Thursday 2 November 2017

Age ratings on books (again, sigh) - Should we stop our kids reading sweary stuff?

This week's ReadItTorial was inspired by a couple of things - an article in the Daily Mail (Ugh, I know, I accidentally clicked on it as it was masked in a link) condemning Phillip Pullman's epic "The Book of Dust" for being a children's book full of swears (we'll come back to that point about it being a 'children's book' in a mo) - and a resulting Twitter conversation with a couple of excellent folk (@xpectopatronerd and @cazapri1 - Both worth following for excellent book tweets btw).

Our conversation touched on the subject of age ratings for children's books - and also covered some very valid points about what children are exposed to increasingly in their daily lives that we parents constantly struggle to protect them from.

Swearing though, this is a subject that has so many nuanced levels to it that it's really difficult to pick apart. On the one hand, there was an excellent point made that in "The Book of Dust" the swearing had a purpose in the narrative and was there to reinforce some extremely passionate ranting, driving a particular character's narrative along far more effectively than a sanitised version of the text would.

On the other hand this dips into a territory that really can get my blood up. Age ratings obviously *should* be applied to sensitive material, but at what age would you have let your own child read "The Book of Dust" if you knew it contained a couple of swears?

I'd counter that with another question - how do you control (and control is a horrible word to use in this context) what your child is exposed to in all other walks of life? How do you stop them, for instance, seeing a perfume ad with a semi-naked woman on it on the bus shelter you walk past every morning on their way to school? How do you quickly cover their eyes if a trailer for a grown-up TV programme or movie is shown before the watershed?

Or (something I had recent first hand experience of on a trip to London) how do you quickly cover their ears when the lairy drunk walking past you in the street starts bellowing racist abuse down his phone at someone, lacing his angry diatribe with words you really don't want your child to even know, let alone start using themselves?

The question bubbled to the surface in my own mind - Would I let Charlotte read "The Book of Dust" knowing that it contained swearing? Would I have let her read it at 7 years old? (I use that age purely as a yardstick for assuming that in this day and age, 7 is a really rough average age that kids might tackle a big weighty tome like "The Book of Dust" as a solo reader though again your mileage may vary).

I know my wife and I have a completely opposite opinion on this one - in that I would probably say that we are competent enough parents to be able to instil in our daughter a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of knowing that swearing is inappropriate at home and at school, but also enough of a sense that language (foul or otherwise) is there whether we like it or not, and somehow living in the cloud cuckoo-land of thinking that if we stopped Charlotte reading a book with swearing in it, she would be completely immune to being exposed to it in other walks of life.

My wife would probably say a firm 'no' to "The Book of Dust" whereas I'd probably say 'yes' - partly because a massively important book, possibly one of the highest profile "children's" book launches of the year (certainly one of the most stratospheric best sellers of the year, surely?) really shouldn't be something she has taken away from her on the basis of less than a handful of fairly mild swears (again though, mild by whose standards? You've guessed it, your mileage may vary).

Then there's this whole business about the Daily Mail describing it as a children's book. I would love to see some solid sales figures for "The Book of Dust" yanking in all those metrics about the age of the purchaser / reader as I'd bet my bottom dollar that very few children below the age of 10 would be reading this. It's obviously a book geared up for mass consumption by YA and adults, though many have made comparisons between the Harry Potter and Dark Materials universes as having the same age group appeal, as wide as it is long.

As much as I find the prospect of the Daily Mail trying to offer itself up as some paragon of moral virtue (hahahahahahahhahahahahahaha sorry, I crack myself up sometimes), here to protect our kids from terrible life-affecting swearwords (perish the thought), I'm pretty sure they love the 'clickbait' aspect of describing Pullman's work as "a kid's book full of swears" rather than actually caring a toss (sorry, is that a swear?) whether our kids start wandering around shouting rude words at passers-by purely because they read those words in a book.

Having now read about 3/4 of "The Book of Dust" I can comfortably say that it's the sort of book that I really do hope Charlotte reads one day, purely from the perspective of enjoying a hugely atmospheric story taking place in deliciously dark alt-versions of places she already knows (the whole Dark Materials series taking place in her home town definitely gives it even more appeal than the genre, which she's drawn to anyway).

But as for age ratings on books? Seeing how effective age ratings are on movies and videogames, how many parents for instance think nothing of their child playing the latest Call of Duty / Grand Theft Auto or similar despite the clear signage on the boxes that they're not for kids, I really can't imagine it ever working on books as effectively as proper parenting, being involved in your child's life and making that judgement call yourself.