If your young son went into the local video game store and attempted to purchase a copy of Halo or Call of Duty, he would (in theory) be carded as if he had gone into the local liquor store to pick up a fifth of vodka. Society has overwhelmingly concluded that excessive and explicit violence is not good for the development of young minds and has created a rating system that explains content for parents. Store employees are part of an effort to monitor purchases of highly graphic material as deterrence to children who attempt to access Mature or Adult 18+ games.
If your young daughter went into an adult movie theater and tried to purchase a ticket for the next showing of Debbie Does Dallas, she would (in theory) get turned out on her ear because, again, society has overwhelmingly concluded that excessive and explicit sexual content is not good for the development of young minds. Neither would she be able to walk into her local Cineplex to catch the 9:00 showing of Blue is the Warmest Color or Saw I, II, III, IV or 3D…again, in theory. It is the responsibility of movie theater employees to enforce age restrictions with regard to the films that they offer for viewing. Long ago, rating systems were created to warn parents of explicit content in films and NC-17, which replaced Rated X in the previous rating system, can now even be placed on films for showing excessive use of tobacco…
This film is clearly adult and children are not admitted. Such films may contain brutality/pervasive extreme non-stop graphic violence, explicit sexual content, sexual assault, extreme horror, extreme emotional intensity, discrimination/bullying, crude situations, strong graphic non-stop language, disturbing/startling images, strong graphic drug use, alcohol, tobacco and/or aberrational behavior.
Admittance to these films is prohibited for anyone under the age of eighteen.
…but when it comes to children's literature? Well, you know how it is. It's so very hard to get children to read these days that members of society really shouldn't be bothered scrutinizing content too closely. It's not important what kids are reading so long as they are reading. So goes the saying. Movies, video games, pop music require content labeling but books are immune to investigation. Instead of seeking to protect children from culture-warping, mind-bending literature, we are implored to celebrate all books for their diverse messaging regardless of what the messaging is. A book can fill your kid's mind with whatever countercultural drivel that a novelist can concoct and it can still make it on the shelves of your local school library so long as the social engineering is written for an average teen to comprehend at core middle school comprehension levels.
Every year, YALSA (which is a division of the American Library Association) presents a list of books which are recommended for ages 12 to 18. These books "meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens." As mentioned in my last post, I went through the descriptions of each and every YA book on the 2013 YALSA list of recommended reading and compared them to the description that can be found on Amazon. In some cases when I was still dissatisfied with the summary I was finding on a particular publication, I went to Goodreads and perused the reviews for additional information until I was satisfied I understood the subject matter.
Having discerned content based solely on descriptions and reviews, I color coded titles into six categories:
Blue – dystopia, depression, anti-social behaviors, moral relativism. Twenty-eight stories fall into this category.
Gray – occult, paranormal, fantasy, horror. Thirty-six stories can be fully or partially categorized in this way.
Pink – romantic love, sexual explicit content, and/or identity or gender confusion. Thirty-six stories deal with these themes.
Green – discernible negative judgments regarding humanity, American culture, gender, race or religion. Fifteen stories are in this category.
Red – morally or ethically confusing material. Eighteen stories can be classified as deeply concerning or containing elements that are deeply concerning.
Yellow – cannot be categorized based on available descriptions. Forty-three stories were wholly undefinable based on summaries or contained elements that were vague.
You will notice that my category tally exceeds 102 because many of the books contained elements that clearly fall into multiple categories. It should also be noted that in my attempt to categorize these books, I am in no way suggesting that they should not be on library shelves or that they hold no cultural value or that the books should be censored or that I endorse a monochrome world where only my personal values should be reflected. In the same way that I believe a parent has the right to decide if her child is mature enough to play Call of Duty or watch Saw I, II, III, IV or 3D, I believe a parent has the right to decide if her child is mature enough to read about lesbian awakenings or occult-based murders or children having romantic relationships with the voices they hear in their heads or underage girls who immerse themselves in the radicalism of the Black Panther movement. These are themes that I personally would want to understand before my kids read them so that I might have the ability to make educated decisions regarding content, but not everyone is me.
Within my survey, gray and pink are favored themes for American YA authors with blue coming in a close second. For the remainder of this post I will focus on the gray category and will finish the series next week by discussing the other remaining categories.
Based on the popularity of the Harry Potter series or the Twilight books, it should not surprise anyone that occult, paranormal, fantasy and horror reign supreme with today's young readers. These subjects have always been popular with both readers and writers alike. The writer's ability to present stories where the laws of physics and biology don't apply helps promote escapism more fantastically and escapism is a great deal of what fiction reading is all about. Who doesn't like a good fairy tale after all? JRR Tolkien was, for instance, unapologetic in his admiration for fairy and fantasy stories. He wrote entire theses on such subjects but always to his point that Faerie and fantasy can and should be a tool for discovering good versus evil. He didn't think that fantasy is carte blanche for defying universal codes of conduct.
But we also need not fret over classic Draculian or Frankenstein mythologies. Macabre though these legends are at first glance, they do serve a purpose. The stories deal with men and women who are spiritually audacious, who rebel against nature and who think themselves impervious to evil, but – upon further inspection – the morals of these stories echo time and again that when humans fail to respect and reject evil, they suffer sometimes irrevocable spiritual damage or spiritual death.
It is unfortunate that, with growing frequency, readers are asked to embrace what can only be described as disturbing and malevolent subjects that do little to push in any positive direction and may actually encourage children to disregard the spiritual peril of dabbling in the occult.
The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa as a prime example of literature that parents may want to understand better:
To survive in a ruined world, she must embrace the darkness…Allison Sekemoto survives in the Fringe, the outermost circle of a walled-in city. By day, she and her crew scavenge for food. By night, any one of them could be eaten. Some days, all that drives Allie is her hatred of them – the vampires who keep humans as blood cattle. Until the night Allie herself dies and becomes one of the monsters.
That partial synopsis comes from Amazon. When we look at Goodreads, however, we learn that the main character doesn't die as the Amazon summary asserts. She is on the verge of death after being attacked by a Rabid and is approached by a vampire who offers to save her from death by making her an undead. She consciously chooses the non-life of a vampire with the hope that she might find a cure within a city that is essentially the Garden of Eden. She hands over her immortal soul to darkness.
There are a number of parents who would not object to the liberality with which the author finesses rather mature philosophical debates about eternal life by orchestrating a scenario in which we can now empathize with the heroine's plight and cheer her daring decision to sacrifice her eternal salvation for the here and now. America does have a growing devil-may-care love affair with its anti-heroes after all.
And please don't misunderstand. Parents who are unfazed by such free formed passion plays are welcome to have their children read whatever books they deem appropriate. But recognize that the choice that the heroine faces fails to remind us that there is always a choice to reject evil. Sometimes the right choice doesn't end in a happily ever after, but that doesn't make the choice less right.
Allison Sekemoto is one of a growing number of YA fictional characters that are promoted by YALSA and are excused for their Faustian covenants. The reason that some parents object to books of this nature is that the parents believe there is a malformed premise within the pages which encourages and excuses cooperation with evil. They see that this trains young brains to believe that evil can peacefully coexist with mankind without consuming it and that morality is therefore relative.
The question isn't whether your children should be allowed access to preternaturally lazy literature if that is what you prefer for them. The relevant question is whether publishers and the American Library Association have at least as much responsibility to parents in making fictional content transparent within YA books as the makers of Halo or Debbie Does Dallas must do within their respective genres.
Should there be a rating system for children's literature?