This week, for the first time ever, I attended one of the world’s biggest book fairs. I have always read about The London Book Fair with a mixture of envy and curiosity. It’s geared at the publishing industry — here, agents meet publishers from around the world and pitch books to them. Publishers set up stands to display their most successful books and show off a bit. It is a buzz of activity and BUSINESS.
This is the other side of the publishing industry from the book stores we all know and love. This is how books get made.
Anyway, so I was there to talk about sex.
*Smiles at you*
Should books have age ratings?
To be more specific, I was discussing ways we could protect young readers from books for older teens that contain sex, swearing or violence.
In the US and some European countries, publishers voluntarily put recommended ages on the backs of books for young people. Night School usually is rated ’14+’. This doesn’t mean younger teens can’t read them, it’s just a guideline for buyers so they know what they’re getting before they read the book. Books rated 16+ may contain sex, quite a bit of violence or other more ‘adult’ content.
It’s like a film rating, only no one stops you from reading the book if you’re too young. It’s just there for your information.
There are no suggested reading ages on teen books in the UK.
Most Night School readers who contact me are aged 15-25. But I also have a lot of young readers – the youngest who has contacted me is 10. I ADORE my younger readers *waves at lovely young readers* but 10 is awfully young to be reading books like Night School.
The problem is, the teen section is usually right next to – or actually IN – the children’s section of book stores. It’s easy for younger readers to see an enticing cover and be drawn to a teen book. But teen books are NOT children’s books. An 11-year-old is not a 16-year-old.
Night School may not be an ‘adult’ book, but it addresses serious issues of death, loss and sexuality. It doesn’t wallow in them but it doesn’t flinch away from them either.
Publishers and writers are in a delicate position of wanting to treat teenagers as we identify them – we call them ‘young adults’ after all – while also being aware that these books will be read by much younger readers.
I don’t want to give an 11-year-old nightmares. I don’t want my books to have 10-year-olds Googling the sex acts my 17-year-old characters joke about. But I also don’t want to talk down to my 17-year-old readers. I am not willing to have characters who don’t swear or talk about sex in case an 11-year-old reads my book.
Buyer be aware
At my event at the London Book Fair, we opened the floor up to the audience of booksellers, editors, agents, bloggers and marketers to hear what they thought could be done. To my surprise, no-one was opposed to instituting some sort of voluntary system for UK buyers so they could know the kind of content a book contained.
Because young readers have varying levels of reading maturity – all 11-year-olds are not created equal – one suggestion we all quite liked was for a voluntary colour system: red for sex, yellow for language, black for violence, for example. Then readers and parents could flip a book over to see what they’re likely to get.
My book would probably have a yellow flag for its vaguely sweary characters.
No quick fix
We agreed this wouldn’t solve the situation. That younger kids would still want to read more adult books. That some kids would be drawn straight to red-yellow-black books in hopes of more pervy content. That kids will still dare each other to read the most extreme books and that many already read adult books.
We can’t stop older kids from reading these books, and I don’t want to stop them. This is how you grow up.
As a 14-year-old in the audience told me – “You should see what’s written on the cubicle walls in the toilets at my school. It’s worse than anything in a book.’
But what we can do is alert parents of much younger readers that teen books might not be appropriate for their children. We can at least give them some help to try and shield their child a little longer from words they will eventually Google, and images they will eventually see.
What do you think? Especially young readers – do you mind when things have age ratings? Would it bother you?