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Question Tuesday: What about age ratings?

Robin Brenner

This week, I’m not so much answering a question from our readers but instead asking a question OF our readers.

I am currently teaching an online continuing education class for the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  It’s always a fun time, and I always learn just as much if not more from my students as I hope they learn from me. One issue that comes up every time I teach this course, related to last week’s Question Tuesday post about where to place particular titles, is age ratings and what we librarians need to know as we’re building graphic novel collections.

I hear more and more, every day, that librarians want explicit detail as to what is in graphic novels — how much nudity and what kind, what bouts of violence and how bloody, what kinds of sexy costumes and bursts of less than clean language. For example, what does “cartoon violence” or “fantasy violence” mean, according to DC Comics and VIZ Media age rating descriptions respectively? If every publisher provides their own age rating, how do we librarians (and reviewers) keep track of what each one means level by level?

We all appreciate that there’s an effort being made by the publishers. Those of us working with younger readers are used to dividing up our collections by intended audience as well as recommended audience from publishers, and we have categories that take into account how folks read (easy readers, chapter books, picture books) as well as the age levels (in maintaining children’s, teen, and adult collections, at least in the public library world.) Any help the publishers can give us is a boon in figuring out what we need to know to build our collections wisely.

Then there are reviewers. Everyone who reviews a book is keen to provide as much as useful information as they can, but how much detail can we reasonably require on content in a 200 word review, or even a 500 word review? As a reviewer myself, I struggle to balance details that are helpful with comments that might regrettably cause someone to dismiss a worthwhile read due to a few panels of art. Is it better or worse to mention content that only appears for a few panels if it might lead to the impression that a title has more controversial content than it actually has? As a librarian, I wonder what is reasonable to expect from professional reviewers or industry reviewers to detail every potential controversy. How can we find a balance of what we get from a review and what we may need to find out for ourselves?

Complications arise in that every librarian has slightly different but no less valid concerns springing from their community standards, their collection guidelines, and their own awareness of graphic novels. Some are most concerned with violence, while others need to know if there’s religious imagery, while still more need to know if there’s risque clothing or pin-up style art. One librarian recently asked if reviewers could post examples of potentially objectionable images from the graphic novels reviewed, as a way to provide librarians with images that would help them decided for themselves whether their collection could handle that title.

I understand just how much our patrons and browsers can and will react to images. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, in our society, people always get more worried about the impact of a visual than they will with a written word. However, I can’t help the part of me that is troubled by the fact that the same librarians who will defend a prose work’s right to contain potentially problematic material demand much more investigation for a graphic novel. Why do we require on such a level of information about graphic novels? Are we uncomfortable defending them? Is it that many librarians still don’t read graphic novels, and thus can find it harder to defend them from criticism or attack? Help me understand.

So here’s my question for all of  you: what do you need in an age recommendation or rating of a graphic novel? What do you think is reasonable to expect from publishers? From reviewers? Who do you trust for information about graphic novels titles? What makes you not buy a title? What saves a title even if it has potentially charged content for your collection?

The Good Comics for Kids Question Tuesday column is here to do one thing: answer your questions! To send in your questions for the next Question Tuesday, please go to our form here or send out a tweet to me at @nfntrobin or to all of us at @goodcomics4kids. We will endeavor to answer as many questions as possible in our weekly column. All questions are due in by Friday at midnight so we’ll have a chance to write up the answers for the next week.

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Robin Brenner About Robin Brenner

Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.

