So I received an email through my Rated Reads site, asking me for guidance on resources that can provide information about content in books for younger readers. It got me thinking again about the place for parental involvement and potential restrictions on books for elementary-school students. I suppose I’m a little late to the game in terms of this topic because Banned Books Week was over a month ago, but here goes anyway.
Before I say anything else, I’d like to make clear that I am against “censorship” in general (let me restrict this discussion purely to books). That entails actually suppressing and forbidding the viewing or use of particular passages or entire books. It’s not my place to decide what kind of content should be completely forbidden, and it just sets a bad precedent. I wouldn’t want someone else to have the power to forbid what is viewable by me or my family members.
So while I am against forbidding things entirely to most readers, parents and educators do have a responsibility to young children to make sure they read material that is appropriate for them. Even then, I hesitate to ban books entirely because, while I wouldn’t want a child getting hold of soft porn, for example, I wouldn’t agree with those people who were eager to ban Harry Potter because of its theme of magic.
What I am a proponent of is information. That’s why I started Rated Reads, a modest effort though it is. But at least it’s something. We have nearly 1,000 books featured with content ratings and moderately detailed paragraphs explaining what kind of potentially objectionable content is in each book. I firmly believe that each reader and, in the case of children, each parent should be able to have resources to find information that will allow him or her to make a decision.
I would like to think that books that are selected for a children’s library are going to be appropriate for young readers and acceptable to most parents, both in thematic content and possible sex, violence, or bad language. But young readers who are ready for young adult books, for instance, deserve to not be shocked by what they read or to have their parents be shocked. There are a lot of great young adult books that are fine for younger readers, that don’t have strong language or detailed violence or sex scenes. But there are just as many that I wouldn’t want my younger kids reading.
Since elementary schools generally have limited space, I think it would be wisest to select books that will be most age appropriate and least objectionable to parents. But at the same time, there may be a few YA books that would be great reads, in terms of stimulating thought on various topics, that might be nice picks for those libraries. And some of those might have some violence or other scenes that could be objectionable to parents or their kids. In these cases, it seems it would be particularly smart for everyone to include a kind of electronic ping with further information for the student and her parent when it comes to checkout time. This would allow parents to give a yea or nay to their child reading that book; a note could be sent home before the book is approved for checkout, providing details about why that book could be a poor choice, including themes, sex, violence, and language.
Now there are going to be some parents who are very careful about using this system, saying no to some books and yes to others based on their consideration of the information provided; there are definitely going to be other parents who simply won’t care. And that is their business. If I were that child’s teacher, or a fellow parent, I might not agree with those parents’ decision, but it wouldn’t be my responsibility to override or actively disagree in some other way. As long as a parent hasn’t been declared unfit, it is his or her responsibility to make decisions regarding his child, and that needs to be respected.
But there is no doubt in my mind that more information should be available so readers and parents of readers can make more informed decisions. I don’t think it’s always possible or practical for a parent to read every book a child would like to read, becoming the child’s first reader. We just need more information. Again, that’s why I’m doing Rated Reads. But I’d love to see more coming direct from publishers or something similar (I suppose that’s kind of another topic, but in brief, I don’t see why it would be so hard for the editor to include a brief description that states how much language or sex or violence is in it…). There’s simply not enough information available about most books.
So. What are your thoughts? Do schools sometimes need to be more cautious about what they choose to stock in their elementary libraries? Do parents need more information, and how should it be provided? And what about junior highs/middle schools and high schools?
I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.