Tuesday, April 20, 2010


First, let me say that I'm not a political type of person. When my friends start debating about health care plans, or government issues, I'm the one who stays quiet. Usually, I don't have much of an opinion because I purposefully ignore the news so I DON'T have to hear all the negativity about how craptastic our nation has become.

I know, I know, some of you are shaking your head and saying it's an ignorant way to live. I agree. But I like my style of ignorant bliss. I sleep better at night. Besides, if the news is important enough, I'll hear about it on Twitter.

If it's book news (which is the kind I DO care about) I will most definitely see it on Twitter. Just like this article:

This one hits close to home. I live in Florida. I know Lake County. I write YA. This bit of news penetrated my bubble, and my ears and eyes perked up with interest.

A 13-year-old's mother fought to have books like The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson put on a special shelf because it contained "vulgar content." The mother succeeded, and now she's casting a bigger net. She wants all the public libraries of Lake county to put warning labels on books that contain any sort of sexual, drug, or "vulgar" content.

In MY mind I'm thinking, "Um, we already have a label, it's called THE YA SECTION."

But apparently, that's not enough. Let's smack a bright flashing neon sticker on books that have any kind of mature content inside.

This reminds me of when I was a young teen and I started seeing warning labels on tapes (Gasp! Yup, I'm that old.) and CDs. This was created to protect kids from explicit lyrics. Ha. Those are the albums kids bent over backwards to get their hands on.

In a way, this woman bugs me, but I can also see her point. She wants to protect her daughter and other children from stumbling across unexpected subjects in their reading selections.
I get that.

In reality, kids are kids. These days, teens ARE dealing with sex. drugs, vulgar language, and many other mature issues as early as middle school. (Sadly, I've even heard it's in some elementary schools.) Do we genuinely believe warning them a book contains this kind of stuff will stop them from reading it?

Are we going to put a warning label on the hot delinquent that all the girls in school swoon over? Or how about the classmate that offers their friends pot? How about the friend that has an eating disorder or is getting abused by someone? Let's put warning labels on all the kids who aren't living an impeccable and perfectly righteous life.

If they curse, smack a sticker on them. If they've already lost their virginity but haven't yet graduated, crazy glue that warning label to their forehead. Let's make sure the "good" kids don't go anywhere near the "bad kids."

Because, you know, we need to protect the "good ones."
(Insert eye-roll here.)

Here's an idea: TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN. Acknowledge these issues are real. That's why most authors write about them. These ARE the issues kids and teens are facing every day. If parents won't discuss them, their children are going to find friends, or books, who will help them understand what's going on and how to cope.

And guess which books they'll seek out? Yup, the ones with the big flashy warning label.

So go ahead, mark them. Put them on the highest, most visible shelf with a built-in flashing light. Make them stand out in the sea of library books, like a lighthouse guiding kids towards what they're searching for. Because they'll know, inside, is a story of something or someone they can relate to.

Feel free to speak your mind in the comments. I see both sides of the argument. You'll find no judgment from me, only a love of books.


  1. I think parents need to watch what their kids read themselves. They can't count on labels to do the work for them. That's just lazy. If you are one of those cautious parents, then you need to read the books/reviews yourselves and determine which ones to give to your kids. that's my opinion. :)

  2. I'm holding up my lighter right now! Can you visualize it? Wendy, holding a lighter she bummed from the one smoker left in South Florida so she can show her support for Karen's incredibly well-written and solid argument against censorship and for teaching what is REAL in the world. I mean, wouldn't we rather our kids learn this stuff from literature instead of from their equally uninformed peers? ;-)

  3. I think it is the parents job to pay attention to what their kids are reading. When I was a YA, my Mom would casually pick up books that I had finished reading and read then herself. Since I usually read serial books, she only had to read one or two to get a sense of the book's appropriateness for me. When I was 13, VC Andrews was all the rage, although I don;t think it was suppsoed to be for YA's we read them anyways. I was reading the Flowers in the Attic series and mt Mom read one, and that started the conversation about understanding physical and sexual abuse and how it was treated in the books. I think back to the VC Andrew's series and shake my head now that I understand some of the adult themes: What was I thinking? Anyways, having my Mom talk to me about the book and the actual issues was far more powerful than slapping a "vulgar" label on it. Great post. - G
    PS. Michael Buble won 4 Canadian music awards this weekend!