Comments

  1. Susan Timmons says:

    School librarians need a lot more information than public librarians because we typically don’t have a section where we can move material that ends up being more “mature” than we expected when we ordered it. It always helps if the graphic novel received several good, or starred, reviews in reputable publications so the material is more easily justified according to our collection development guidelines. But no matter how well-reviewed it is, if your school is grades 5-8 you probably can’t justify an adult title like “Watchmen”. My library recently purchased “Ghost World” based on the rave reviews, but after flipping through it decided we wouldn’t put it in the collection due to the extremely high volume of swearing. It’s frustrating to spend money on a purchase — especially if you get it pre-processed so that it’s non-returnable — and find that money has been wasted. For librarians already slightly uncomfortable with the whole format, a few bad experiences like this may be enough for them to dismiss graphic novels entirely. They really need to be able to trust that someone recommending a title has carefully considered whether it’s age-appropriate. YALSA’s list of “Great Graphic Novels for Teens” includes titles that range from middle school to mature, but they don’t include the age recommendations so you can’t buy any title off that list without checking it carefully somewhere else. Jason Thompson’s “Manga: The Complete Guide” is a good example of reviews that provide enough information to make a purchasing decision. He differentiates between, for example, brief partial nudity vs. sexual nudity. If you’re going to start buying manga, you’re going to have to make peace with yourself over the idea that there is brief nudity in even the children’s titles — but you will still want to know about which titles contain the more racy stuff.

    That said, I wish the publishers wouldn’t print actual ages on the covers of their books, the way Tokyopop did. I like the “Teens / Older Teens / Mature” breakdown, but actually printing “16+” on a manga is very frustrating to me. I’ve read plenty of manga in the 16+ category that I think would be fine for a high school freshmen (typically 13 years old) or even a middle school student. But how can I justify to parents buying a book for a middle school library, where the students range in age from 10-12 years old, when the cover of the title states it is for ages 16+? Not all 12-year olds are at the same reading level, emotional maturity level, or have the same tastes. Material in the 16+ category typically ranges anywhere from what, in movies, would be considered PG-13 or R-rated. So even knowing it is listed at 16+ still isn’t enough information for a careful collection development decision. Again, a personal review from someone you trust to examine content is really key.

    You’re certainly right that there could be a “chilling effect” of librarians not buying a graphic novel if the review warns them it has mature content. However I think there’s already a chilling effect at work where some librarians are afraid to buy *anything* if they can’t determine in advance for sure that it’s appropriate for their collections. I’ve had several anecdotal conversations with other middle school librarians who still aren’t buying any graphic novels at all. If they had a rock-solid reliable list of recommended titles they would be willing to buy, that would be better than nothing! And the more adventurous librarians out there who are already familiar with graphic novels and have strong collection development policies in place to justify buying mature content for their collections wouldn’t be scared off by more explicit reviews.

    • @Susan, thanks so much for responding!

      I admit, my first reaction to hearing you’d ordered Ghost World was amazement — from my POV, as a long time GN reader, Ghost World is primarily an adult title with teen appeal, so I’m wondering how it ended up on your radar for a 5th-8th grade collection. Was it just the overwhelming positive reviews (which I’m presuming didn’t indicate age ranges)? I’m not trying to call anyone out, here, for not including intended audience, I’m just startled. Clearly that’s the kind of thing none of us wants to happen.

      I agree that the unfortunate consequence is that librarians scared off by a few wrong purchases will dismiss the whole format both personally and professionally, which is why I’m glad we’re all having this discussion.

      I can say a bit on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, as I was part of creating that list: basically, as none of the other YALSA lists indicate age range, neither can the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. The committee does their best to indicate age level in their annotations (I remember debating word choices frequently as we tried to make sure to include keywords that would signal librarians to the tone of a title). I fear it’s likely impossible that there will be a reversal on this given the ALA and YALSA’s position on labeling and rating titles.

      If the publishers don’t put the ratings on the back of the book (which, remember, book publishers do with their titles), where would you prefer to see them? If I’m remembering the original reasoning behind age ratings, at least with Japanese manga publishers here in the US, they were being pushed to do so by bookstores who needed them visible, and thus on the back covers at least. The older institutions of comics companies, like DC and Marvel, will have age ratings but remember, they have a a long memory for their history with censorship in the form of the Comics Code Authority. There is resistance there, and not unwarranted considering how long they had to fight the idea that graphic novels and comics are NOT just for kids. To them, the only books that are given intended age ranges are kids books, and they are uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would automatically consider their work for children when, in fact, most of their titles are for teens and up.

      What would be a trusted organization for a rock solid list? What do you think, for example, of ALSC’s new Children’s Graphic Novel Core Collection, to be updated annually? Do you think that will help?

