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Children’s Books: Rated E — for Everyone

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Sexual situations involving minors, vulgar language, murder, violence, drug use, rebellion against parental authority, suicide. What sort of rating would this work garner, and how can parents protect their children from such obscenity?

In case I slurred around the tongue firmly adhered to the lining of my cheek, the work in question is William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I have recently read several online discussions regarding a trend toward a purportedly excessive use of realism in children’s and young adult literature.

Imagine a world with content advisories or ratings listed on the backs of middle grade and YA books:

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton – gang violence, language;
A Ring of Endless Light, Madeline L’Engle – death, discussions of sexual situations, partial nudity;
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg — runaway children, theft, nudity.

The list could continue ad infinitum. I recognize the concerns involved in the exposure of children to the grittier side of reality. I recognize that a time and place exists for discussions of death, sex, violence, substance abuse, etc. However, as a mother of three, I am painfully aware that we do not always get to choose the time and place for such discussions.

Our children dwell in an imperfect world. We cannot and should not protect them from the knowledge of the darker sides of life. Death and violence will confront them regardless of whether they have been prepared. As they enter adolescence, sexual feelings and confusion will swamp them despite our careful censorship of their media exposure. The drug dealer on the corner or in the schoolyard does not care that we prohibited the book depicting substance abuse.

My oldest child is a frighteningly precocious 10-year old. She reads at the level of a high school sophomore. Discussions of appropriate content are not an abstract argument in our household. At the deepest levels of maternal terror and concern, I want my children to never have to face the darkness of violence, loss, or addiction. I’d prefer also for them to exist in a sexual vacuum until they are well gone from my house. However, this choice is not mine. My husband and I have instead made the decision to discuss rather than censor content with our children.

Have media ratings lessened the problems of sexual promiscuity, violence, and substance abuse in children and teens? I have been unable to find any data that suggests that these instances have declined since 1968. Personally, I would prefer my children to watch a movie depicting intelligent themes that spark meaningful discussion, even if that film contains scenes of sex or violence, than to have them watch some of the blather that passes for children’s programming. Given the choice between showing them Joss Whedon’s Serenity and SpongeBob SquarePants, I’m going to stick with Joss. There may be moments in which I experience discomfort, but at least I won’t have to watch the gray matter ooze from my children’s ears.

In a world that has become increasingly sanitized, polarized, and consequently unreal, books are one of the last havens of intelligent discourse and truly free speech. To have children’s authors constrained by arbitrary standards of “decency” would be a travesty. Should an author shy away from writing a book that deals with difficult topics such as drug use, rape, depression, or discrimination in a meaningful way for fear of being saddled with a “Mature” rating and thus becoming unmarketable for a publisher?

Discussions of book censorship are far from new. Notions of content censorship date back to the ancient Greeks. From the advent of the printing press, various groups have attempted to control the spread and content of the written word. In my opinion, placing content warnings or ratings on books would facilitate the descent into censorship.

It has become far too easy, and tragically common for parents to relinquish the responsibility of rearing their children. Warnings, Ratings, Parental Control devices and software have enabled parents to avoid looking critically at the exposure of their children to outside influences. Rather than look to outside sources to tell us what our children “should” or “shouldn’t” read, as parents, we need to accept responsibility. Books can be incredible jumping-off points for frank and necessary discussions. Classic literature is rife with examples of phrases and scenarios which many would consider unacceptable in modern society. Rather than avoiding a book or skimming over an inappropriate slur when reading to children, why not use the opportunity to discuss the changes in social ideals? A YA novel may contain discussions of sexuality or sexual situations that a parent considers inappropriate. Rather than forbidding the novel (which the child will then read in secret), the parent could have a frank discussion with the child about their family’s sexual mores.

The value of the written word lies in its ability to stimulate imagination and critical thought. If we seek to shelter our children from the richness of literature, we do them a grave disservice. Life the predator is not tamed simply because we choose to ignore the fangs. Let us send our children into the arena armed with the wisdom of storytellers.

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