Friday, May 05, 2006

To Rate Books? An Open Letter From Pat Schoeder

Here at AS IF!, we have spent a lot of time debating the rating and/or labeling of teen and children's books (and I think I've now heard every possible argument, pro and con!).

Here's an open letter from Pat Schroeder, the president of the American Association of Publishers, and the AAP's Freedom to Read committee that ironically seems to come to many of the same the conclusion that most of us here at AS IF! have reached. My own comments follow:

In traveling around the country, I’m occasionally asked why publishers don’t provide descriptive content “ratings” for their books similar to those provided for TV programs, movies, music CDs, and video games. I’ve heard from individual publishers that they, too, get similar questions and requests. It may be helpful to clarify the industry’s position on the question of book “ratings

Guidance regarding content and age-appropriateness of children's books is already available from a wide variety of sources, including publishers themselves. Publishers’ catalogues contain descriptions of a book's content, identifying it as being appropriate for young children, middle readers, teens, or young adults (YA), and these categories are constantly being refined. Some publishers even indicate age-appropriateness by the actual format in which a book is published. (Paperback books in "digest format," for example, are published for younger readers and do not contain the mature content that appears in YA books.) In addition, retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, and independent booksellers, help consumers identify age-appropriate books through the standard practice of shelving books according to age level. Books for children (approximately through age 12) are shelved in a separate area from those for teens and "Young Adults.” Libraries and school systems are familiar with these designations.

In addition, there are a host of resources that review and rate content of books for children and Young Adults, often specifically mentioning that the book contains "mature" content in its language or subject matter. Some excellent sources of children's book reviews include School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Horn Book, and Voice of Youth Advocates.

Confusion sometimes arises with respect to books that appear on "Accelerated Reader" lists, often cited in complaints about books with mature content. There apparently is some misapprehension as to what this designation means. "Accelerated Reader" is proprietary reading management software created by Renaissance Learning, a for-profit corporation that provides materials to schools to aid in meeting state standards of learning requirements. The Accelerated Reader lists refer to reading skill levels. They are not meant to be used as a substitute for the information provided by School Library Journal or other reliable children's book reviewers.

In addition, we need to emphasize the fact that books published by a publishing house other than a children's publisher (including books by well known authors such as William Styron, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, and John Updike which appear on lists recommended for older students) are by definition intended for an adult audience. The decision to include these books on honors reading lists and recommended lists for older students must reside with the teachers and librarians responsible for selecting these materials and they, in turn, need to be familiar with the books they select. If the content of a particular book chosen for its literary merit offends the values of a particular family, those parents should be able to request an alternative reading choice for their child. The idea of having publishers "rate" literary material intended for an adult audience runs counter to every legal and traditional understanding of basic First Amendment-protected rights.

We also need to underscore the difference between Young Adult books with "mature content" and mass entertainment media such as movies, music, and video games. The mature content of a Young Adult book is integral to the book as a whole and is intended to make YA readers aware that choices have consequences.

In our diverse and pluralistic society, choosing what students read and learn is neither easy nor free of controversy. A number of years ago, AAP joined with the American Library Association and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in a nationwide study involving school librarians, library supervisors, school principals, and district superintendents. What we found out is still relevant. We learned that school districts need to:

• Establish in writing a materials selection policy making clear the local criteria and procedures for selecting curricular and library materials.

• Establish in writing a clearly defined method for dealing with challenges and complaints concerning these materials, including a formal "request for review" form to identify specific concerns and objections to the materials.

• Create a broad-based committee that includes parents, teachers, librarians, and school administrators to review challenged materials, placing no restrictions on the use of these materials until the process is complete.

• Keep lines of communication open with the public served by the schools, providing regular updates on educational objectives, curricula, and classroom and library programs, including the selection and review of books for classroom and library use.

Although we as parents are often tempted to shield our growing children as long as possible from the harsher realities, our well-intentioned efforts eventually prove counter-productive. These harsh realities are part of our (and their) world and young people need a safe and non-threatening framework within which they can begin to understand and deal with issues surrounding sex and sexual identity, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, child abuse, and other difficult subjects. AAP’s member publishers are committed to providing books for older children and young adult readers that will give them such a framework and ease their transition into adulthood.
I'm certain that some folks will think this letter is a cop-out, that it once again circumvents the central issue that concerns a lot of parents, which is coming up with a way to get information about the content of children's and teen books into the hands of parents so they can make their own, informed decisions (which, incidentally, is exactly what everyone here at AS IF! wants to!).

But speaking from the point-of-view of an author, the question for me is: who decides? Who's doing the rating? Anyone familiar with the MPAA, which rates movies, knows that the system has been rife with inconsistencies and accusations of bias. And since books and their publishers often don't have the resources that movie studios do, I worry that many worthy books, authors, and subject matters will be unfairly and unduly stigmatized, resulting in unofficial blacklists, defacto censorship, and worse. It's worth noting that there exist many folks who already openly advocate such tactics when it comes to gay themes, for example. So I don't think it's paranoia on my part to suspect that these people would try to use any label or rating system to further this political agenda.