  4. I totally agree Karen. If you put a "mature content" sticker on a book kids are going to rush to read it. I think it all comes down to parenting. Do parents have a responsibility to know what their kids are reading? YES. Is it sometimes important to limit access to certain kinds of books until they're older? Yes, I think so. Can reading be an excellent teaching tool if we know what our kids are reading and discuss it with them? YES, definitely.

  5. I think the labels are for those lazy parents that Aubrie mentioned. If there's a label, then they don't have to read the book because someone's already done that work for them.

    Personally, I don't see the labels on books (and the labels on music) as being for kids because kids will seek them out with a vengence. Anyone who knows kids should know this. :) I think the labels are for the parents. The lazy ones, or the insanely busy ones.

    The only group I can see justifying this labeling business are the single moms who just don't have time to read everything their kids might be reading (my mom was a single mom, and they just DON'T have time), but they still want to be good moms and know what their kids are reading. The label will help reduce the list of books they need to check out. I can see that being incredibly helpful for them.

    That said, that's a small group of people for such a widespread labeling project. And this labeling thing will enable lazy parents to keep being lazy. So, honestly, I don't know what's better.

  6. I'm NOT saying I support this kind of light censorship, but does this lady not realize that slapping warning labels on these kinds of books is the one sure-fire way to get teens to read them?

  7. Okay, I guess I'm going to be the deviant one. I am not sure about the term "warning label" but I am all for some type of rating system for books.

    1) Movies have rating systems, and I don't think it has hurt the movie industry in any way.

    2) Kids may navigate towards the higher ratings, but I think that is where parents come in. I may not want my 13 year-old to watch rated R movies. I'll tell him that and why. (This is my hypothetical 13 year-old b/c both my children are in diapers.) Can I stop him from ever seeing a rated R movie? Probaby not. But I can talk to him. Same with book ratings.

    3) Parents can't read all books their children read, just like we can't watch all the movies our children watch. I think the rating system is good for parents. They may be young adults. But they are still children and under parental supervision.

    4) If you don't want your book's cover to say "book contains this and that" don't write it in the book.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly, and I also feel like kids should have the right to read what they want. My parents were (and are) very conservative and religious, but they never really delegated what books my brother and I could and couldn't read. As a result, we were taking books off their bookshelves when we were still in single digits.

    Know how I found out about sex? Yep, I read one of Mom's romance novels. The same could be said for many things.

    I was a pretty mature kid, and I like to think that at least part of that came from the adult material I was constantly bombarding my brain with--not just "adult" like that, but content written to a higher level, forcing my young brain to bridge those connections far earlier than I ever would have had to otherwise.

    Of course, if my parents had KNOWN I was reading some of that stuff, it would be a different story. But they trusted us. (Silly them.)

  9. I totally agree that we can't protect kids from everything. However, I'm trying to imagine myself as a parent. If I had a 12-year-old who read YA (because lots of 12 and 13 year olds are perfectly capable of graduating from MG), I would want to know which books had stronger or questionable content. Not necessarily so I could STOP the kid from reading them, but just so I would KNOW which books I needed to talk with her about. I think that would be an appropriate use of labels--for knowledge. Now, some parents of really young YA readers (12, 13) might use the labels to censor what their kids read. But like it or not, those young kids do need more protection and guidance than a 16 or 17 year old would, and I think it's appropriate for parents to decide that their 12-year-old girl isn't ready to read about sexual experiences or really extreme language.

    I am 26...I grew up in an era where we were pretty jaded and saw a lot of shady stuff...but even I am not a fan of this "total disclosure" policy we seem to have taken with our kids, where everything, no matter how controversial or ugly, is given to them to process by themselves without any direction from parents. Where parents who try to find out what their kids are exposed to are accused of being controlling. I realize there are a lot of stupid parents who try to keep everything away from their kids. But to fight against warning labels is sort of like keeping parents in the dark, and I think we'd all agree that in-the-dark parents are not necessarily a good things for teens to have.

