Lawmaker proposes rating system for books in schools, libraries | News

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OKLAHOMA CITY — A state senator plans to file a bill that would establish a rating system for library books similar to the one used for movies.

State Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, would like Oklahoma to adopt a rating system of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 for books in public schools and libraries.

Critics said that although the idea is interesting, they fear it could end up actually limiting access to books, push children toward texts that may not be age-appropriate and prohibit the reading of classics that contain profanity or depictions of nudity.

Hamilton said in a news release that the rating system would be an alternative to banning books and would give parents “a better understanding of the materials their children are reading” and provide parental guidance. It also would give parents “peace of mind” that children cannot access adult content in schools and libraries.

The bill had not yet been assigned a number as of Tuesday morning and did not appear to have any text.

“This rating system is simple, effective and already widely known,” Hamilton said. “This would sort books without restricting them and is a way for everyone to be on the same page about what is and isn’t appropriate for kids at different age levels to be reading.”

R and NC-17 texts would be placed in a restricted area.

Heather Hall, owner of Green Feather Books in Norman, said if books are rated R or NC-17, children are naturally going to want to know what’s in those books because they’ve become forbidden.

Children also might believe that certain age-appropriate books are too young for them based on ratings.

“What it will do is it will drive kids away from books that they’ve always been interested in,” Hall said.

As a bookseller, Hall said if an idea like this took off nationally, it could mean fewer middle grade and elementary school books would be published because children could demand books of increased maturity levels.

“From a bookseller standpoint, it’s great business for lawmakers to ban books in schools,” Hall said. “It means we sell a lot of them. From a bookseller standpoint on this one, this is going to make the conversation a whole lot more complicated for very little positive outcome.”

She said libraries already have people with advanced degrees tasked with classifying books. They sort them based on subject matter, maturity and reading level.

Hall also questioned who would rate the books. Rating movies has never been cut-and-dry and always somewhat subjective.

She fears it could make it harder for children to access literature written by traditionally marginalized communities, like people of color or LGBTQ+ individuals.

“If you’re going to fill these positions with political appointees, then I think it’s very accurate to say that the only books that are available largely to kids will be ones that reflect the values of the ruling party, whichever party that may be,” she said.

Hall said there’s some “really great classic literature” that should normally be available to middle schoolers but wouldn’t be under the new rating system because of language or because of sexual content. She said it’s appropriate for students developmentally to have conversations around certain subjects or be exposed to mild profanity.

“I just think it’s an interesting idea that I think has a lot of flaws at its heart,” Hall said.

State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said Hamilton’s proposal “kind of makes sense,” but he said Oklahoma already has a system in place to determine what books are appropriate. He questioned why more legislation is needed.

“Hamilton is probably just offering this to make a big splash,” he said. “I don’t think this thing moves.”

He said legislators recently passed a law in response to controversies about book access in local communities.

That new law empowers local school boards to decide what book acquisitions make the most sense for their communities, state Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, previously said.

Rosecrants said Hamilton’s bill represents one of those “wedge issues” that’s been created and pushed forward by very conservative people.

He said Hamilton’s proposal also shows “a complete lack of respect for parents” because it indicates that parents can’t be trusted to make the right decisions on the books their children check out.

“It’s a bill that doesn’t need to be written,” Rosecrants said. “It is definitely a problem in search of a solution, not the other way around.”

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