Are Websites Meant to Educate Parents about Book Contents Truly Dangerous?

Are Websites Meant to Educate Parents about Book Contents Truly Dangerous?

Plans for a new website that notes the content of YA books, so parents can be aware of what types of books their children are reading, have rocked the Twitter community. Cries of censorship have gone up, and people have begun to worry that such a site would prevent teens from reading certain books or even put them in danger if their parents realize what they are reading. Without getting into the specifics of this one proposed site, let us consider if these claims are as dire as they seem. Would a site that merely notes the content of a book be a tool that would cause more harm than good? Or is it possible that such a site could be useful, even welcomed by parents, educators, and readers?

First of all, let us consider that the argument that a site noting the contents of a book would constitute or inspire censorship. Censorship, as defined by the American Library Association (ALA) is “the suppression of idea and information that certain persons–individuals, groups, or government officials–find objectionable or dangerous.” The term is typically used to describe scenarios in which an individual or group denies access to certain information to entire groups of people–perhaps not allowing certain books or material to be published, or removing title from a school curriculum or from a library so an entire school body or community cannot read a particular book. A parent deciding that the content in a book is too mature for their particular child is not really what the term “censorship” is typically meant or used to describe.

The differentiation between parenting and censorship is long-standing and perhaps an unspoken rather than clearly defined one. But the underlying assumption that parents have the final responsibility to determine what their children can read is actually one that underpins the idea that censorship is wrong. A person can decide that their own child should not be reading a certain book, but they have no right to decide that no one‘s child may read that book. There is a line drawn between the private and the social here, with people allowed to determine what values they teach at home, what content they believe their children are ready to handle, and what an individual or group of people can or cannot force everyone else to do.

Some people may balk at the idea that parents have a say in what their children may read. However, most people do understand that there are various stages of development, and that certain material may be or less appropriate for children at each stage. There is a reason right now that publishers, libraries, and bookstores separate children’s, teen, and adult titles. Teens might be ready for stories with substance abuse and sex–but eight-year-olds may not. The categories are broad guidelines that allow people to know what kind of content they might be encountering. After that, it is up to the parent and reader to decide if an individual is ready for certain content in a certain book.

Additionally, if something like substance abuse is depicted in a children’s book, it is usually in a developmentally-appropriate way, one that allows the child-reader to process what is happening and the effects. For instance, an adult book might show a party scene glorifying substance abuse, because adult readers are expected to know that this is just one depiction of how some people might see it (whether it is truly a wonderful idea or not). But a children’s book would certainly only show the bad effects of substance abuse, because most adults do not want impressionable children to think that substance abuse is desirable. The story would probably focus on how the substance abuse affects the family and give ways for the reader to cope with the reality of addiction, while also letting them know that they are not alone, and there is always hope for a change for the better. Again, most people agree with this approach, because most people understand that certain content may really not be appropriate for certain readers–it has nothing to do with censorship and everything with wanting readers to grow up healthy and well-adjusted.

Giving parents a guide to the content in books is not an inherently flawed idea, because caring parents want to know what their kids are encountering–and not because they all want to censor their kids or to futilely try to protect them from the world. Children are ready for different subject matter at different times, and parents are uniquely positioned to know what kind of content their own children can handle. Parents may also want to know what their children are reading so they can help their kids process and understand it. No parent really wants their kid learning about sex and relationships from Fifty Shades of Grey and nowhere else. Most parents want their kids to have a healthy understanding of their sexuality, and a good idea of what respectful relationships and boundaries look like. Knowing what kind of content their children are being exposed to will help parents talk to their children about important topics.

Even if some parents do use a site with content notes to steer their children away from certain titles, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Adult readers also tend to prefer to read certain books and to avoid certain topics. For instance, many adults enjoy reading Christian fiction or Amish romance fiction because they personally prefer to read “clean” books or books that align with their values–and that is okay. Some adults prefer to avoid books that have dead dogs or animal cruelty–that is also okay. Some adults prefer to read tween and teen books specifically because they don’t want to read graphic depictions of sex or violence–that is okay. Some adults prefer to avoid topics that are personally triggering for them–hence the existence of trigger warnings–and that is also okay. Just as adult readers may be distressed or triggered by certain content, so may teens and children. It is not wrong to want to know what is in a book so a reader can be personally prepared, or even so they can choose to read a different book. A site with content notes is simply another tool readers and parents can use to select the right book for them.

A site with content notes is precisely that–a tool–and, like any tool, it can be used well or badly. The Twitter-sphere seems convinced currently that any such site can only do harm, but the reality is that other such sites already exist, doing the same work, and so far, little harm seems to have arisen. Yes, an overly-protective parent could use such a site to limit their kid’s reading, but such a dedicated parent would find other ways to learn what is in a book–anything from reviews to summaries to book lists to reading the actual book themselves before announcing it approved. A site with content notes is not going to inspire countless parents to become censors. It’s just another way to find information about books in a world where Sarah J Maas’s sexually-explicit A Court of Thorns and Roses is shelved in the teen section alongside titles that are supposed to appeal to readers anywhere from 13-18–a very wide age range, encompassing the needs of many different readers.

