, great. Another bloody sticker that I have to try to remove without damaging the cover." Then I became curious about which books were deemed worthy of a sticker. I found 2: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma and Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace. For those of you who don't know, Forbidden is about incest between a brother and sister and Out of Shadows, the friendship between a white boy and a black boy growing up in 1980's Zimbabwe (Not a, uh, fun place to be. Pretty much every review describes this book as "harrowing"). 

So the question this necessary? I can't help but think, well, Forbidden has a synopsis on the back which clearly states it's about a brother and sister falling in love. Any parent who wants to protect their child from a book about incest, only has to put in 60 seconds of investigation. Do they really need a huge, glaring sign, too? I think a "Not Suitable" sticker of that size (and it was really big; I wish I'd had my camera so I could show you) is almost like a scarlet letter - proclaiming a book as 'bad'. Parents might be more likely to immediately stay away, envisioning a book filled with drug-taking and orgies, when perhaps their child would be mature enough and benefit from reading a sensitive take on a difficult subject matter. Not only that, for kids it's like a big neon arrow telling them that if they're looking for sex and violence, come on over here! I don't see the sticker putting teens off, but I do imagine it causing them to hide their reading from their parents.

In an ideal world, parents and kids would choose books together and parents would decide for themselves which books are suitable for their child. However, I completely understand that the demands of the modern world make this very difficult. I'm exhausted every day from working a full-time job; I cannot even imagine how it is to go home after and not relax, but look after children. It's often suggested that parents should read books before their kids do, but for many, there are just not enough hours in the day to do that. So I can see how a labelling system like this makes it quick and convenient for parents to avoid certain books and make safer choices.

I think for me it ultimately comes down to: Who should be the one making these choices and do I trust their judgment to do so? A perusal of the internet revealed that the first book Waterstone's put this sticker on was Jacqueline Wilson's Kiss in 2007. Because it featured a gay kiss. So, um, yeah, that's a problem. I'm sure I don't have to describe what kind of message it sends to gay teens, to have their kisses branded with a warning, when heterosexual kisses are not. Forgive me if it makes me give the side-eye to these kind of labels.

I understand this is an issue that can be discussed forever and has so many different factors in it that I haven't addressed, because if I did, I'd be here all day. Such as: Movies have age certificates, why shouldn't books? And how many people pay attention to these labels, anyway? Still, I was prompted by this particular warning sticker and I would be interested in hearing anyone's thoughts on the matter.

So YA with warning labels? Yay or nay?


  1. I suppose since they already have labels like that for movies, video games, and music - that it makes sense to have it on books too. I am a parent (of a 14 year old boy) and am aware of what he reads/watches/plays/listens-to, but often times I feel like the only parent that does so. So - I'm not against the label, but would love to know if it's the bookstore that is making that determination since I haven't seen stickers on any books we've purchased.

  2. Wow, not suitable stickers. You are right, I think that it attracts more kids than it pushes away. They WILL be sneak reading those types of books instead of being honest with their parents about what they're reading. (I'm actually posting an article about this aspect on Wednesday, lol--Great minds think alike again!!)

    Even though I discuss the varying rating levels on my blog post, I actually think that the "Not suitable for younger readers" sticker is kind of a good idea. It might help out a parent a little bit if they're looking for some books for their children. Of course, it only works as long as the people behind the choosing of whether the sticker belongs on there have good judgement.

    What I think is ironic is that the title Forbidden should be a warning label enough. Lol.

    Great post! :D

  3. Well, I see the pluses and minuses, but I'd rather not have them. I'm a parent and I'll try to filter age appropriate reads for my daughter to an extent I think, but not much. My parents never cared what I read and I learned a lot through books. You can learn so much through books. Not just about kissing, sex or boys, but about adversity, suffering through tough times, acceptance, etc. It gives you a chance to step into someone else's shoes. And that sort of information is valuable. It can give an important perspective!

    It literally disgusts me that they'd put a label on something that has a kiss between people of the same sex. It just doesn't make any sense.

  4. Wow TG, I've never seen or heard of these stickers. Your post was a bit of a wake-up call to me. I feel like you said, that parents should take the time (if their child is a younger teen) to investigate a little, but I don't think many of them do. Like when young boys play video games that are extremely violent, parents might have a better idea of what they should and shouldn't let their children have b/c it's visual. THey can see as well as read about it, but books seem more innocent. I honestly don't like the idea of those stickers, not at all. But I also think the subject matter of some YA books, not just from the present but the past as well, really push the envelope. Again, as you mentioned, movies have ratings, warnings that specifically state what is contained in the movie. CDs have explicit lyrics labels. Books not so much, and a huge part of me thinks this is a good thing. The other part worries about kids who are just too immature to handle more mature subject matters whether in books, movies, TV etc. I'm torn, but in the end, I'd say this is another matter that should be solved by parent involvement, not banning/labeling books.
    Great topic,
    Ninja Girl

  5. Here's my issue with the sticker: How do you decide what merits one? Does off-screen, consensual safe sex get a sticker? Does a character cutting his own hand off (referring to Harry Potter) get a sticker? A character trying alcohol? A character doing drugs? Texting while driving? Dirty language? Where do we draw the line?

    I think if we're going to start labeling books in the name of helping out concerned but busy parents, we need to get specific. I think a simple label on the back saying "Not intended for children under the age of 13 due to violence and sexual references" would be much more helpful. If a parent is concerned, they can take 20 seconds to read the label and decide whether their child is mature enough for "sexual references". That's the best your going to do without reading the book yourself.

