In an effort to avoid book controversies, some school districts have undertaken effortsto rate books, or to “red-flag” those that have been challenged in other schools. While we applaud the desire to inform parents about the books their children are reading and why they were selected, information provided to parents should explain the educational value of the book. Emphasizing the “mature” content in particular books or rating books by letters or numbers will not provide meaningful information and is likely to instigate more challenges and more controversy.

Lists that segregate books with certain types of content necessarily give a biased perspective, casting a negative light on listed books regardless of their literary worth, and stoking alarm over their content. It would emphasize the views of the tiny minority of people who objected to a book—often for random, personal, or ideological reasons—rather than the thousands who have read, taught, enjoyed and experienced growth from the book. More importantly, it inescapably privileges the concerns of would-be censors over the professional judgment of educators who review the books and teachers and librarians who select them. 

Nor are book rating systems that classify books based on the presence of certain content (e.g., sex, violence, profanity) any more informative about the literary andeducational value of a book. Literature is more than the sum of its parts, and ratings often misleadingly reduce complex literary works to a few isolated elements—those that some individuals may find objectionable—rather than viewing the work as a whole.

Instead of giving books a scarlet letter, school boards should encourage teachers to explain to parents how and why they select certain materials and what educational purposes these materials serve for their children. Focusing on the educational criteria for curricular selections would provide a meaningful, sound and defensible way to evaluate books.