    Thanks for the great discussion though. Like you, I can see both sides of the issue, even though I have come down on one of those sides. :)

  10. You can ask any 17 year old what their favorite book is and the vast majority of them will reply The Catcher in the Rye.

    It has all the vulgarity you listed.

    It's been banned more than any other book.

    But it's still considered one of the great American classics.

    All this lady is doing is driving kids towards the books she doesn't want them to read. I don't think that's a bad thing, though.

  11. I don't want a warning label but I do want some sort of idea of content in a book. I want to know what's in a book so that I don't have to read it. I don't like to read books with a lot of profanity and sex and when I pick up a book there's no way of knowing what I'll find. The YA section used to be safe, but it isn't anymore. We know what to expect in movies with the rating system - why can't we know what's in a book?

  12. Great post and I totally agree.

    How about, as parents, we read what our kids are reading. And then, now here's the kicker. Then, we TALK ABOUT IT. *gasp*

  13. I have one more thing to add after reading everyone's comments. I think it is insulting to call parents of teenagers lazy. Of course I'm going to keep my younger children out of the YA section, but when a kid is a teenager they have more freedom and kids who read are voracious readers. It's impossible to read every book that they do - I have a hard enough time keeping up with my own TBR pile. Again a rating system would be helpful - that's all I'm asking for. I'm not asking for books to be banned or put on a separate shelf or "Labeled" I just want to know if I'm going to want to put it down halfway through because of the profanity and sexual content. I think there are many teenagers out there who don't want to read books with a lot of profanity and sex and a rating system would help them as well. There are many books in the ADULT sections that don't have a lot of profanity in them - I want to read those books, but I don't know which ones have it and which ones don't. I don't have time to read a review on every book that interests me.

  14. The very essence of being teen is to explore, search, question. It's built in the DNA. Parents shouldn't attempt to smother that but, rather, they should build a foundation of trust with their kids from infancy. Let them know it's okay to talk with them about anything, let them know there are ethics to be considered when making choices.
    I'm so glad you decided to speak up about this, Karen. You're right that kids will head straight for the flashing sign, because they must.
    And another point against labeling is that sometimes the only place a kid can get information about a personal problem, such as abuse, is through books because they don't have parents they can trust.

  15. Mary - just to clarify, I'm not calling all parents of teenagers lazy. Because they aren't. But some parents are lazy (I have kids, and I see plenty of lazy parents), and that's all I was saying. But that wasn't a blanket statement.

  16. ...another wonderful post Karen, a debatable issue hitting home with many YA writers/readers. Funny thing, I'm currently reading Gaiman's "Stardust," which is thus far fantastic, but does include a blazing sex scene between Dunstan Thorn and a dazzling young vixen I can best describe as being a fairy.(yeah I know, every man's dream:) Being a father of three, I've asked myself, would I want my thirteen year old reading this? The answer...sure. Because I'm his dad, and I trust his judgement. We talk. He asks questions,I answer them honestly. I don't sugarcoat, I don't beat around the bush. I tell him how it is in this world. If more parents would do that, I think perhaps labels would be of little significance. And yeah, Dunstan lived the dream:) sorry, I'm just saying...

  17. What a subject!

    I agree, slap the sticker on and let the sales rise!

    This is a topic that is surrounded by so many deep issues and can be debated for a lifetime.

    Kids are going to read what they want to read and listen to what they want to listen to.

    Sometimes we can raise our children to the best of our ability and they can turn out to be delinquents anyway.

    My current book is a story based on my experience growing up which involved lots of drugs, lots of sex and yes rock and roll. These are the things I was drawn to, so when I saw that label on a CD, I would have to have it.

    My story is not glorified nor is it condemning. It just is what it is; my story.

    Drugs happen, sex happens and many other things happen. If we shelter our children they won't know what to do when encountered with that type of situation. Judgment without love and understanding is cruel.

