During my extended ventures into YA territory to help my kids find good books, I've noticed how many obscenities, profanities, and sexual situations are present in bestselling books marketed to the age 9+ demographic. So when I read this article in TIME magazine, about how many YA novels would be rated R if they were movies instead of books, I wholeheartedly agreed:
Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne and her colleagues analyzed profanity use in 40 teen novels on the New York Times’ best-seller list of children’s books published in 2008. All the books reviewed targeted children age 9 or older. . .The researchers found that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity, which translates to nearly seven curse words per hour of reading. Of the 40 books in the study, 88% contained at least one “bad word.”
The "R" rating is reserved for movies that are restricted--a person under 17 must have an accompanying parent or adult guardian. A "PG-13" rating means that parents are strongly cautioned, because "some material may be inappropriate for children under 13."
It's very clear that many elements which would restrict young movie-goers are abundant in children's and YA fiction. And adults often do not pay attention to what their kids are reading, because we accept that television and movies need some sort of filtering. But we associate reading with knowledge and virtue, and pay little attention to the content.
It isn't just the presence of foul language and sexual situations that is problematic, but the characters doing these things are, according the the Time magazine article, often "young, rich, attractive, and of high social status."
This dynamic has the potential to influence young people, especially a child without involved parents who take time to help their children discern the good and bad on page and screen.
I'm not advocating for any kind of systematic censorship here. Rather, I believe authors and filmmakers who market to children and families need to take their responsibility to their audience seriously. Yes, dear story creators, it's a responsibility. Deal with it. Every human being bears the responsibility of caring for the best interests of their fellow man. And no one is more vulnerable and in need of guidance in our society than our children.
Publishing and movie-making should never be reduced to making a name or making a buck. Children quite naturally enter into the stories they see and read, and internalize messages and themes during these formative years. Books can shape us in ways that we often don't understand or even realize until we are much older.
What does Meg Ryan’s character say about books in You’ve Got Mail?
When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.
While it may be true-to-form for a character to be involved in immoral, unethical, or illegal conduct, but are these actions are dealt with responsibly? Consequences must follow the choices a character makes, whether those acts are noble or criminal.
Sure--sometimes the bad guy doesn't get caught, and sometimes the innocent suffer. But we should never encourage young people to admire the selfish, cruel, or vulgar behavior of a story's protagonists or antagonists, nor should they be tempted to emulate those actions.
This doesn't mean that authors must create cardboard characters with good guys wearing white hats and kissing puppies, or bad guys tricked out in black leather pants driving black sports cars. Good guys can be flawed, and bad guys can be likable. But in theme and tone, an author influences and directs the reader to certain conclusions.
It's one of the reasons I've appreciated shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy and her friends make choices, and they almost always reap the consequences of their actions, sometimes several seasons later.
The duty to be more thoughtful about creating stories doesn't just lie with authors, however. Parents need to be vigilant and involved. We must take the time to read reviews and pre-read books for theme and content; not just to prevent our young 'uns from reading particular books, but as a way of being informed about what our kids are reading so that the messages conveyed can be discussed and faulty ideas corrected.
A great way to accomplish this is by reading aloud or by buddy reading books with your kids. Reading aloud isn't just for little ones--we read books together right up into the teen years, and it has been a wonderful experience.
Is this a lot of work? Yes. But it's essential, and the bottom line is--you make the time for the things that are important, and ensuring your children have a healthy view of the world and their place in it is at the top of the Parental Responsibility List.