Why Books Should Have Content Ratings Just As Movies Do

Photo By Alejandro Escamilla I’m sure that we have all gradually moved through the ranks of content ratings when it comes to movies. Most of us started out with G movies, our movie times filled with sweet and innocent Disney fairytales. And then we moved on to PG movies, sometimes involving more action or maybe mildly crude humor (Ooooooh, they said the word “stupid”. SOMEONE CALL THE POLICE). And then we finally made it to the point where we could watch PG 13 movies. Oh yes. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, here we come. And then for some of us, we’ve made it to the point where we watch the occasional R rated movie. Personally, I’m not allowed to see R rated movies, and I am not complaining about that. I know that a lot of teens aren’t a fan of the rating system, but I am so grateful for it because it ensures that I can pick up a movie and know that it will be clean enough for my liking. Unfortunately, that’s not how it is for books, which doesn’t make sense to me. Books should have content ratings just as movies and TV shows do. I am very careful with the books I read because the last thing I want to do is pick up a book that isn’t clean and will force me to skim a large portion of it or just flat out return it to the library. I peruse content rating sites like Common Sense Media, and I scour book reviews from other bloggers to learn about the content of a book. For the longest time, I even avoided the YA section of my library entirely because I knew that picking up an MG book was much safer, and there was less uncertainty in the process. However, even then, there are some books that slip right past my radar, and I hate it when that happens. If books had content ratings just like movies do, I wouldn’t have to worry so much over picking out books to read. Let’s look at why movies have content ratings. The main reason is that various forms of media can have a significant influence on people. Media is a part of our everyday lives, and by controlling the media that one takes in, a person can control how he/she is influenced by media. Movies are just one way people can be influenced by media. But you know what? Books can have a huge influence on people as well. I’ve heard people say that a book changed their lives many times, but I have never heard a person say that a movie changed their life. It seems to me that the intricate characters and the depth of thought in books can have an even larger impact on a person than a movie can. I know that’s how it works for me. And yet, books are the ones that lack the content ratings. I can’t follow the logic here. If books have just as much power, and possibly even more power, than movies to change the way a person looks at the world, than they should also be put out into bookstores and libraries with content ratings. I want to know what content is included in a book and to what extent, just like the information that movie content ratings provide. That way, I can find out how a book will affect me and make my reading decisions based off of that. I don’t need to fill my mind with mature content that hardly impacts a story. I know that there are many objections people can raise to this argument. One such objection is that the mature content often included in YA books is realistic. To that I say: Um, yeah. I  go to a public high school. I’m not blind to what goes on. There are teens that do drugs, smoke, drink and go wild at parties that end up in a visit from the police, among other things. However, just because something is “realistic” doesn’t mean I want to read about it. I know many teens that don’t do that stuff, so how about portraying those teens as well? Also, the same argument could be transferred over to movies and TV shows. No matter how “realistic” the content is, movies and TV shows still have content ratings. Why shouldn’t books have them, too? Another objection is that putting content ratings on a book is a form of censorship. First of all, censorship is telling someone not to put certain content in books. I’m not trying to say that all mature content should be taken out of books because I can’t control what people write. What I am saying is that books should still come with ratings and warnings if applicable so that kids and their parents can find appropriate books. And that is not censorship. I get that some writers aren’t going to want those ratings on their books because writing is a form of art and they don’t want their art to be monitored. At the same time, movies are a form of art as well, and they are monitored, so books should be too. In short, I don’t understand why movies have content ratings but books don’t. I want to be able to pick out books with peace of mind because I know that I won’t come across unwanted mature content that will have absolutely no benefit to me, and I’m saddened that I can not do that. I feel like there is so much to be said about this topic, and I’ve only scratched the surface, so I want to know what you think! Should books have content ratings? Do you think it’s a form of censorship? Please do share your thoughts with me in the comments!

Update: Heather wrote a very well written and researched response to this post, so I highly encourage you to check it out!