The existence of another website with content notes about books is not the end of the world. Parents can already find that information out there if they choose, and this site will just be another tool that they can access if they find it useful. After all, wanting to be involved with the reading and development of one’s child is not wrong. It’s generally just good parenting.

13 thoughts on “Are Websites Meant to Educate Parents about Book Contents Truly Dangerous?

  1. Emily @frappesandfiction says:

    Hmm I agree with this post! I haven’t been active on Twitter very much recently so I haven’t heard much about this, but I’m not sure how such a site is much different from all the TW database sites that already exist– I am very much against censorship but I do think there is a place for parents to limit what their young children have access to. For example, I was not allowed to read The Hunger Games when I was in elementary school because of the violence (I was very sensitive and my parents knew I would get nightmares from it haha) and I read it on my own when I was older. Children have varying levels of maturity and sensitivity, so it makes sense for their parents to have some sort of say at least until they are 13-14. Great post!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t understand the uproar. Common Sense Media has been around for years and no one seems worried that the end of reading is nigh. Most people I know seem to find it useful and use it as intended–just to keep an eye on what their kids are reading so they can be a guide when necessary.

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  2. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I thought the Twitter uproar was ridiculous precisely because sites that rate the content of books already exist, and no one seems to know or care. The wild cries that this was going to alter the landscape of reading forever and normalize censorship and prevent kids from reading and ruin author careers and whatever else people were fear mongering about are clearly overstated. And the fact that people were outraged for roughly 24-48 hours and I haven’t heard about this site (or any other site the currently exists and does the same thing!) also indicates no one really cares and the fears were overblown.

    The main difference with this new site is they wanted agents and authors to rate their own books (I don’t know if they were being lazy or thought this would make the ratings “accurate” or “official,” but clearly authors aren’t going to do this) and that they wanted to sell stickers and charts with the ratings to bookstores (which seems like a bad guess at their target audience; I can’t imagine any indie bookstore doing this).

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t really understand the kerfuffle since Common Sense Media has been doing this for years, and I often hear people talking about how useful they find it. People do seem to be using it as its meant–as a general guide that just lets them know what kind of content to expect. I haven’t heard any horror stories yet.

      I don’t really think authors are going to rate their own books, though! No one wants to put it out there that maybe their book shouldn’t be read by certain people. But it doesn’t even seem like a useful strategy because something like this would have to have some sort of industry standards where X, Y, and Z are worth certain points and affect the rating in the same way, no? Otherwise, it’s really just a random feeling by one person?

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    • Krysta says:

      Haha, that’s a good point! Parents may want to protect their children from certain things, but a really determined teen could find a book from somewhere and hide it. Maybe the parent can see what’s being checked out at the public library, but they probably don’t know what’s being checked out at the school library. So, yeah, I do think the idea that such a site would keep everyone from reading books is giving the site too much credit here.

      I think the best case scenario is that these sites simply keep parents aware of what their kids are reading and opens up an avenue for discussion.

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  3. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    Interesting post! I think it’s okay to let kid read what they are comfortable reading. If kid is mature for age, knows how to process things or book is helping in teaching subject matter, they should be allowed to read regardless of of age. But it’s wise for parents to know what they are reading specifically if kid is sensitive and is not ready for it. It depends on both kids and parents.

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    • Krysta says:

      Common Sense Media is a well-established site that already notes book contents and it’s really fascinating to me because there is a site age recommendation, a parent age recommendation (created by users), and a kid age recommendation (created by users). The kids always recommend books for lower ages than the parents! So the kids will say a book is good for 14+, but the parents will say 16+. But the site usually picks an age in the middle, which makes me think it’s probably relatively accurate.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – parental supervision is not censorship. And given how wide the YA genre is (with some books that are really meant for adults being put there), it makes sense that someone wants to have a reference for book content.

    Honestly, your description of the uproar sounds more suspicious to me: what are you hoping to achieve if kids need to be hiding their books from their parents?

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    • Krysta says:

      People online sometimes seem to have this idea that parents are out to get their kids for some reason? Some parents may be over-protective, but most parents genuinely want their children to grow up healthy and happy. So, yeah, I’m not really sure what’s with the advocating for children to read mature content on the sly? It’s hard to say that strangers on the internet know what’s best for children they’ve never met.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Katie @ Doing Dewey says:

    I agree with you that these sites aren’t a big deal although they can be misused. I use them to make sure I don’t send my nieces anything inappropriate and to avoid some violent content myself. That means I already knew these sites exist so I also thought the uproar over one more site was kind of silly. I do agree with people who think labels on books might be overused more, but no one is suggesting that

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    • Krysta says:

      I’m not sure I would be in favor of labeling books, either. A label doesn’t really capture the nuance of what is in the story or of how it is being depicted, and I do think those could be more easily misused. At least the sites have room to give more context.

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