The Myth of the “R-Rated” Book

January 19, 2007 | 1 book mentioned 1 2 min read

Want to sound out of touch? Start describing things by using movie ratings. That’s what school board member Wendy Day does in an opinion piece in the Detroit News as she tries to convince readers to back her in her effort to pull a book from school curriculum that she and some parents deem “inappropriate.” The book in question? The Freedom Writers Diary, which chronicles the story of a group of “at risk” students who, using Anne Frank as inspiration, write their own diaries, excerpts of which are strung together to make this book.

Day says of the book, “A movie that included drug abuse, clear depictions of oral sex and repeated profanity would earn an ‘R’ rating… Put this same content in a book, and any objection to it is seen as censorship.” But she fails, as do many who attempt to ban books, to recognize the context in which this “questionable” content is delivered. In this case, the context – some rough-around-the-edges teenagers describing their own lives – renders Day’s concerns absurd.

We rate and restrict movies because they are so much more likely to have different motives. Actions depicted on the screen are orders of magnitude more shocking than those written on the page (this is why laws restricting content on TV and radio have always been far more restrictive than what is permissible in print. See, for example, George Carlin’sSeven Words You Can Never Say on Television“). To say that everything that would garner an “R” rating from our notoriously inconsistent movie censors deserves to be equally restricted when described in print strikes me as a sloppy blanket statement that is likely trotted out by many a would be book-banner.

Moving back to Freedom Writers, though, this case, perhaps more so than others, illuminates how out of touch schools can become with those they are trying to teach. If the students in the Howell School district embarked on a similar project, keeping diaries as they learned, would it be so different from what appears in Freedom Writers? Not likely, even if parents would like to think that their children have nothing in common with a mix of struggling Asian, Hispanic and African American students. And when then message of Freedom Writers is not to glorify the bad things those students have done but to try to convey an authentic good message about personal growth and understanding, attempts to ban it based on perceived naughtiness show little respect for students who are no doubt old enough to appreciate that message. There is a reason we don’t have, and never will have, a rating system for books like the one we have for movies, and those who understand that should protect books from those who don’t.

Backstory: The book was OK’d by the board earlier this month over Day’s and some parents’ objections. A Michigander explains why he thinks students should read the book. A letter from a local points out that Day is wrong in passing judgment on a book she has never read. Freedom Writers is currently a major motion picture.

created and edits The Millions. He is co-editor of the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, called "funny, poignant, relentlessly thought-provoking" by The Atlantic. He and his family live in New Jersey. If you'd like to correspond, please don't hesitate to email.

One comment:

  1. QUOTE: Day says of the book, "A movie that included drug abuse, clear depictions of oral sex and repeated profanity would earn an 'R' rating… Put this same content in a book, and any objection to it is seen as censorship."

    To take her argument to its logical conclusion, ANYTHING that earned an 'R' rating could be used to ban a book. That would include violence. What would that do to our history books which describe war and the horrors of war? What about the history of the holocaust. Slavery. What would happen to the Bible, which is full of killings?

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