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32 thoughts on “Why Books Should Have Content Ratings Just As Movies Do

  1. YES, Ana! Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve been wanting this for a while now. When I first started my blog, I followed several book blogs that got me into wanting a blog… but they didn’t read the same kind of clean, Christian books I did (I hadn’t discovered blogs like yours, and others I love now yet), and I stumbled into some pretty mature content labeled as “YA…” and I was disgusted. I especially wish there were content ratings for YA, because there’s a huge line (for me, at least) between “clean” and “older” YA. I usually only get a YA book if I find it through another blogger with the same standards for books, because I avoid the section in the bookstore so I don’t pick up something that has some content I’m not okay with. Even with MG books… some are light, and fun, and eight-year-old approved. But in the same section, there are books with some pretty bad language and deep content most younger kids wouldn’t even pick up on. (I know I didn’t at that age.) And you made an excellent point with the movie ratings and the book ratings. Think about book-to-movie adaptions. The movie of the book has to be rated, so why shouldn’t books?

    Anyway, thanks again for this post! As you can see, I have a big opinion on this as, well. I’m thinking I’ll write my own post about it soon! 🙂

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  2. So true! I have a friend who frequently asks me to preview books for her son. He is 10 years old and a voracious reader, which is great. But there is so much inappropriate content in teen lit these days, that his mom has to be very careful. She doesn’t have any resources she can turn to to make sure that popular books are appropriate for her son.

    I am 19, but there is a lot of stuff in YA books even I don’t want to read. YA isn’t the only culprit, quite a few classic literature books and even MG books I’ve read have scenes I wish I could have skipped. Perhaps someone should start a parental guide book blog.

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  3. Hm, I’ve got to say this is one thing that I completely disagree with, although I don’t charge you for your opinion. I think there are a lot of people who would agree with you, but the short answer to my disagreement is that I don’t think the way that movies are rated would translate appropriately into the way that books are rated, it creates a comfort zone I’m not sure I could support, and I’m dubious about our ability to create an end-all scale. I actually think my full argument might be better presented in a response post, if that doesn’t bother you. I’ve been thinking about it quite intently, and so I think I’d like to take my own hand at it. But, the end all is, while I can totally respect why you would want ratings, they aren’t something I’d want, at least right now.

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  4. This is such an interesting topic! I must say I agree that books should have a rating system, so you know what you are getting yourself into and to make sure everything you read is what you are ready to read! That being said if books were to have ratings I wouldn’t want it to feel restricting for authors. I guess we just need to find the right balance for everyone! This was such an interesting post, thank you for posting! -Ayesha x

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  5. Oh, yes, I think this should definitely happen. I’ve been disappointed by the content of several books so far, and I feel like this would be a good idea. Something like what fanfiction.com has for their fanfics. Why not do that with books, too?

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  6. I completely agree with you, Ana. I’ve often wondered why books aren’t (and wished they were) rated similarly to movies. There have been several times when I’ve picked up a book that I assumed would be fine because “it’s for kids” or “so-and-so likes it” and ended up backing away scarred for life. It would be so nice to have some idea ahead of time of what I’m getting myself into, or whether I want to get myself into it at all.

    But I do think it’s worth mentioning that I don’t think that a book rating system could match up exactly with the movie rating system (as in, a book with content that would be rated G/PG/PG-13/R in a movie wouldn’t necessarily receive that same rating as a book). Simply because I think there are some things, as you mentioned, where seeing is worse and other things where the written word is worse. (For instance, someone can be shot in a kid’s book and it still be a kid’s book if it’s not described too graphically, but if someone gets shot on screen in a movie, it immediately boosts the rating.) So in order to rate books, someone would have to come up with an improved rating system, specifically geared towards books. Just a thought.

