OPINION: YA Book Ratings: The Censorship of Minority Experiences

By Shianne Henion | September 20, 2021


Imagine going into your local bookstore to pick up a new release in the Young Adult genre. You are excited, knowing that this book is catered to you and your own experiences surrounding your identity. The book rests on a display rack among others, the cover glossy from the showcase light, the title glowing in its pretty font. But you see a sticker under that, marked as YA-4. You have no idea what that means, but you will come to understand that so many of the books you like are marked this way.


They have been marked as inappropriate content.


It seems there is a desire to loop Young Adult (YA) literature into a new system of categorization, which has always been difficult to navigate. But it seems that this system of specifying YA novels is going to become much more confusing. It is time to distinguish novels based on their graphic content, and that alone. Forget historical context or particular meanings; if a book contains heavy drinking or the word ‘fuck,’ it is suddenly seen as explicit.


This type of novel ranking was introduced through a website circulating on Twitter called YA Book Ratings. As of September 16, it has been taken down. The website emphasized the need for content warnings in Young Adult literature and had subsections dedicated to different labels.


On the site’s FAQ page, it has been written that these content labels can be used for a variety of purposes, such as personal preference, academic research, empathy, and to avoid triggering topics.


So far, the idea does not sound bad. In fact, if it helps readers to avoid sensitive topics, then it could be rather helpful. Although, there is an app that already does this, “Storygraph.”


Storygraph is relatively new and useful for authors and readers in the sense of avoiding triggering topics. On the app, the author can edit the profile of their book. This would tell the reader if it contained a traumatic scene or topic.


Then you actually read what these categories are and what they include. It gets quite messy. Thankfully, Foz Meadows, an author on Twitter, posted screenshots of these four sections. They are organized as follows: YA-1, YA-2, YA-3, and YA-4.

















The campaign was created by Jolie Taylor (@endlessfairytales on Instagram and TikTok), Liz Wilson, and Rachel Hill. The two latter co-run the podcast Two Babes and a Book.


It is important to take into account the background of the women who created these ratings. All three are white, cis-gendered women with husbands and children. The ‘Two Babes and a Book’ podcast have posted their admiration for books that are relatively clean of sexual interactions. Taylor has posted her love of Harry Potter on her Instagram. Of course, this is problematic in the light of J.K. Rowling’s transphobic tweets and statements within the past two years. Given the context of what that means, it is doubtful she would be a great ally of transgender people. This has been emphasized by Foz Meadows’ Twitter thread.


In my opinion, these women are not proper candidates for how YA novels should be categorized. These options clearly stem from their personal tastes and morals, which is not how content warnings need to be addressed. It is also important to emphasize that literature is subjective. What one person finds upsetting, another will not. Humans overall are not a monolith. We do not think and act the same, based on cultural backgrounds and identities.


I believe this is an attack against BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities because the women of YA Book Ratings have never experienced the hardships that come with being a minority. If they are rating a book that contains violence surrounding the difficulties that minorities face, what would they rate a book that is so explicit it shouldn’t be read by younger people as? Particularly those who identify as either or both LGBTQ+ and BIPOC?


YA Book Ratings have sent out emails to several authors, one of them being Kalynn Bayron, the author of “Cinderella is Dead” and “This Poison Heart.”


What a surprise that they’d ask the author to rate their own work, break down the content of their stories, and to let them be ridiculed by these nonsensical categories. There is no fairness here, no room for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ stories to be appreciated without being judged first.


Truly, how could they ask an author to rate experiences that are rooted in their life? As a non-binary and queer person myself, would my book be deemed inappropriate because it will talk about queer experiences? Identities should not be segregated, and it is shameful that the women of YA Book Ratings seek to make it so by shoving YA books into boxes based on their “explicit” content.


This concept demeans and dehumanizes the experiences minorities go through. Ashley Herring Blake, an agent of Rees Literary, expressed her concerns when YA Book Ratings sent her an email asking to put “Girl Made of Stars” into one of these categories.


“With GMOS, it deals with sexual assault. It has a queer main character, an enby side character,” Blake wrote. “So what are we saying to those who have experienced sexual assault, those who are are queer, those who are enby, if this story gets deemed “inappropriate?”’


Enby is a short-form way of saying non-binary.


Blake continues to express her discomfort by explaining that if queer and BIPOC stories were to be put under the YA-4 category, they are being told that their stories are not worth being read and that their work is not meant for the everyday reader. Minority books need to be read by the same audience that would pick up a copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” They need to be normalized. Even if there was no conscious racism and homophobia involved when crafting the YA categories, there is privilege involved.


Her thread: https://twitter.com/ashleyhblake/status/1437909824805740544?s=20


This leads to my next set of questions. Why are they inputting their biases onto a large genre where there is going to be an array of different stories (that will always contain some traumatic experience)? How do they expect authors to write their books based on these labels they have assigned?


I also wager that if a book has been categorized as Young Adult and contains high levels of smut, it would be smarter to advocate that the book be reprinted under the New Adult or Adult genre. That is what had to happen with Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series.


There are huge issues in the publishing industry, such as Bloomsbury publishing and marketing Maas’ provocative series to an audience as young as 13. Another example is Balzer + Bray publishing “Damsel,” by Elana K. Arnold, which goes into detail about a man penetrating a dragon’s stab wound. And yes, it is classified as Young Adult.


Another interesting thing to note is that Maas and Arnold are both cisgender, straight, white women with husbands and kids. Women such as Maas and Arnold are catered to within the publishing industry. The market is oversaturated with the same stories, by the same demographic, treating work by minorities with less vigor as they do with novels like “Throne of Glass” and, even still, the “Harry Potter” franchise.


How would YA Book Ratings categorize Harry Potter, a series that has been adored for years, that has recently been tainted with the transphobic prejudices of its author, J.K. Rowling? Given that one-third of its founders still post about the series to this day, I argue that it would be considered as one of the first two, appeasing it to younger audiences (or parents that shop for their child). Yet, as someone who has read the books, I know that in each book following “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” there is at least one character death, hence, why I find these categories to be biased and exclusive of other books.


I am concerned with what they would classify the more gruesome texts, like “Six of Crows,” where one character rips out another’s eyeball. This book also has several characters that are BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and makes it apparent that these characters are accepted, loved, and appreciated. I am concerned about how they would label almost every book that falls under YA, regardless of the overarching message.


There are a lot of issues in the publishing industry, but the last thing it needs is more rules made by white people who have dominated it for years.


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