Should Juvenile and Young Adult Books Carry Parental Warnings?

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

My last post about Susanne Collins’s books and their level of violence made me think about books for children, banned books and parent concerns.

If you aren’t familiar with the young adult, or YA, fiction category, you might be alarmed at what you find there. There are lots of “edgy” novels, meaning that they’re loaded with drug use, teenage sex and an over-arching distain or distrust of authority figures. The world view of many of them is that life sucks, everyone is corrupt or evil, and then you die.

At a recent meeting at Dole Library of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a member expressed concern about the subject matter of some children’s books. There was an interesting discussion about whether dark themes are helpful or harmful for children. We didn’t reach a consensus but it made me think about banned books and why there are disagreements over what is appropriate for children and young teens to read.

On the American Library Association (ALA) website ( there is a list of books that have been banned or challenged in the last five or six years.  Some of the reasons are laughable. Someone challenged On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God: Further Confessions of Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison because “an unstable person seeing a girl reading the book might think from the title that the girl is promiscuous and stalk her.”

Other books that land on the list, however, are classics—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and Fahrenheit 451. These are major literary novels that have have offended parents for years. Most books are deemed objectionable because of drug use, sexuality, profanity, objectionable language (racist or sexist) or high levels of violence.  

A majority of the challenges have been made because the books were available in school or public libraries or were assignments for class. It’s easy to characterize a parent who challenges a book as uptight, controlling and wanting to curb the First Amendment rights of everyone, but I don’t see it that way. Some of the books ARE too explicit for children. I think that it should be possible for parents to use their discretion in exposing their children to such material. 

Like so much of the entertainment that is available, parents need to monitor what their children read. There is no rating system on books to guide a parent as to the maturity of the topic and the areas it will explore. YA books reflect much of what is going on in the hearts and minds of young adults--the same issues that are being explored in video games, movies and television.  I would bet, though, that most adults are not aware of what is contained between the covers. 

I’m not advocating censorship. Books should be available for older teens and adults to read. On the other hand, I see the impulse to shield children from the horrors of the world as a natural parental impulse that arises from the desire to keep hope for the future alive.  

YA books are a growing segment of the publishing industry, so there is little doubt that for the foreseeable future they will continue to be available and will continue to push the boundaries of what is appropriate for tweens and teens to read. But perhaps it’s time for the kind of rating system that movies and other media have so that parents, who can’t possibly keep up with all that’s available, will have some idea of what their children are reading.

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john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: October 26th, 2010 1:41 PM

QUOTE I see the impulse to shield children from the horrors of the world as a natural parental impulse... UNQUOTE. When I was twelve my father said that he had taught all the values of life that I needed and that all he could do in the future was remind me of my values. I survived and raised my three children by the same rule. Teach your children strong values when they are young and they will make good decisions. Censor them and they will rebel.Kids make great choices. Trust them.

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