Most parents are happy to see their kids nose down in a book, but according to a new report, they might want to check out what they're reading more closely.
Among the top 40 best-selling children's books on the New York Times list between June 22 and July 6, 2008, one researcher found more than 1,500 profane words, ranging from Gossip Girl—The Caryles's 50 "F-bombs" to Diary of a Wimpy Kid's occasional reference of bodily functions. Sarah Coyne, lead researcher of the study and a professor in Brigham Young University's department of family life, checked for profanity in five different categories: George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words," sexual words, excretory words, 'strong others' (bastard, bitch) and 'mild others' (hell, damn). All but five books, including many targeted to kids as young as 9, had at least one instance of profanity.
Coyne thinks a ratings system on book jackets would help parents decide what's appropriate for their kids to read. It's a subject many are afraid to touch, with the talk of censorship or restricting books conjuring up images of book burnings and infringing on First Amendment Rights.
"I think we put books on a pedestal compared to other forms of media," Coyne says. "I thought long and hard about whether to do the study in the first place—I think banning books is a terrible idea, but a content warning on the back I think would empower parents."
While books like Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars aren't ever going to end up alongside Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn in American literary canon, those books' messages are still important, experts argue.
"Books can be a safe way for young people to explore edgier, sensitive, or complicated topics, and they provide parents the opportunity to help their teens grow and understand these kinds of sensitive issues," says Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, an offshoot of the American Library Association. "ALA's interpretation on any rating system for books is that it's censorship."
There's also the question of who would label the books. Yoke says that the MPAA's film ratings are done in an arbitrary and opaque way.
"Having a big, nebulous organization decide what your kid can or can't read is not really a democratic process," she says. The 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated argued that an adult NC-17 rating essentially kills a movie's chance of being profitable, and countless filmmakers have had to edit their movies in order to score a lower rating—something that could happen to books if a similar rating process is implemented.
Coyne says some of what she found in young adult novels would put them in the R-rated category in just a couple pages. For instance Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, a cautionary tale about a teenager's battle with addiction, for instance, features nearly 500 instances of profanity, she says.
"If they made that into a movie, it'd be rated R very quickly," Coyne says. But that book is intended to portray an accurate picture of what it's like to be addicted to drugs and to encourage kids to stay away from them.
Some organizations, such as Common Sense Media, already provide an age-coded guide to recent book releases. The nonprofit features age ratings for more than 2,300 books and uses a traffic-light system to let parents know whether the book is age-appropriate. Coyne says that either way, parents need to pay closer attention to what kids are reading.
"I don't think anyone would argue that books like Harry Potter or Twilight didn't have a big influence on adolescents," she says. "When you see a TV show like Gossip Girl, you get a hint of the [adult content], but I don't think parents are aware of how much worse it is in the books."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org