  2. Jocelyn Baldwin says:

    As a Teen Services Librarian in a public library, whatever details you can offer are helpful, but I’d love it if I could just get a plain age range. My library only has three places to put graphic materials in our collection: Youth, Teen or Adult; so just letting me know where you think if belongs is good enough for me.

  3. Gillian Wiseman says:

    So here’s my question for all of you: what do you need in an age recommendation or rating of a graphic novel? I am a public librarian in Texas, in a mostly urban library. I manage the teen collections for three of our four libraries. That’s where I’m addressing my responses from. Age recommendations – I expect them to be mostly based on the reading level of material; ratings I expect to refer to the sexuality depicted, language used and graphic portrayal of violence. I really need BOTH of these pieces of information to help me decide on a purchase.

    What do you think is reasonable to expect from publishers? From publishers, I expect that they would have a clearly defined set of rules that they use to categorize their content. If they rate a book as All ages, Teen, Teen Plus and Mature for categories, I expect that I can find the same degree of nudity, for example, across all books in a single category. If one book contains nothing beyond swimsuits and fanservice poses , but the next has full frontal nudity and they have the same rating, it does me no good.

    From reviewers? a comment on anything that truly varies from the rest of the novel (ie if there’s ONE shockingly graphic violent scene in an otherwise non-violent story, I want to know it). Or a comment on the overall tone of the entire book/series if it doesn’t have anything singular.

    Who do you trust for information about graphic novels titles? Review Journals are my major source, and now that No Flying, No Tights is back, I’ll use it a lot. I also depend on my cataloger/manga nut friend… GNLIB-L is another favorite source.

    What makes you not buy a title? Usually just bad reviews or lack of funds. I have a juvenile, teen and adult collection, so I can find a home for just about anything. BAD reviews will make me hesitate unless I have specifically had readers ask for it.
    What saves a title even if it has potentially charged content for your collection? reader requests. excellent reviews or awards. popular author. gorgeous graphics.

    • Robin Brenner says:

      @Gillian, I’m glad to hear that there are sources you trust, especially in terms of library sources.

      I also like the idea of commenting on things that feel out of place — a particularly violent scene, as you say, or a sudden sexy vision.

      What do you all think of the problem between what publishers consider (i.e. what they think of as cartoon violence) versus what a librarian considers cartoon violence? Or brief nudity? Or what have you? I think that one of the bigger problems is that publishers just will not have the same standards we librarians have, and it may be unreasonable to expect them to be able to meet our standards given how tough it is even for us all to agree what those standards are!

      I’m beginning to think, as you mention GNLIB, that our greatest resource is and will continue to be each other, especially as we can help each other out with individual titles and folks working in similar environments.

  4. A school superintendent complained about ratings not including information about sexually suggestive material. So in the question about age ratings, consideration could be given to the possibility of including such information. See: “School Excoriates Book Reviews that Fail to Disclose ‘Graphic Sexual Details’ in Books for Children; Lush by Natasha Friend is ‘Wildly Inappropriate’ for Certain Children”

  5. Amy says:

    The best way I found to deal with this was to develop a relationship with the owner of my local comic book shop. My library at the time did not have any graphic novels and since I’m not a big reader of them I didn’t know where to start. I talked with the owner and we ended up with a very nice arrangement. Since his shop was in the area, he understood the neighborhood and he also took time to ask about/understand the politics of the library. When we would have appointments for purchasing new books, he could tell me where to put certain titles and what titles just wouldn’t go over well in our library. While I don’t get the same discount from him that I could getfrom B&T or Ingram or Follett, he does give me a discount and will special order. The little bit extra that I pay, to me, is worth it to have an expert on hand to help guide the collection. He has also been a great resource for programs, leading book discussions or hosting a group of kids in his shop to talk about what business owners are looking for when they hire people.

