As a librarian I heard time and time again that parents wished books were "rated" or at least there was a suggested age on the cover. As a librarian I cringed every time because why would we want to do something like that? Struggling readers would always be discouraged because they were reading "little kid books" and it would be just another way for kids to compare themselves to each other in an unhealthy way. Reading should be fun and promote good feelings, right?
Although I'm passionately against a "rating" system for books, I'm not against a warning label. After all, with books these days (especially YA titles) exploring more and more sensitive topics in more and more detail, it is nice to know before you start the book if a triggering topic might arise. A trigger warning can give an official word on content that readers may wish to avoid or at least be prepared for.
Recently I read Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. Along with having the most amazing hot pink pages, the book features a small, but important note on both the initial pages and on the dust jacket. The note reads
Please be aware that this book contains scenes of violence and sexual assault.
Simple, clean, clear. It doesn't spoil any part of the story, but rather prepares the reader for what is a hard topic (that Ngan deals with beautifully and delicately). Honestly, this is a topic I rarely want to read about. It is too honest, too real and I personally like to use books as a way to escape reality not explore it. But I applaud YA books that do touch on these topics since teens are rarely eager to seek out help, advice, or even just talk about what has happened to them. If they can explore those feelings they are having through the pages of a book, excellent.
I think books exploring sensitive topics are important to modern audiences, but that doesn't mean I want to read some of these topics unexpectedly. Today I started a new book, Damsel by Elana K Arnold. It came in a recent subscription box and I thought I would give it a go. The premise was fascinating - what happens after the damsel is rescued from a dragon? But the book, the book was icky. One character is the picture of innocence in every way, shape, and form. Another character is a predator from the beginning. The book gives you that "icky" feeling from nearly the moment the two characters meet. I'm not sure what ends up happening with these two characters because I didn't finish the book, you can read my thoughts on it here.
That book dealt with sensitive topics in a haphazard, nearly flippant, way. It was a mere plot point and, in my opinion, it was handled poorly. However, the worst part is I had no idea that was going to be a part of the book's content. It seemly came out of no where and I was fully unprepared.
I truly hope that publishers see the dozens of comments in reviews that begged for a warning label. I wish I'd noticed these reviews before I started reading. Sexual abuse. Self harm. Rape. The book isn't ABOUT this, it is a fairy tale retelling, and because it was unexpected, I feel it should have had a warning.
The issue that comes into play is that there is no "one size fits all" type of warning for books and I understand that it would be difficult to do well. What counts as triggers? How much a part of the plot does it need to be? Is it only if it is graphic, or just if you know it happens? What about spoiling part of the plot by indicating the trigger? It's a difficult task to take everyone's reading habits and possible triggers into consideration, it isn't a job I'm volunteering for, but I think that it needs a little more attention from the publishers.
Further, it isn't that people wouldn't want to read the book knowing the topic is inside, but rather that they can be prepared. Kate Manne, in a 2015 article in the New York Times, writes "it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions." Yes, this is exactly what I want, to better manage my reaction. To bolster myself up to be ready to take on difficult content.
Manne's article is about using trigger warnings in a university setting, but I think that even the casual reader can benefit from a little bit of a warning. Maybe instead of placing the warning in an obvious spot (like on the jacket flap a la Girls of Paper and Fire) it could be on the last page of the book. Some place for readers who would enjoy a little warning could reference before starting, but a place where less sensitive readers could avoid for a spoiler-free read.
What do you think? Would you benefit from warnings? Do you think they are too spoiler-y? Where do you think they should be printed? Leave your thoughts and comments below, it is a topic I look forward to discussing with y'all.