A frequent question we ask ourselves at CBLDF is, “What are the coming trends in graphic novel challenges?” A trend we’ve followed for over a year, and we have discussed on our panels, is the creation of a system to rate books in public schools. While this may seem like a quick way to end the argument about what does and does not belong in our school libraries and classrooms, it has also raised several major issues.
Below, we’ll look at four states that have made movements, small and large, toward creating book ratings that would impact public schools. In each case we’ll examine what they are proposing and the possible pitfalls they introduce.
Republican delegate Tim Anderson, the lawyer who attempted to have Gender Queer declared obscene in Virginia Beach, claimed that he was looking into legislation to create a rating system for books.
“Very similar to what they do with violent video games. Just to have content put on books that give parents warnings that there might be sexually explicit material inside of it. That’s what we would generally be, I think, looking for mostly.”
Delegate Anderson is proposing a rating system based on content. As he points out, a system like this is in place for video games. Additionally, we have explicit language warnings on music and content warning tags alerting us of things like nudity and drug use on our television shows. What makes his pursuit different is that he is seeking a government bill.
In all of the above systems, the ratings are controlled by a trade organization and used for the purchase of consumer goods. A bill would create ratings controlled by the government, and if it’s anything like recent bills to limit books in schools, it will carry criminal penalties. As bipartisan as politics has become, do we want political parties rating our books? It is easy to see how a pendulum of what is acceptable will swing back and forth depending on who is in office.
In Maine, we encounter a separate issue. A group of “concerned citizens” formed a group in Hermon, Maine, to call for the removal of 80 library books. With the list of books to be removed, the organization also called for a change in policies and that the board adopt a book rating system.
In a 5 to 1 vote, the board decided against removing the books or adopting the book ratings. When compiling the list of books to be removed, the group used the website BookLooks, which uses a six-point scale from 0 to 5. One can assume the rating system proposed to the school was similar to what is used on BookLooks.
Therein lies the rub. As outlined in an article by Book Riot, BookLooks has ties with the public interest group Moms for Liberty. A group connected with the book bans sweeping the nation that frequently targets BIPOC and LGBTQ creators and stories. When beginning to look at creating a rating system or borrowing one already in place, one needs to be careful about agendas behind the lists and search for an equitable way to create a rating system.
Oklahoma presents a different problem to using an established system. One Oklahoma senator requested the drafting of a bill to address the creation of a rating system for the libraries in the public school system. Before a bill was even drafted, the senator received a letter from a representative from the Motion Picture Association (MPA) warning the lawmaker that a bill signed into law may be a trademark violation of the MPAs own system for rating films.
The current film rating system was established in 1968 as a way for the public to judge how appropriate film content was for minors. The system originally granted films the ratings of G, M, R, and X that have since morphed into the current system we use today of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. It is worth pointing out that the MPA is an American trade organization and is entirely voluntary for the producers.
The MPA representative brings up an important issue. Using the MPA system would be a potential trademark infringement. Using a system created to rate films and not books and graphic novels would cause confusion. In addition, it would muddy the authority of the ratings, the MPA being a trade organization, not to be confused with a state government. If a rating system is developed, it will need to be an original construction and not piggyback on a preexisting system.
Texas has gotten a little further along than its neighbor Oklahoma. HB 338, introduced this past November, would initiate a statewide rating system for books in school libraries and classrooms.
HB 338 presents a rating system based on content, grade level, and age appropriateness. The burden of rating books and labeling them would fall on the publisher. The Texas rating system also uses G, PG, and MA as part of the rating. They may encounter the same issue as Oklahoma with the MPA. If a bill like this passes, what would that mean for all the other states that want to create a rating system? Would publishers need to rate and package their books in 50 different ways to accommodate each state as they enact their own rating systems?
A particularly egregious section of the bill is the no-buy list. If the government agency decided that the content rating assigned by the publisher needed to be changed, the publisher would have 120 days to either switch all the labels on the books or discontinue sales of the book to schools and issue a statewide recall. If a publisher fails to do either of these two things within 120 days, the government agency will place the publisher on a special publisher list. Once on this list, schools would not be allowed to purchase any books from the publisher regardless of the content. The only recourse is to comply with the agency and petition for removal.
Each of these states raises a different question about introducing a rating system. Do we want the government involved? What rating system will we use? It can not be from another source like film or a public interest group. Do we want restrictions to exist state-by-state and add extra burden on publishers?
More importantly, how will comics be impacted by a rating system? Across the country we have seen how the visual image has been targeted. We have seen the removal of adaptations like The Kite Runner, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Handmaid’s Tale, and, bizarrely, 1984 while the source material remains on the shelf. The visual nature of comics and graphic novels that make them so powerful and accessible may count against them.
During our panel with librarians at San Diego Comic Con last year, Strategies for Defending Comics in Your Library, the point was made that a rating system could be a double-edged sword. It could be used both to target books and also to protect them.
If a rating system is created, I hope we are able to give it the time and attention it deserves. We need to recognize that a system reliant on age is inherently opinion-based and doesn’t account for the maturity of the individual or their lived experience. We need to think thoughtfully about who should create it and how they will do it in an equitable way. We need to think of a way to create a guidepost for readers, not a barred gate.
CBLDF and its partners have been battling ongoing and organized attempts to censor comics and other books in schools and libraries. You can join the struggle by making a donation or reporting censorship today!