YA: To Label or Not to Label?

Last year a book was pulled from middle and high schools, after a parent of a 6th grader complained about the “vulgar” language within the book. The book, which is authentically relevant to the current climate of our country, a Coretta Scott King Honor book, and a Michael L. Printz Honor book, and has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for 74 weeks, disappeared from shelves for the better part of the school year. Eventually, the book was restored to high schools, and the district’s resolution was now to label any YA in middle school libraries. Thus arises the question of what constitutes YA? And is labeling YA a smart move?

According to the ALA, “cataloging decisions, labels, or ratings applied in an attempt to restrict or discourage access to materials or to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement is a violation of the First Amendment and the Library Bill of Rights.” Therefore, is branding YA books with a label considered content advisory or censorship? While some view this distinction as guiding readers in selecting books that are “right” for them, others may see it as preventing readers from picking up certain books or deterring parents from allowing their child to explore these titles. Parents in my school district are given the option to be notified when their child checks out a YA book, and I was shocked at how many parents opted in, especially at the high school level.

The main difficulty in labeling YA books is the ambiguity of appropriateness for readers; “young adult titles are, by definition, intended for ages 12-18. Middle school students range in age from about 11-15, making some YA titles middle-school appropriate and other YA titles better for high school libraries” (Collazo, 2013). As school librarians how do we ensure that our readers have autonomy and are not limited, but are able to self-select and choose what is right for them? When I was younger Go Ask Alice, Annie’s Baby, and It Happened to Nancy were seen as taboo books by many parents, but in reading those titles I learned what NOT to do and what to avoid. So while some material may seem too mature for teenagers, sometimes the lesson or how the young adult reacts to the story is more important than censoring them from a curse word (that in all honesty, they’ve probably already heard).

Additionally, some people have equated labeling YA to warning labels for music and movies; believing there is no difference in labeling a music album for explicit language or a movie for sexual content and violence with labeling a YA book for the same subject matter. So where is the hang-up? For many labeling books is putting limiters on their readers and setting boundaries that librarians are not supposed to be placing within their walls; for some it is simply another method of reader’s advisory. In fact, some of my students have requested we label our LGBTQ books and books that have LGBTQ characters to assist them in their selection; and while it may encourage some, this sort of labeling would also create narrow lanes for many patrons and possibly deter some from picking up a phenomenal book. Therefore, in our library we have created topic lists that any students can pick up whether they are searching for a book with mermaids and sirens or a book with a LGBTQ protagonist. So to label or not to label? That is the question.

Collazo, L. (2013). Should MS librarians “mark” their YA books?. Retrieved from http://www.readerpants.net/2013/07/should-ms-librarians-mark-their-ya-books.html

Author: Sarah Letts

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Intellectual Freedom

2 replies

  1. Dear Sarah,

    I should not make any comment, because I am not American. I am a librarian for quite some times and have been working in international schools around the world. The issues that are mentioned in your blog relates only to America, its laws and its culture.
    However, laws and cultures may fairly different of those that America holds important.
    The other issue arose from the previous one. Many schools (over 1000 in the world and over 1 million students around the world) follow different curricula, including IB, that I am convinced you know.
    IB has developed a very culturally different profile to cater countries where e.g. LGBT is not allowed as a concept.
    Furthermore, genrification is much less appropriate for students who are in the DP programme since it is a college preparatory curriculum and when the students go to college or university, there will be unlikely “ghost” “crime” or LBGT labels in those libraries. Students who are interested in those subjects, will have to consult the Library Of Congress Subject Headings, or in other libraries, the Dewey categories.

    Indeed, it is your choice to organize your library, but those, who will study in European or other Universities around the world, may need more help on your behalf.

    Good luck for your work and endeavour.


  2. We do YA labels in our school lib. I have struggled a little with it in the past, but I’m okay with the decision at this point in time. We rely on professional reviews, teacher input, and our own judgement to decide which books get the YA.

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