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Should MS librarians “mark” their YA books?

Today’s discussion is about YA books in middle schools. I would love to open a discussion about this topic because 1) I am torn on the issue and 2) I haven’t found very much about it online. While there are some articles about content warnings on books (such as sex, violence, drugs, mature situations, language, etc.), I have seen very little about simply labeling a book as YA.

Some of the other middle school libraries in my district label their YA fiction with a sticker on the spine. All students are free to check out the YA-labeled books (no permission required), but students and parents are at least fairly-warned that there may be some mature content in them. The librarians’ argument is that it is just a YA label, not a specific warning about sex or language or violence. If a parent wants their child to stay away from YA books, the child has a way to make sure that happens. Again, in my district, permission is NOT required to check out the YA books.

The dilemma:

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.

Virtually every middle school library has YA titles, and there are lots of excellent YA titles that are just fine for sixth grade readers, despite their YA rating. But at the same time, there are many titles that I have more for my eighth graders than my sixth.  In my library, YA fiction and MG fiction are all shelved together into 18 genre sections.

I cannot possibly read every one of the 5000+ fiction titles in my library and therefore depend heavily on professional reviews when I order books. However, the reviews are very subjective. What one reviewer labels as Grades 6-9, another reviewer says grades 8-11. Professional reviews rarely contain any mention of mature content, so how am I to know if the book is a good fit for my readers? If it is well-reviewed and receiving literary praise, I will tend to order it if any reviewer labeled it for middle school. But sometimes, when I get around to reading that book, I decide it is okay for my 8th graders, but I worry about the PR mess I might have to clean up if a sixth grader gets it and shows certain parts to their parents. Argh!

I’ve thought about writing this post for awhile now but didn’t because I worry that I might get skewered in the comments for even suggesting labeling YA books as such. But I’d bet money that middle school teachers and librarians will be sympathetic and understand exactly what I am saying here. It’s tough!

Do you mark your YA titles in your middle school library? 

For example:

  • putting a “YA” or some other sticker on the spine as this school and others do (click the link and scroll all the way to the bottom to the YA label section for their policy–this is what some middle schools in my district do)
  • shelving YA fiction separately from MG (middle grade) fiction


I can see some pros and cons for designating books as YA:

Pros to labeling or separating out YA books:

  • Parents and students can tell at a glance if a book contains mature content. I am all for involved parents helping their children select materials, and if this helps facilitate that, then that is a good thing.
  •  Music and movies already contain labels about content, yet books do not. When I order a book for the library, I know if it is MG or YA. Using professional reviews, I know generally what grade levels the book is recommended for. Shouldn’t patrons also have quick access to that information?
  • Believe it or not, some students do ask for “clean” reads. They have asked me for help finding these, however, I am only one person in my huge library. Anything I can do to facilitate students finding their own books is a good thing.
  • Some argue that labeling books allow “lazy parenting,” but I actually disagree with that. Most parents work and have more than one child, which limits their time spent reading. I have students who read several hours each day. They have time to read at school. They have time to read at home. By the time the parent can finish a book, the child has already moved on to another book. Busy parenting is not the same as lazy parenting.
  • Could this lead to fewer challenges to library materials?

Cons to labeling or separating out YA books:

  • Will students gravitate to YA books because they know they have something more mature in them? Probably.
  • Is this a slippery-slope toward requiring permission to check out YA books? (movie ratings and parental advisories on music require permission or a certain age for access)
  • Don’t my 18 genre labels already kind of do this? My paranormal romance and horror sections are more likely to be YA than my action-adventure or humor sections.
  • Will this lead to more challenges to library materials?

Again, as a middle school librarian, I can definitely see both sides of this issue. In theory, I don’t think it is a good idea, but in practice, I completely understand why middle school librarians label their YA books as such.

Other online discussions of content labeling books:

WORD for Teens: What do labels do? Should YA books be labeled? (argues against labeling)

“Leesburg mom not giving up on library book warning-label campaign” (news article about a lady wanting the public library to separate YA fiction into high school and middle school sections)

What are your experiences with labeling YA books in your libraries? Do you feel any pressure from parents or school administrators to label your YA fiction titles? 

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