    I believe children need to explore with close monitoring and it's important for parents to allow the child to communicate. Have an open dialogue, if you will without judgment.

    We are all different and what one may see as harmful, another may see as educational.

    I could go on and on but I won't bore you with all the different perspectives I have on this topic.

  18. I agree with Tricia, the nature of teens is to explore. A warning label is a guarantee kids will grab that book first. I'm not a parent, but I was a YA once, and experience tells me it's the parents who don't talk to their kids about sex and drugs that want this kind of labeling.

    At the same time, I agree with Mary. Concerned parents should have a way of knowing what's in a book. Maybe a simple SDL rating system for sex, drugs, language? But special shelves and warning labels? They'll do nothing but draw teen readers.

  19. I've gotta say, the idea of warning labels on books weirds me out. As far as I'm concerned, books contain words on pages, and those can't actually hurt you. Anything 'vulgar' about a book can probably be figured out from reading the back or the first ten pages. If the kid makes it to page 150 of the book, it won't shock them, since they probably figured out the sort of book it was by page 15.

  20. I hadn't heard about warning labels on books. I guess it was only a matter of time, eh? If anything it'll be like the banned books list- kids are going to want to get their hands on it more than ever. I wouldn't be surprised if books with warning labels saw a spike in library check outs!

    Adults should pay attention to what their kids are reading and even read the same books. I read all of Judy Blume's books by the time I was 12 (yes, even-gasp!-Forever) and my mom encouraged me to discuss the books with her. And I did. And I turned out to be one of those goody-two-shoes kids even though I read such scandalous material! But I was smart enough to understand the issues and know which avenues to pursue because my mom and dad discussed those issues with me. I know it's probably not that easy with every kid, but adults gotta try. It's irresponsible for people to keep blaming books or movies for how kids act!

    Excellent post! I'm glad you brought up this issue.

  21. You've totally nailed it. Parents need to talk to their children. I'm not opposed to my daughter reading a book with vulgar content. Heck, Water for Elephants has some racy scenes, but it's an amazing book I hope she'll read one day. But I want to be able to talk to her about that kind of stuff. Communication is key!

  22. Talking to our kids is always going to be way more effective than labeling/censoring/banning books about the tough stuff.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

  23. Okay... Karen you touched a subject I have been considering posting about. I saw that article as well - Florida news floats up here to Bama pretty regularly.

    I am quite curious how they are going to do this. I mean…

    Will it be like the MPAA rating system?
    Will these books be displayed on high shelves hoping that most are too short to reach them?
    Will those that pick up these books to read begin to be shunned by their peers?
    Will people who choose not to carry these books also remove certain classics that contain similar subject matter even though they are considered classics?
    How will teachers monitor which student is MATURE enough to read the book?
    Who gets to decide how the content should be notated?
    Will they be kept in brown paper sleeves?
    Why on earth can a parent not read a book that is within their child’s age range and give an educated opinion on the book & know their own children well enough to decide whether or not it is okay for their kid?
    What about those single parents who are unable to be home all the time to answer their kids questions? Huh, maybe, just maybe if their child were to read a book that deals with topics of a “mature” nature and see how the character does not have it easy after making bad choices; perhaps said child might re-think the opportunity if it were put in front of them! Or maybe, just maybe lines of communication will become a bit easier to navigate.

    My parents respected me as a person. I read well beyond my age group when I was younger. Some of those books are the reason that I have such a great relationship with my parents. The stories provoked questions and I asked about those taboo topics. My parents made the choice to honestly answer them rather than shy away. I appreciate that. Why on earth would you rather shelter the child or force them to go behind your back and read the content than to face the fact that it’s your responsibility as a parent to help them when faced with real life issues? Books can give a child who has been through trauma a therapeutic release and can open doors for others on the precipice of bad choices to the consequences the choice will yield!

    It is sad that we so easily can blame movies, video games, and books for our actions. We forget that we are the living characters making those decisions not the avatar on the screen, on the console or on the page...