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  7. YOU PUT IT INTO WORDS!!!!! 😄 Thank you so very much for that!! I have felt this way more & more recently, but didn’t know how to express it!
    I hate it when I’m reading a really interesting book & the author feels the need to throw in unnecessary “stuff” into it that I wasn’t expecting… It makes my eyes burn. 😛 And I also hate not feeling comfortable with recommending a book to someone because of “that one part in chapter 22″… I sometimes wish I could take some white-out to the pages! lol! 🙂

    Excellent post, my friend! ❤

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  8. I’m not entirely sure about this, honestly. I feel like the gatekeepers of YA (librarians, teachers, parents etc.) seeing those ratings WOULD lead to a lot of censorship. Up until now we’ve had the amazing benefit of not having ratings on fiction, which means (unlike movies) teenagers are free to read the books they want. I actually did a research project on YA for school, and a big part of that project was on censorship – even though there are well-meaning people like you who would find content warnings beneficial, I feel like the overall effect would be negative considering how parents already flip out when they find there’s a gay character in a book.

    Although I guess it’s hard for me to see your point of view considering I’m a godless heathen and will read anything 😛 But thanks for this post, I can see it’s well thought out 🙂

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  9. Hm, this is an interesting point – and I definitely see + respect where you’re coming from – but I don’t think I agree with you 100%. One of the things I love about books is that there is no censorship whatsoever. I first picked up the Harry Potter series when I was five years old – and judging by some of the more dubious content & language, that’s something I never would have been able to do if there were ratings put in place on books. But that series (and so many more that I read far before the norm) had an incredible impact on me as a kid, and I can say without a doubt that I would not be the same person had I not read it.

    I suppose what bugs me about ratings is that they tend to put art in a box. And that box, though it has good intentions, does more to constrain than to protect. In the end, I believe readers should have the freedom of discovering stories on their own, without labels to tell them what they can or cannot read.

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  10. These are definitely good points for content ratings. I suppose in a way you could argue that there are some categories — MG is really safe, as you say, YA’s sorta like PG-13, and NA and A easily dip into the R ratings. Still, I can’t say I agree completely that there should be content ratings like movies, because movies are commercialised and sold that way (mostly), and I’d like to think books are art in a slightly different way, as you bring up that excellent point about life-changing books. Some kids might not be allowed to read even books with mild cursing because of these labels, and it might not be their choice to do so.

    Perhaps I would be more behind something less straight-out categorised, for example if books were required to include things like “includes violence” vs “includes graphic violence” or something, y’know? That way we can veer away from compartmentalising, but there’s still a note for readers who prefer to stay away from that sort of thing.

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  11. I definitely agree with your post, particularly as I’ve been scarred by books way too many times. When I was little I read all the time, which made me so desperate for books to read that I tried reading boring looking “grown up” books and ran into stuff I wasn’t ready for. In fact, there’s a lot of stuff out there that I’ll never be ready for and really want to avoid.

    Some of the others who commented were concerned that a rating system would keep people from reading books, but actually there’s books I won’t read because I don’t know what’s in them, so a rating system would actually let me read MORE books instead of the other way round. Lots of people let their kids watch PG-13 movies so a PG-13 rating on a book wouldn’t necessarily keep kids from reading it. It’s just a guideline. I don’t think it would become a way to control people or books, since there’s not much control on PG-13 movies. R ratings are a whole other ball park and I think parents should know if there’s mature content in books their kids are reading.

    So overall I think a rating system would be more beneficial than otherwise. This has sparked a lot of thought for me and I’ll probably be writing a post on my blog about content. Thanks for a great post!

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  12. You bring up a lot of really good points in your post and I’m definitely impressed. I totally agree with you on the front that it can be challenging (even traumatic) to run into unwanted content. Because of some experiences, I often common sense media books but it would be SO much easier if there was a rating. If not on the book, on some easy app or website…..

