One upon a while back, there was a Book Fair volunteer who was earnestly pursuing the promotion of Real Jazz. Real Jazz came to an end around the time of the first inaugural address of Franklin Roosevelt, and she felt people needed to know this. She was not someone who insisted on needle hiss material: there were plenty of modern bands who played Real Jazz, so one didn’t have to play 78 RPM records to find it. In fact, she developed a syndicated radio program to promote these bands, and tried to sell it to radio stations across the country.
Earnest though she was, however, she was also the worst marketer ever put on earth. One of the first things she would tell a prospective buyer was, “Now, a lot of these songs are really offensive.” They were, of course: they spoke of racial perceptions of the Twenties, and of sex in a timeless but overly frank manner. She sometimes gave presentations to high school audiences, and would agonize over great recordings of songs with regrettable lyrics. She told me once that a lot of the recordings were, in fact, instrumentals: no actual singing took place. “But you can’t be too careful,” she told me, “Once these kids know the titles, they could look up the lyrics online.”
I thought of her recently when I saw another proposal by a concerned parent who wanted to protect readers of middle school age by having labels put on books to say “This book contains material which may be offensive to some readers.” I was appalled, of course. Nowadays, you’d need that label on every single book in the library. Being offended is one of our great spectator sports.
Another approach is needed. I suggest something more like the nutritional label we see on food products, a chart warning of what you’re getting. Obviously, we can’t measure the protein content, or tell about the amount of Vitamin C therein, but we can apply the principle to the product, grading the text and the hero/heroine (Protagonist) with listings like
ENDING: Happy, Sad, Downbeat but Hopeful, Set-up for Next Book
PROTAGONIST: Identifies Self as Alive, Identifies Self as Dead
PROTAGONIST’S LOVE INTEREST: Makes It To the Ending, Does Not Make It to the Ending
PROTAGONIST’S DOG: Dies Saving Protagonist, Dies Killing Protagonist, Dies In A Later Book
ANTAGONIST: Same Race as Protagonist, Different Race as Protagonist, Different Species Than Antagonist
AUTHOR’S POLITICAL LEANINGS: Left, Right, Middle, Way Out There
AUTHOR’S RELIGIOUS LEANINGS: Someone I Would Take to Meet My Parents, Someone I Would Not Take To Meet Anybody
DID AUTHOR EVER MAKE RACIST OR SEXIST REMARKS IN AN ARTICLE FOR A HIGH SCHOOL NEWSPAPER: Yes, No, Still Checking Pen Names
AUTHOR’S SEX LIFE: Made the Tabloids, Made Into TV Movie, Made Legal History
ROLE MODEL POSSIBILITIES OF PROTAGONIST: Good, Bad, Okay Pending Next Book
ROLE MODEL POSSIBILITIES OF AUTHOR: That’s Why These Are Written Under a Pen Name
This merely scratches the surface, of course: it leaves out the possibilities of offense in the setting of the book, various plot twists, the sort of language used by the characters (antagonists can generally swear, where protagonists cannot) and so on. You can see that this will save publishers a lot of money, since the label will take up all that space on the cover which used to be wasted on an illustration.
It needs to be done, though. The only alternative would be for kids to read the book.