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Life Doesn't Come With Warnings. Should Books?

I am a fan of Sarah J. Maas. She knows exactly how to hook readers in. But when adding House of Earth and Blood to my TBR pile, I browsed through reviews and noticed recurring warnings from readers that it is not for the YA audience—it is a new adult book and contains cursing and sex. I personally don’t like to read stories that contain too much profanity or sex, but each to their own, right?

As an author of YA, I am also a reader of YA to see what’s trending and because the stories are fun to read. But lately I have read a few books that contain unexpected F-bombs, fully described sex scenes, and sexual violence—looking at you Tithe and Serpent & Dove. Since these books are targeted to young adults, and I’d read one of the authors previously, I hadn’t expected it. The only way I could know prior to picking up the books was to go on Goodreads or Facebook and ask fellow readers or read their reviews.

So, the question I am pondering is: Should books have warnings?

I am not talking trigger warnings, that is a whole other subject discussed in one of the links below. I simply mean warnings to let us readers know that there may be content that we may not wish to read.

Well, “according to a study by Brigham Young University, young adult bestsellers are so rife with cursing they actually have twice the rate of cursing of video games.” This surprised me since, honestly, I haven’t discovered that many books filled with profanity.

According to author Patrick Ness, “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?”

Now while his point is convincing, a part of me still has issues with this. For one, the age range for YA books is wide. There is a monumental difference between a twelve-year-old and a nineteen-year-old. Even then, some folks argue that the YA audience surpasses teenage age. It is basically the years until we are fully fledged grown-ups (lol). Life experiences, life choices and the themes that are thrown at us are just so different. Can the big publishers say that a YA book with a massive number of F-bombs and a fully described sex scenes are appropriate for a younger teen to read? Sure, they may be curious, they may pick it up out of pure curiosity because a friend recommended it but that is a conscious choice that they have made knowingly. What about those who didn't know about the contents prior to opening the book?

I don’t expect books to give the full description of why content should require a warning. And I don’t agree with giving age ratings per se, as some parents have proposed. But I have seen more and more indie authors put a small warning on their Amazon description. And good on them! What’s so wrong with saying in small writing on the back of the book or in the online blurb:

  • contains profanity

  • contains scenes of a sexual nature

  • contains scenes of a sensitive nature

  • For a mature YA audience

  • suitable for a younger YA audience

  • not suitable for a younger YA audience

I could go on….

These are pointed out by the readers themselves in the countless Facebook and Goodreads groups. The readers have to warn each other because the publishers are not. And the readers often do so when people ask about the books they are considering as their next choice.

I agree with Patrick Ness in the sense that when teens want to read something, appropriate or not, they will find it. Same with us adults. And yes, life is full of moments that are inappropriate at times—as Lori Horvitz points out in defence of appointing books with triggers to her students: "I want to tell my students: sometimes I might not warn you. Not out of malice, but because I care. Because the outside world is full of triggers... And you need to be ready and strong. You need to be prepared."

Life doesn’t give us the luxury of choosing what we want at every turn. When I walk past a group of people cursing and swearing is that because I wanted to? No, they are just doing it and I am in the vicinity. If I stumbling on a website that has sexual content I might get a flash of something I don’t want to see, but then I will close the tab, because it is my choice to do so. If there is some horribly violent image online I can click the 'inappropriate content’ button and turn it off.

But if a book is not appointed to me by the university or school for reading—which is a whole other debate amongst schools and teachers and school boards—then it is my choice to pick it up and read it. It is my choice to buy it. Surely I have the right to know if the content contains something I don’t want to read prior to purchasing it? Why do I have to rely on my fellow writers and reviewers to find out which books are appropriate or not (yeh yeh, cause companies want the money).

It’s just something I’ve been pondering. What do you think? Do you mind reading profanity or sexual content? Do you want books to come with warnings? Comment your thoughts below.

Some links I checked out before typing:

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1 Comment

John Harrell
John Harrell
Jun 30, 2020

Excellent post, Rachel. A lot of good points. Personally, I think the current system is a good one. An online community that lets reading peers know what's up is important, but a full-fledged rating system -- a YAAA (vs MPAA), if you will -- sucks out the flare. Like Ness said, life surprises you. More often than not. So, that explicit romance scene you didn't expect might not be what you had in mind, but that's the spice of life.

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