Finally, keep in mind that, even now, many, many parents decry the MPAA, and the limited information it provides. So in any event, labels and ratings are certainly no panacea.

As Pat Schroeder implies, being a parent is hard, hard work. Slapping a label on every book creates an illusion of action, but it doesn't come close to resolving the real issue--and I think its potential to create other, even more serious problems is very great indeed.


Blogger Rosemary Graham said...

I don't think it's a cop out, exactly, but I do think it's a little patronizing of parents and verging on sanctimonious. Some of us have already discussed among ourselves these two sentences: "We also need to underscore the difference between Young Adult books with 'mature content' and mass entertainment media such as movies, music, and video games. The mature content of a Young Adult book is integral to the book as a whole and is intended to make YA readers aware that choices have consequences."

To which I say, AS IF! Are the publishers claiming that books are inherently more noble than these other forms of popular culture? That publishers never pander? All sex in YA fiction has a didactic purpose? And the same didactic purpose, at that?

If the question is to rate or not to rate a la the MPAA, then we won't ever get anywhere. But are publishers really doing all they can/ought to indicate when a book is intended for the older YA reader? Why are some books clearly labeled 12 & up; 14 & up, etc. and others have no label?

A bookseller tells me all Manga is labeled 13+ or 16+. I haven't yet been able to verify this, or to find out if this is something that originates with the Japanese publishers. But if it's done for those books, why not for fiction?

An age range suggestion from the publisher is, in my view, a very different thing from a label imposed by an outside body.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Rosemary, your comments regarding sanctimonious are right-on. I agree with you that books are not necessarily more "noble" than other mediums.

Age-ranges don't really work for me, however, because there is such a vast, vast difference in maturity levels for the teens I know and work with. What is appropriate for one 12 year-old may not be right for another one.

Whether publishers are doing all they can to get the word out about books, that's an open question. But I don't think there's any plot to "hide" objectionable content (not at my publisher anyway). I think it's more a question of over-worked editors and publicists, and waaaay too many book releases.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Rosemary Graham said...

Brent--I totally agree about the individuality of each kid. Heck, I was reading The Story of O at 13. (Not that I was ready, for it. But I was curious enough. And I didn't share the fact with my parents. And I don't think it did a bit of harm, and I don't think mature-themed books will harm curious kids.)

But I'm also sympathetic to parents who might be making on-the-spot decisions in bookstores and school book fairs who might want to have some indication of what they're buying. I've done events where parents want to know if the book is right for their 11 year-old, 13 year-old, etc. And I'm glad I'm there to tell them more about my books and help them make their decisions.

I'm not suggesting that the age ranges be official in any way. (I was not aware, until recently, that the ALA does not enforce MPAA ratings on videos/dvds. They say it's not up to them to act as parents. Which sounds right.)

By pushing this age-range thing, I'm trying to suggest publishers improving a system that's already there. They do put these age ranges in catalogues and galleys and in some, but not all cases, on the books themselves.

I know that this isn't a perfect solution--that you've had the experience of SLJ's age-range suggestions being used against your books.

I don't think there's a plot. But I do wonder if concerns about institutional sales might factor into these decisions.

9:54 PM  
Anonymous franzy said...

A point about the difference between visual mediums and the written word occurs and I apologise if I might have mentioned this in a previous forum discussion:
What about the use of metaphor, fantasy and dreams in books. On a screen you can see sex or violence happening, regardless of whether it occurs in the story or in a dream a character might be having.
But in books it's a bit more difficult. How would a ratings system deal with a character who, for example, was sexually abused, yet never mentioned or described it in the book? I think much more can be implied through literature and much more is open to interpretation.
I agree completely with Brett's concerns about the identity and agenda of a potential ratings body.

G'day from Oz!

7:28 PM  
Blogger Rosemary Graham said...

Hi Franzy. Good point. There are myriad differences among and between media. And sitting in front of a screen projecting images is a very different thing from reading words meant to create imagery within our own imaginations.

To clarify my own position: I'm against a ratings entity as well. Completely against. As a parent, I don't like the MPAA's system. They'll give a perfectly wonderful girl-power movie like Bend it Like Beckham a PG-13 because of lesbian allusions, but there's a pretty high bar for violence in their PGs. But, as a parent of a now 8 year-old, I want to have an idea of what is in a movie before either entering a theater or sitting down for our weekly Family Movie Night.

I'm just saying I think the publishers can do what they already do (indicate a suggested target audience for a book) a little better and/or with more consistency.

11:10 AM  
Anonymous franzy said...

Good call Rosemary - I think consistency of recommendation is about all we can hope for, any further and it is stumbling into that dangerous censorship area.

ps. Bend It Like Beckham had lesbian references?? I must have missed that bit - I thought it was because of the bits of swearing and sex in the back of the car involved.

Oh wait - the dad thought she was gay didn't she? Got it.

7:29 PM  

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