Oh well, better late than never...
So, the pros and cons of age-ranging children's books is a wide and muddled conversation, one that inevitably brings out a bit of table thumping and tutting. And there are so many tangents to follow that an impassioned, involved party could write A WHOLE BLOG POST that veered off the topic they aimed to cover. (I deleted it.)
This is the blogpost I aimed to write and it is not about the desire for age-ranging in an age of internet booksellers. It is about self-censorship.
Ness is quoted as saying that "Children are great self-censors: they know what they can read and they know what they want to read". This is something I've been saying for a very long time - possibly since I was someone who might have been censored at, if I'd had that kind of upbringing.
I believe that, unlike adults, children only read what they actually want to. If it's not of interest to them, they stop reading. That, essentially, is self-censorship, and it is grounded solely in the power of boredom. Underestimate it at your peril.
"But," you might say, "we're talking about YA books that may contain SEX, SWEARS and VIOLENCE." Then you pause and whisper that other headline-grabbing concept, "Books that might contain... DARKNESS."
My argument that teens read adult books containing such things holds no water here because we're talking about books that are specifically marketed to a teen audience. Books that court the attention of teenagers may well contain all of the above to a greater or lesser degree, partly because these things, treated well, are of interest to this age group. Surely external censorship measures should be taken to ensure that an over-eager eleven-year-old doesn't happen across a sex scene, or a bout of unadulterated, potty-mouthed violence, or WORSE STILL some... darkness?
Well. No. Because you did not heed my warning and you have failed to take into account the Power of Boredom.
People who call for books to be censored do not believe that a precocious reader can encounter a sex scene that they're too young to understand, and that the reader simply... finds it boring. Or that a child whose nose wrinkles at violence in a computer game could easily accommodate a passage of a pitched battle between two cage-fighters because they'll skim it if they don't like it. Too many inappropriate swear words? Then the narrative/dialogue will start to drag for that reader, and they'll phase out the words they don't want to listen to. And the darkness? Well, darkness is pretty sophisticated, something created by the space between the words. If you're not interested in it, then the writing will seem a bit... dull. And if any of it is too much, they'll simply put the book down and not bother to pick it up - after all, all us publishers are forever fretting over all the other distractions fighting for a potential reader's attention.
The child you're worried about reading this stuff is not the teen who falls squarely within the intended age bracket, but the pre-teen who reads up. And why on earth would you want to deter such a voracious reader (or their parents) by slapping a warning on the books that he or she might get the most from in terms of language and concepts? These kids are smart. Trust them. They won't tolerate being bored.
The people who have the most searing and exciting voices in today's YA are the ones who don't hold back, who aren't thinking 'this is for kids'. They are the ones who trust the audience.
Slap an explicit warning on YA and you'll lose that trust.