The Prompt: Movies, television, video games and most other forms of media have content ratings…but not books. Why do you think it is that books have no rating system to determine what is and isn’t appropriate? Should there be books that are kept out of the hands of children? Is it the responsibility of parents or should there be a standard book rating system to deem what’s appropriate?
Broadly speaking, I think books do have “content ratings,” in the sense that they are divided into age categories. Picture books are for very young readers (though there are longer picture books aimed at readers around 8 years old, so we’re not just talking about toddlers), lower middle grade books are for young independent readers, upper middle grade books are more for middle schoolers, and young adult books are for kids aged about 12-18. And publishers will even divide YA books into ones aimed for ages 12+ (usually no sex) and 14+ (possibly sex).
This isn’t a 100% perfect system, of course, and it’s not the same as movies which are literally labelled with the possibly objectionable material they contain (swearing, smoking, nudity, graphic violence, etc.), but people do use the age categories this way. People expect to be able to tell their 11 year old child to go into the middle grade / children’s section of a bookstore and pick out any book they want and have it be “age appropriate” without the need for the parent to vet the material first. They expect to tell their teenager to buy whatever they want from the young adult book section and have them come back with something that’s at most the equivalent of a PG-13 movie, not end up purchasing something on par with Fifty Shades of Grey.
The fact that age categories are used like a content rating system is why some readers are so upset that books like A Court of Thorns of Roses are marketed or shelved as YA; the material is more adult, and a lot of parents might be startled to find their 12 year old child reading explicit sex scenes in a book they thought was “for teens” and therefore “safe” from such material.
Can some 12 year olds handle such material? It completely varies. I’m always hearing stories from people who were reading graphic horror novels or erotica or whatever as young children and insisting it was perfectly fine and therefore telling a child not to read these novels is the equivalent of censorship and should be harshly condemned. However, I have also head many stories from readers who read something as children that they simply were not ready for — and they were extremely uncomfortable or even traumatized as a result. So I do think it’s important to maintain YA as an age category that has content generally acceptable for teens. And if kids want to read more adult content, and the adults in their lives think they can handle it, they can simply read adult books.
But should books have an even more explicit content rating than they do now? No, I don’t think that’s necessary because the broad age categories function well enough, assuming publishers market their books correctly and don’t just label anything “YA” for cash. And with review sites like Goodreads and web sites that actually describe the content of books in-depth, anyone who wants to figure out the exact content of a book should have no trouble doing a bit of research on their own.