    Bless that mother, she is only trying to protect her child the way she sees fit. We have to remember though that decisions like this will alter more than just book covers, tag lines, style and genre selection. These decisions will cause even more prejudice amongst the children who are allowed to read them and those not. It just might give even more ammunition to those who live on bullying others and will remove a place of mental solace for some victims.

    Visit My Kingdom Anytime

  24. Holy cow! Don't even get me started. But I echo Wendy and Natalie and Jessie. :-)

  25. Ever see that bumper sticker that says If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention? Yeah. That's why I don't pay attention anymore. I didn't know there was a volcano happening somewhere until it interfered with the London Book Fair. (I might be a little bit insulated in my writer-world. Don't judge.)

    But yes, it's foolishness to crusade against specific kinds of books, especially with warning stickers. Those were like a badge of pride on the music I listened to in high school, quite frankly. Plus, with kids watching Law & Order SVU on TV nowadays, why worry so much about YA novels?

    Stay home and buy books that you approve of from Amazon or Powells, if you're that easily offended.

  26. I'm so tired of this. I know this stuff has been going on for ages, but seriously? First, Amazon cuts off MacMillan and any books barely mentioning homosexuality/etc. And I love Maureen Johnson's books; she's amazing in real life as well.

    But I argue with the freedom of speech-thingy. It's pointless if there's no one around to read the free stuff.

  27. You're absolutely right. Kids will go for the "forbidden" fruit errr, book. Stickers are a waste of time, money and librarian-power. Better the parent should be in control of what HER kids read. (I clearly remember in like 10th grade when Portnoy's Complaint was circulating the classroom desguised behind a brown paper cover.)

  28. Stickers are completely ridiculous if you asked me. But as long as kids are allowed to check out whatever books they like at the library they can slap whatever warning labels they want to on books. I think that it pretty much just shows kids where they'll find the really juicy stuff.

    Parents need to read what their kids are reading and (here's a novel idea!) discuss the books with them. Stickers are literally just a band-aid solution for parents who are scared to talk to their kids about issues like sex, drugs, etc.

  29. I completely agree. I think parents should censor their children's books themselves. They should read the reviews and decide on their own. Sometimes the “vulgar” parts serve an important purpose. Sometimes they don’t. But putting a label on them will likely do more harm than good.

  30. I'm wearing my "I read banned books" T-shirt and nodding enthusiastically over everything you just said!


  31. this world has enough labels and what about our freedom of speech?

    Amen to your post. Parents who are involved parents don't need "Labels" to guide their children, because their children are already well guided.

  32. Totally agree, and glad I've found your blog. You're an excellent writer :)

  33. Wow! This is quite the debate. :) I'm fascinated. I can see both sides, but as a mother of a son who is in 2nd grade and already reading at a 7th grade level... I'd appreciate a heads up on a book with mature content. I can't keep up with his reading schedule if I'm going to get any writing done, but I do my best. I will keep him out of the YA section as long as I can just because of this topic, but his reading level is outpacing his age by many years--that makes things a little difficult.

  34. This is a fantastic post! Thank you for this. I think it's very important to talk to our children, and isolating certain books, like the banned books, even some of the classics, isn't going to change anything except make it easier for kids to find them. Good point.

  35. I'm kind of torn when this subject is brought up.

    My son loves music and he makes a list of songs he wants to buy on itunes, but before he can buy them I go look at the lyrics. (he's 12)

    I can't read every book that he wants to, so a little warning saying what the book contains would be nice, but that could come in a review and not necessarily a label.

    On the other hand, I can see how some really great books might get dismissed.

    It's a definitely a hard subject.

  36. censorship is bad, end of...

    It comes down to parents being parents and paying attention to what their kids are doing instead letting the internet and television raise them. Also, not blaming other entities for their own short comings isn't a nad idea either. If a child is raised with good morals and values, what they read, watch on tv or listen to in their iPod won't change that. Sorry if this seems harsh, but I'm just sick and tired of hearing the excuses for a kids bad behaviour.

    I know plenty of people, myself included that listened to stuff like NWA and played games like Grand Theft Auto and read books with "vulgar" (lol, that word drives me nuts) content.. none of us stole any cars, or shot up any liqour stores etc, we know right from wrong.

    and Dixie's comment about future leaders? lol, the leaders of today aren't exactly choir boys/girls are they now?