    • Robin Brenner says:

      @Amy, that’s a wonderful example of partnering with your local comics store. It’s a great way to help them out, of course, with business but also to give credit where credit is due in terms of expertise. I also find that my local comics folks can recommend titles I would never have heard of otherwise given how much journals can miss the smaller, indie titles that are nonetheless great for my collection. I always give the comics store down the street credit for turning me on to Atomic Robo.

  6. Susan Timmons says:

    Hey Robin,

    My school is actually grades 5-12, so we have more mature material because many of the high schoolers are reading adult books. With that spread in age range, mature graphic novels are problematic because they’re often slender and visually appealing enough to catch the eye of a younger kid who wouldn’t be interested in reading the equivalent adult novel — a 5th grader is more likely to pull “Ghost World” off the shelf than “Catcher in the Rye” even though neither is really age appropriate for them. But I mention grade 5-8 as an example because I think that middle school librarians are the ones who most desperately need clear content guidelines. I loved ALSC’s core collection and actually ordered a few titles off that list yesterday. Will they do a high school list as well?

    And as for publishers, I don’t mind if they put something more generic like “young adult” or “teen” on a book, I just don’t want actual ages put on the covers. When it comes to reviews, they can often vary widely on what they think the appropriate age is for the same book, or for different volumes in a series. But it really is helpful to know from a review if there’s mature content, particularly if the reviewer discusses whether it’s something handled well or if it’s just gratuitous. Most teen collections have books about tough issues like date rape, bullying, etc. and as long as we know that the difficult scenes are well-done and contribute to the overall value of the book, we’ll still buy them.

    ~ Susan Timmons

    • Robin Brenner says:

      Hello again Susan!

      Ah, that’s makes more sense if your collection is 5-12. Would you consider shelving titles in grade ranges, like 5-8, 9-12? Would that help, do you think, or would it just make it more confusing?

      ALSC doesn’t really cover high school, so no, I would not expect them to do a high school list. I’m betting to their minds the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list has that covered.

      I certainly hope folks still buy titles with tougher content, and I definitely think it’s important to put any content in context — how it’s handled, whether it’s gratuitous, etc. Do you think that mentioning such things within the text of a review is enough or would you want some sort of content indicator system (a la television guidelines or, as with Yen Press, how they list what content has actually caused a title’s rating?)

  7. Katie says:

    I’m a teen librarian at a small public library where I do all the purchasing for teen and adult GNs and often give recommendations to the children’s librarian as well. I do appreciate any type of age or content rating I can get. To tell the truth, no, I don’t have the time to track down reviews of every GN, and that would be impossible at any rate, given that many aren’t reviewed in the first place. At least, with experience, I can get an idea what is meant by the different ratings, and I’m lucky I can move a title up or down if it has content I wasn’t expecting.

    I have to say I do think it’s a little disingenuous to equate controversial content in books with controversial content in GNs. Visual material IS different than written material, I’m sorry that’s just the way it is. Imagining something is different than actually seeing it in living color in front of your eyes. Even though I think movie ratings leave a lot to be desired, it’s the same concept – a visual medium given an approximate rating of appropriateness. We all have to be thoughful when we purchase GNs and not let ratings be the be-all and end-all, but they ARE important and necessary.

    • Robin Brenner says:

      @Katie, glad to hear your thoughts! I certainly know how difficult it is to read reviews for every book I order, and the time crunches we all work under. I may not read a review for every title I order, and I certainly can’t read every book I put on the shelf, but I can flip through the graphic novels (easier than I can with prose!) to get a sense of what their content is before I place them on the shelves just so I know what’s in there.

      I understand that visual information is perceived differently than textual information. Personally, I wish that weren’t so, but I know that it is and we all have to collect accordingly. I’ve had very long involved discussions about just why that’s true, and whether it is true for everyone (I know folks who are much more frightened by what they imagine from a page than what they see on a screen), but it is the way our society works at the moment.

      It’s more a problem for me when I hear that a librarian can’t order titles that are 16+ as a rule within their collection and that there is no allowance given for the librarian’s decision as a selector (and I know libraries exist where that is the case.) I prefer to leave what a person can handle as up to them, as the reader, as we do with almost everything else we collect, and prefer to depend on my own feelings as a selector than go by what a publisher or vendor informs me is appropriate. I think it ultimately comes from my worry that people depend too much on ratings and don’t take into account reviews, or context, when selecting.

