Recently, a concerned mom contacted us as part of an effort to establish a rating system for books similar to the ones currently in place for movies and video games. Her son had checked a couple of books out of the children's room of her local library, and she did not feel that they were appropriate. She wasn't trying to ban them or make them unavailable—just to provide the same kind of guidance for parents that they've become accustomed to with other media.
Read Vicky Smith’s last From the Stacks on disorganized reading.
Unfortunately for her campaign, her appeal fell on relatively unsympathetic ears. I'm a professional who has worked with children and parents and books for years, and I am a parent. I understand her concern and her heartfelt desire to find books that suit her child’s developmental moment. I really do. But I can't climb on board a book-ratings bandwagon for couple of reasons.
First, I don't think the rating system works particularly well. Case in point: True Grit and The King's Speech. True Grit is rated PG-13, for "intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images." Let's see. A triple hanging; more shootings than I bothered to count, many at close range; the chopping-off of multiple fingers followed by a stabbing followed by a shooting (all one victim). The King's Speech was originally rated R, for "some language": "Fuck." In a therapeutic setting. (After the latter film won multiple Oscars, a few "fucks" were cut, so now the film has been downgraded to PG-13 for "language." How on earth is a parent to parse the distinction between "some language" and "language"?)
But more importantly, I think it is tragically and irresponsibly reductivist to take a letter or a graphic and slap it on a book in a well-meaning effort to "guide" parents to literature they're comfortable sharing with their children.
Take Racing the Past by Sis Deans.
When readers first meet fifth grader Ricky Gordon and his family, his violent, alcoholic father has been dead for months, and the survivors are just beginning to reclaim their humanity. Deans packs in plenty of details to make it clear the Gordons are better off without their father: Ricky recalls seeing him backhand his toddler little sister, "swatting her away like she was nothing more than a fly." His father's favorite phrases were variants on "I'm gonna get you" and "I'll make you sorry."
But it's in one seemingly throwaway moment that readers really feel the lingering shadow Mr. Gordon casts over his family. Language is fairly crude throughout, economically and gloriously capturing the family’s hardscrabble rural milieu; the Gordons are, as Ricky says, "this town's white trash." In one raw, gut-punching scene, Ricky and his little brother Matt, in second grade, squabble; Matt glares at Ricky and calls him an "asshole."
The incongruity of that word coming out of adorable little Matt's mouth takes readers aback in a way the accretion of details hasn't yet. Readers understand intellectually the damage that Ricky's father has done, but they don't feel it viscerally until now. In one seven-letter word, Deans distills all the brutality that has shaped Ricky's life up to this point and shoves it in readers' faces. Good for her.
Is it a word I want my child using? No. Is it a word I want my child hearing? No, not on a regular basis—but when it packs this powerful an artistic punch, I'm happy to have her read it, hear it and think about it. Every town has at least one Gordon family, and it is critical for both the Rickys and the Matts of the world and the children they go to school with to understand who they are and how they came to be. It is absolutely appropriate for children.
But I fear that a rating system would slap a "language" (or "some language") label on Racing the Past, and too many children would never find it. You can't take a work of literature and the careful intention its creators put into it and reduce it to a rating. It is grotesquely unfair to the author, the book and the children who need that book.
Literature is complex, and that's what makes it so powerful. Let's celebrate that complexity, not try to eliminate it.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.