What Makes A YA Book Clean? Is There Even Such A Thing?

After a failed attempt to rate YA books on a scale of perceived cleanliness, issues have been raised regarding the vagueness of the rating system.

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Last week, an email was sent out to authors and publishers of YA books from a since-deleted website called “YA Book Ratings.” Recipients were asked to rate their books using a system that founders Jolie Taylor, Elizabeth Wilson, and Rachel Hill had devised. The goal of the rating system was, per The Mary Sue, to “help families find ‘appropriate’ young adult (YA) books.” Authors and readers took to Twitter after the emails were shared, expressing their concern in regards to the arbitrary grading scale.

For many, this scale and the corresponding stickers that would be put on the books feel an awful lot like censorship. Part of what makes YA so catching is its ability to make diverse topics more accessible. Would, then, this YA-1 to YA-4 scale of so-called “cleanliness” strike books that center around stories of sexuality?

In order to see this rating system at work, I’ve decided to set two popular YA books to the test: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

image via Macmillan Publishers

Set against this scale, Six of Crows would fall somewhere between YA-3 and YA-4. Please keep in mind that this is a subjective rating. It’s important to know that the story talks about prejudice, LGBTQ+ identity, trauma (both emotional and physical), and much more. Despite the hard work put in by YA authors to make books more inclusive, there is still a stigma around the experiences of those in the queer community. When Taylor, Wilson, and Hill use “sexual content” as a marker of cleanliness, what, exactly, are they referring to? 

image via Harper Collins Publishers

Now, let’s look at The Hate U Give. This story follows a young Black girl named Starr Carter who witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil. There are mentions of drugs, a no-no in the “cleanliness” scale, and scenes of violence. Along with this, Thomas discusses racism in-depth, both aimed at her MC and those around her. Based on the rating system, this book could fall within the YA-3 category— again, this is a subjective rating.

The controversy here is plain. When Taylor, Wilson, and Hill talk about “justified violence” it isn’t clear what violence is justified and what isn’t. There is historic and systemic violence against BIPOC that was once considered “justified” or normal. What if a book has harmful representation, but manages to steer clear of the things that could put it into YA-4? Those books could be picked up under the guise that they are somehow more appropriate than those in YA-4, making it difficult for the amplification of underrepresented stories.

As well as this, when we try to filter content based on rules of appropriateness, it can invalidate the lived experiences of readers. Going back to Six of Crows, one of Bardugo’s MCs, Kaz, has extreme PTSD from an accident involving his brother. People of all ages and levels of maturity can experience PTSD or other mental health issues. Calling their reactions to their trauma inappropriate can further isolate them.

Since the creators of the rating system are all white, cisgender women, the message comes across as tone-deaf. The word “cleanliness” carries with it a sense of a moralistic authority. Books marked with the YA-4 sticker could elicit a negative reaction or a feeling of moral wrongness in readers. It’s not crazy to assume that if this rating system were to be put in practice it could further marginalize the stories that need to be told.

Featured image via Twitter