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.