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Should young adult books have age ratings?

Author G.P. Taylor says 'children's literature has gone too far' and advocates a ratings system like that for movies or video games.

By Husna Haq / July 9, 2012

Author G.P. Taylor said it was after writing his Vampyre Labyrinth series that he began to think children's literature has gotten too dark.

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It’s a debate we expect to hear a lot more of in coming years: is developing a ratings system for increasingly dark young adult literature a move toward responsibility and oversight – or a slide into censorship?

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In its latest iteration, the debate is being played out across the pond in the UK, where bestselling children’s authors G.P. Taylor and Patrick Ness sparred on BBC Breakfast over Taylor’s proposal to establish an age-ranging system for children’s lit.

After diving into the vast pool of vampire-themed literature with his Vampyre Labyrinth Series, about vampires living in Yorkshire, England during the Second World War, Taylor, better known for classic children’s novels like "Shadowmancer" and "Wormwood," said he decided to withdraw from the dark direction young adult lit has recently followed.

“I wrote the Vampyre Labyrinth, it came out, I hadn't really read it when I wrote the book, and people who were reading it and reviewing it were saying, 'This is the most frightening thing that has ever been written for kids,'” Taylor told BBC Breakfast, as reported by the Guardian. “I have changed my mind: I think children's literature has gone too far.”

After telling BBC Breakfast he got “dragged” into the vampire craze, Taylor hit upon the hot-button topic du jour: advocating the establishment of an age-ratings system for young adult literature, similar to ratings systems for movies and video games.

“I think the way forward is a certification system for books, the same way we have in films,” he said. “For children, we’ve got to be really careful. We’ve got to have a guide for parents.”

His comments come on the heels of a recent study by Brigham Young University that found young adult bestsellers have twice the rate of cursing of video games and characters who swear are typically portrayed as wealthier, more attractive, and more popular than their clean-mouthed counterparts.

And it’s not the first time age ratings have been proposed for children’s books. Publisher Scholastic proposed just such a measure back in 2008, which was met with swift condemnation, rebellion, even a petition against the measure signed by some 800 authors, including J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Terry Pratchett.

Given the less-than-warm response to Scholastic’s proposal, we’re not surprised Taylor’s proposal was similarly rejected. Patrick Ness, whose Carnegie Medal-winning novel “A Monster Calls,” about a boy whose mother has cancer and is visited by a monster, not only rejected Taylor’s proposal but said he embraced darkness in young adult literature.

“All you have to really do is read what teenagers write themselves, and I've judged competitions for teenagers writing, and it's darkness beyond anything I would come up with,” Ness told BBC Breakfast. “Teenagers look at this darkness all the time, and I always think if you're not addressing it in your fiction, then you're abandoning them to face it themselves.

“It's not as if books exist in a vacuum and that's all the input teenagers are getting,” he continued. “Teenagers look at the Internet, they look at the news, they look at pornography on the internet, they look at violent movies on the Internet. So if children's literature is not addressing that, if it's addressing the world as it should be rather than as it is, then why would a teenager read you?”

What’s more, Ness argued, ratings systems for young adult literature simply don’t work. “If it's got an 18 certificate for adults, then younger children will look it out when their parents are not around … Children are great self-censors. They know what they can read and they know what they want to read, and if you don't give it to them, they'll find it somehow.”

The topic has stirred even more debate in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, where bestselling author Charlie Higson tweeted, “Why was GP Taylor on BBC news suggesting govt introduce measures to keep books out of the hands of kids who want to read them?”

What do you think – is it time young adult lit comes with an age rating?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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