    If she's so into reading, she might wanna check out the Constitution, for crying out loud it's the FIRST amendment

  37. The way I see it, if someone wants to know what's in a book or movie or tv show, tell em. Then let them make an informed choice on whether they want it or not. Labels are simply informative. I don't have any problems with it, especially since they already do it for movies, TV and games.

  38. Wow, I guess I missed that bit of news. As you've probably guessed, I'm a super conservative person but when it comes to stuff like this....grrrowl.
    It's the parent's job to monitor what their child reads. Now, when a big hoopla happened because a privately owned Christian bookstore put labels on a Christian book, I was fine with that. IMO, a personal business should be able to do what they want with the books they buy, as long as they're not slandering anyone. But for a library? A government funded library? Seriously? I really hate censorship and people who expect the government to parent the citizens of this country.
    Rant over. :-)

  39. I agree with you completely. I don't understand how people like that mom does not see what she is striving for is actually promoting kids to read those books.

    There has to be something that people who are angered by this can do. Isn't there a way to counteract legislation like this?

  40. The problem with warning labels (or rating systems, as per Ms. Oliveros's suggestion) is that either they do not take into account context, or they are completely subjective.

  41. I think it's all about control. And more harm is done trying to control people than trying to educate them.

    Yes...I agree, 'TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN'.

  42. I think you're right, parents should talk to there children before slapping a lable saying "MATURE CONTENT" every teen will surely want to read it then so at that point the parent has actually made an issue where as before there probably wouldn't have been one. Adults don't give teens enough credit sometimes, if you take the time to talk with your child that could do wonders. Sometimes it also doesn't matter, you can be the best parent in the world, but it's the child who decides what direction there life is going.

  43. Wow- hella cool post! And as someone who teaches 8th graders (12-16 years old), I totally agree with what you are saying- THIS is their lives. They already experience the things that we write about on a day-to-day basis. Labeling the books will make them gravitate towards them more b/c it resembles their lives more than the others. Really great post :)))

  44. Amen! Agree that talking, not banning or labeling, is the answer. I read a lot of things I probably shouldn't have as a kid, and look at me -- erm, I mean, I'm sure that kids can turn out fine even so.

  45. I would be very against warning labels. I agree with you...they already have a label on the spine which says YA. That is the intended audience.

    Very thought provoking!


  46. Also wanted to mention you'll find an award waiting for you in my Monday morning post.

  47. You're right--the best thing we can do is to talk to our children and help them make their own, educated decisions.

    But I also think that books could benefit from rating systems like those used on movies. I want to know what to expect before I happen upon it and I want my children to have the same option too--to have a choice before they read a scene about another little boy raping another little boy (Kite Runner) before they're already deep in the middle of the content.

    Great, conversational topic!

  48. but what if your teen/tween has an E-Reader?

    Warning labels are useless, there are worse things that can be accessed online

  49. You make an excellent point. They are in the YA SECTION! D'uh? That's what makes the content mature. It is for young adults. Not for my kindergartener. (And, by the way... do NOT watch Glee with a six year old! That was a definite mistake!

  50. Darling, I don't watch the news either.

    I think this book labelling idea is unnecessary. Books don't need warning labels; that is so patronising. If a young person wants to read about something gritty, they should go ahead and do so, and no parent should feel justified in stopping them. I learnt a lot of life lessons through reading books, being brought up in a strict and sheltered environment. If my books had carried warning labels on them, my parents would have seen that I was reading something "inappropriate" and taken those books away from me. So you see, it is restricting a person's right to pick up a book and disappear into its story, because they will always be conscious of that warning label on the cover.

  51. omg.. you are so right i have two little girls and trust me they are going to get tired of hearing me talk but they are going to get it. They are going to know what is going on in the world. I hate the idea of the extra labeling that is crazy they already are YA!Thanks so much for this post.

  52. Awesome post! And I really hate to see stuff like this happening. Ugh.


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