Should Books Have Content Ratings? (Let’s Talk Bookish)

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme, hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books & Dani @ Literary Lion, where we discuss certain topics, share our opinions, and spread the love by visiting each other’s posts.

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? 

smaller star divider

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.


9 thoughts on “Should Books Have Content Ratings? (Let’s Talk Bookish)

  1. femaleinferno says:

    I like the idea of trigger and content warnings – I’ve personally experienced some explicit or triggering scenes in books that I would not have read if I had previous knowledge of. But on the flip side, the warnings in themselves can be spoilers for some stories.

    I’m hesitant for books to be graded to age groups like movies, because reading is subjective and different people have differing reading levels. I feel content aware labelling is better than age gradings because it would let readers know before purchasing (or reading) a book if they are wishing to avoid certain issues or elements, like rape, abuse, drug use, sexually explicit scenes, religious content, etc. Some readers like stories without a romance, others enjoy gory horror scenes; so more content aware labels, other than just genre, would be a great help.

    But it’s a delicate line to walk, because labelling in itself could bring about discrimination; like books currently labelled with queer content are now facing discrimination about being available in school libraries and to younger audiences, being put on prominent displays in stores during pride week…

    Ideally I think content aware labelling is the best solution – but inventing a universal label catalogue would be challenging.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think trigger warnings can be useful, too. They just seem different from content ratings, as at least for movies content ratings tend to be very broad. Like it just says “violence” or “language” and you’re not really sure what type of violence or exactly how graphic it is or if it would bother you, etc. At least trigger warnings are more specific!

      I think I have seen people propose age ratings before, and I do think mostly that would be annoying, and a lot of parents/guardians/librarians/teachers and even kids would get stuck on them. So teachers might decree kids can “only” read books in their age rating, or kids would judge each other for reading below their age rating, etc. and it would limit people’s reading.

      At least with very broad categories like early readers, middle grade, and young adult you have a general sense of how mature the content is, but you’re not boxing off certain middle grade books for 10 year olds and others for 12 year olds, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think they would end up mostly being used to “avoid” books with content one didn’t like – or one’s parents didn’t like. But I think books are a bit different from movies. For instance, “graphic” violence descriptions in a book often come across as less graphic than ones on film, and also one can kind of just flip past pages. You can’t skip part of the movie in a theatre.

      If there’s something someone really wants to avoid reading about, I think they’re looking for trigger warnings, which are different from a content rating, and right now there are several good web sites that provide trigger warnings for books, even if the publisher isn’t printing them on the books themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I also feel it depends on how much kid at particular age can handle things. I have heard kids are sensitive for their age and some can handle hard language and difficult subjects. If they can handle things they shouldn’t be stop as it might help them more than keeping them away from it.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I really think it’s kid-dependent, too! So it confuses me when people act as if their experience reading adult horror or erotica at age 11 is “fine” and no one should stop their kid from doing it! THEY might have been fine. I would not have been fine at that age!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Krysta says:

    I don’t think books need content ratings because, as you say, a lot of that information is already available online for people who want to look. Placing it on the book itself, however, risks the content warnings being misused. I think they would deter readers from picking up certain books where they might be seen with certain content they might be judged for. And parents and educators might use it to censor books.

    I understand why people think this idea could have benefits, but I think of the way Lexile scores and such have been misused by educators and parents to pigeonhole readers into reading certain books (leading sometimes to shame on the part of students who have to walk around with obviously “below grade level” titles). I’m pretty sure something similar would happen with books. I can definitely see a well-meaning educator thinking something like, “Kissing? Nope, can’t have that! Violence? Also, no. A parent struggling with mental health? No, too heavy. A parent struggling with substance abuse? No, makes authority figures look bad.” Then imagine if said educator saw a student walking around with a book marked for “violence” or “kissing” or whatever.

    The current system with MG and YA works well enough, I think, to give people a good idea of whether the content will be developmentally appropriate. And, for more specifics, they can look online or read the book first to see if it’s something their child will be able to handle.


  4. Dani @ Literary Lion says:

    “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.” I disagree with that. People are quick to use personal experience as fact, but the truth is you might not even know HOW it changed/effected you unless you see a therapist and really deeply examine what reading erotica at 12 did for you world view.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I admit I am also somewhat skeptical that this worked out great for people, but I hear it all the time. Personally, I don’t think I would ever give a child in my care such material, even if they seemed emotionally mature or whatever.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.