  6. Thanks for all the great comments, everyone.

    fairypenguin - I think you're right and that it's very difficult to form a reasonable criteria for age restrictions on books - there are so many variables. But if publishers and authors agreed to make the content in books clearer, that might be one way for parents to make informed decisions.

    Ninja Girl - I'm torn on this issue, too. One problem is that it doesn't really affect me. As an adult, I can choose to read anything, no matter what label it has and I don't have children to worry about yet. But if I were a parent or a teen, I might be much more strongly for one thing or the other.

    Book Crook Liza - I completely agree about learning from books. A lot of people look at any sex in books as a bad thing, but I did not have cool parents. They were not comfortable having "The Talk" and I learned most of what I know about sex from Judy Blume books. And that was a lot better than learning from my peers, as she didn't spread misinformation and exaggerations!

    Jessica - I really liked your post today! I look forward to reading what you post on Wednesday. It's nice to have a discussion with someone who can see both sides.

    Book Sake - I think it's great that you're so engaged with what your son is reading/watching. If a labelling system for books was ever widespread, it would be wonderful to have book-savvy parents like you involved.

  7. Wow I've never seen or heard of this before! What a really fascinating blog topic! As I sat thinking about this issue I imagined myself as a parent one day, and how I would appreciate the little warning that stickers like this could give me when I'm looking for a new book to give my child. Nevertheless, I think you make a really good point in your example of Forbidden that often one can tell the appropriateness of a book just from reading the synopsis. If anything, I think that if having content warnings is important to books now then they should include a suitable age label on the back (like for 14 + or 18+ ect). But then again some kids are more mature then that doesn't really work as well. I don't think putting a big sticker on the front is the right answer though. Why attach that kind of a stigma to a book? I don't know if any of this made sense....I'm still confused about my thoughts on this....

  8. Like Natalie, I feel a bit confused by the topic of warning labels on books as well. On the one hand it would be a good way to keep busy parents informed of what books may or may not be appropriate for their kids, but on the other, the thought of censoring books just doesn't sit right with me. Take Forbidden for example. I don't think I like the idea of my kids, no matter how old they may be reading about incest if it's portrayed in a positive light. However, if Forbidden has some sort of message it wants to convey about the topic of incest then I would allow my kids (if I had any) to read it. So I guess what I'm saying in a very convoluted way, is that book warnings are tricky and if we're going to do it we need to do it very very carefully. Or you know, someone can start plugging how great book bloggers are and how we can offer a service to parents who want to know what certain books are about!!

  9. I used to manage a video rental store, and I can tell you from experience that a lot of people do NOT pay attention to the age-appropriateness ratings, and don't bother to read the box to find out why something received its rating.

    I imagine it is easier for booksellers to do like the music industry does and simply label something as being "worthy" of parental advisory.

    Deciding whether or not a book deserves that label, though, would be very tricky. SO many people are made uncomfortable or are offended by so many things these days that I don't think it is legitimately possible to catch everything that would possibly make someone feel it's inappropriate.

    I already feel like there are not always enough hours in the day, so I can't imagine how stressed I'd be if I had kids to care for right now as well, but it doesn't take that long to look up a review or to ask the parents of your kids' friends or a librarian if they think a particular book your child wants to read is age-appropriate.

    And I think there is a lot to be said for just sitting down with your child and having an open and honest discussion about what they want to read and why you do or don't think they're ready for certain subject matter.

  10. Natalie - Yep, I go back and forth on this issue, too. I can see the pluses and the minuses of it. It is a tricky subject, which I think is why on the one hand, we have a lot of complaining parents and on the other, there's no widespread official practice for handling their concerns. So instead we get individual schools/libraries banning books.

    Colleen - I think deciding which books get labelled as being for older readers is a huge problem, like you said. It might mean a lot of classic texts are deemed inappropriate, for a start.

    Lan - You're right! Book bloggers are a valuable source for parents. We'll read the books for them. I hope more parents are using us, if they're worried about this.

  11. I just - I'm kind of speechless at the idea! I'm completely against the whole idea. Parents should monitor their children's reading material and not expect bookstores or libraries or schools to do it for them.

    Though, really, I also function under the 'if the kid isn't mature enough for it, s/he won't be interested anyway' premise. Or she might just skim over the apparently 'disturbing' parts because she doesn't understand it and move on to the bits that attracted her to book in the first place.

    But like you said, putting stickers or whatever will just attract kids more strongly to the books and then they'll focus on the 'oh my gosh so bad' parts and miss the entire point. It's like when we read The Day No Pigs Would Die in class when I was in 4th grade - all us kids focused on a character's erection (I think) and thought it was hilaaaaaaaarious instead of actually paying attention to the book.

  12. I think you are right, parents are more likely to just disregard the book completely. However I think if a child of 15 see forbidden without their parents around I think they are more likely to pick it up...
    I actually read Forbidden not long ago and lent it my friend. We're both 23 so its nothing for us to read but when she got home her sister, who's 14, saw it and borrowed it without checking it was ok first... I had to think long and hard when my friend text me to let me know, if Forbidden was suitable for her 14 yr old sister and if I would want a sister of that age reading it... I never came up with an answer. I told my friend exactly what's in the book and she said shed get it back and read it first!
    So all in all, I dont know whether a sticker is the best way to go about things but plenty of 14/15 year olds will be in book shops alone and who's going to stop them picking these books up?


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