    Great post!

    http://saltareintolife.weebly.com
    (My blog)

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  13. I’ve never thought of that before, but I think that is a good idea. If people don’t want a very visual one on a book cover it could be at the back or maybe just inside the cover. People often flick through books. Love the post. – Anna

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  14. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve thought of this myself. I’d like to know exactly what I’m getting into before I read a book just as much as I would with a movie. Movies and books have both changed my life in good or bad ways. Everyone has had that movie or book or more than one that scarred you as a kid. It would be nice to have more warning when I pick a book up off the shelf.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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  15. This is such a great topic for a post. I’ve actually thought a lot about this while watching movies and I’m glad you brought it up! I don’t think it’s necessary for books to have rating scales like movies but it would definitely be a huge help in certain aspects, most of which you already covered! On the other side of the spectrum, I also don’t think it would be a huge help just because I already classify books by genre. In doing so, it’s sort of similar to what a movie rating scale would be: kids books are rated PG, middle grade books are fairly PG, and young adult is where certain ratings begin to blur, moving more into G and PG-13, saving R for New Adult and Adult Fiction. Again, lovely post!

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  16. Hi, Ana! This is definitely a problem for some teenagers. I’m a high school librarian and sometimes I struggle to recommend the right books because a lot of YA has more gritty and mature content in it than many “adult” fiction. I did want to suggest Common Sense Media to you. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/ They do a really good critique of the content of books, particularly YA and give a suggested age. It’s great because they tell you exactly why they suggest that age. I hope this is helpful!

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    1. I think it’s great that you strive to recommend books with appropriate content to your patrons, Laura! I agree that there are definitely some YA books that are way more mature than adult books. I’ve read adult books that were so clean that they could have passed as upper MG books if it weren’t for the deeper and more serious themes involved in the story and the ages of the protagonists. Thanks for the site recommendation! I actually already use Common Sense Media, and love it. I can’t always find the books I want on there, but oftentimes I can.

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  17. I would definitely love some sort of content guide attached to books, especially YA books (though I would like to see them even on adult books) to give you an idea of what’s inside. I do understand what previous commenters are saying though about certain books getting censored though because of a rating system or content guide, and like you I don’t believe in censoring books, so I think there is definitely a balance to work out there. But I do know there is certain content I don’t want to read, and like you try to find out what’s in a book ahead of time. And I’m a 28 year old married woman, so it’s not like I can’t handle certain things from a maturity standpoint, I just don’t like reading (or watching/hearing in the case of movies) certain kinds of content. We all have different tolerance levels.

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    1. Oh, I also meant to mention Rated Reads in case you’re not familiar with it! I usually check it out to see if a book I’m interested in is on there to find out more about the content!

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      1. Yes, I agree that in order for a system like this to work out, it would need to have balance so that it does not veer into censorship. Honestly, I feel that the movie rating system does this perfectly. I don’t feel as if movies are censored when they are rated, but instead, merely categorized. Oh, I totally understand that even as an adult you don’t want to read certain content; I’m sure that will be me in the future! One of my pet peeves is when some people indicate that people who don’t read edgier content are immature. Ummm…what? Would you call someone who refuses to read FSoG immature? No! Content tolerance has much less to do with maturity than with personal values.

        Thanks for that recommendation! I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds really useful. The more sites I know of the better since there are only so many books that the folks over at Common Sense Media can review.

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  18. Whoa, interesting topic. I’ve actually never thought of this before and while it’s certainly interesting, I don’t think i can agree. For me, when a book is labelled YA, there’s a LOT that could be covered, from swearing to rape to drugs. The only thing that makes things YA [to me] is the presence of the age group in the literature. and that being said, i realize that the heavy topics are usually there but when you read the back cover, more often than not, it’s pretty easy to guess what kind of content will be in those books.

    I feel like ratings will lead to censorship and i really dislike that. it’s fine to not want to read something for yourself but when you put a content rating, it’s like saying, ‘this isn’t appropriate because you don’t fit the qualifications of the content rating.” some people, like me, are reading YA before they ARE considered YA and i would hate to have to see a rating that limits to an age group. i think all of us are different with our tastes and how quickly people mature.

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  19. I totally agree with you on this! I’m really lucky, though, because my mother actually reads a lot of my books before I do. She screens a lot of the bad books so I never even read them. It’s annoying sometimes, but I do really appreciate her taking the time to help me out. I totally agree that we should have ratings, so the search for clean books would be easier. I wonder, though, if it would be harder for them to produce ratings for all books that come out, because there are so many more books that come out every year than there are movies?

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