      On that note, here’s a question for you — if you don’t have time to track down reviews for all the GNs you buy, how DO you decide what to purchase? What would help you if reviews aren’t plausible? Lists? How should such lists be organized?

  8. Esther Keller says:

    This is a great discussion and one close to my heart. As a middle school librarian, I struggle with age appropriate titles all the time. Not just for graphic novels, by the way. Yet, there is more of a fear of graphic novels being “caught” by someone because if you’re looking over someone’s shoulder it’s much easier to catch an image than an image created by a string of words.

    As a reviewer, it’s hard to balance the words needed to inform parents and librarians of content without being too prudish. I remember writing a review for something that I thought was overly sexual and just inappropriate and I softballed it – and was called on it in the comments of my review. But I would have been called on it if I had been more upfront.

    As a librarian, I need more guidance, because it’s impossible to read all the GNs that come into my collection. And like @Susan wrote, I hate that ages on the back of comics. Generics labeling – T, OT, etc. works much better. Once it’s labeled 16+ can I put it in my collection even if I find nothing objectionable in the comic itself?

  9. Katy K. says:

    I buy the adult graphic novels for our library. I also buy them directly from a local comic store, though teen and youth purchase from B&T. I find it very helpful to have the relationship with the store to ask them about specific titles. We put things in adult if they are too sexual, violent or have themes that the teen librarian or I think would be more interesting to adults than teens. For an example of that, when _Bayou_ by Jeremy Love came out, we didn’t yet have a youth gn collection. The teen librarian felt that it would be too indy and not exciting enough for teens, so we put it in adult. The teens here really go for superhero and manga stuff, and it’s often challenging to tell where to put it. I look for that in reviews. My comic book shop gives me the _Previews_ catalog from Diamond, and I try to piece together an order in time for them to include with their regular Diamond order between that and the Diamond Bookshelf. This is challenging, as the web site has age ranges but no other infomation beyond title, while the catalog is giant and rarely includes age ranges. Often I’ll just watch out for new entries in series I already have. It’s helpful that more of the mainstream journals are starting to split gns up by age range, but not all do, and I get them all too late for the regular pre-orders. I have had the occassional sexual scene challenged even in adult by library staff, not patrons, and have never yet had anything challenged for violence. Which is the long way around to saying that I appreciate broad age range categorization – youth, teen, adult – so I know which way to send something that looks interesting. Also, if something is too much for even the adult collection of a public library, I’d like to know that, too. I’d second being interested in knowing if sexual situations and violence are the exception or the rule in a book.

  10. Emily says:

    As for me, I missed the April press release that DC has started age ratings, and I’m just overjoyed. I created a poster with the breakdown of the different publishers and their ratings, and the DC column was the most difficult – explaining what the CCA Seal was and what it meant. I’m in a public library and I’m happy to put up that sign and let patrons decide for themselves what ratings are right for them and their children.

  11. Susan Timmons says:

    Emily,

    Would you be willing to share a copy of that ratings poster you created?

  12. Robin Brenner says:

    @Emily, I think we’d all love to see that! I’d be happy to create another post to show off anyone’s ideas for signs and explanatory info for their patrons on age ratings and graphic novels. Anyone with images and/or ideas, send ‘em on in to me at robin (at) noflyingnotights.com.

    The fact that DC Comics is jettisoning the use of the Comics Code Authority logo is a bit late, to me, as very few comics publishers have been submitting work to the Code Authority for decades, but it is good to see them set and elaborate on their ratings. They were the last holdouts in terms of creating a ratings system. Now, if they just created comics for kids, I’d be over the moon!

  13. Emily says:

    Sorry I didn’t get email notification that there had been replies to my post – I will send my poster to Robin and perhaps she can put it on the blog. :)

  14. Marlene says:

    Emily, I would love to see your poster. I recently completed Robin’s Graphic Novel 101 class, but would love to have more info on ratings.

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