A colleague sent me an email with a link to an article about the G.P. Taylor v Patrick Ness debate and said "you know about these things, what do you think?". I started writing a response and it turned into a bit of an essay, so she suggested blogging it!
It is a thorny issue as I think parents do need some kind of guidance as to what their children are reading - they might not have time to read it themselves and there might not be an expert on hand to say 'I think your son/daughter is a bit young for that'. Kids are quite self-censoring though - they'll stop reading a book if they aren't enjoying the storyline and often say that they think a book is not suitable for their younger sibling. The debate started this time because of the assertion that YA books are becoming 'darker', but Grimms' Tales were pretty dark, and what about Goosebumps and Point Horror from 20 years ago? Some pretty nasty things happen in Harry Potter too...as Patrick Ness said, in real life children have to deal with bad stuff and so like to read about people experiencing similar or worse events. Who's to say that a 16 year old is more able to cope with reading about suicide or rape or bereavement than a 14 year old, or even a 12 year old, when any one of them could have experienced suicidal thoughts. Never mind that they will have watched people coping with these issues on Eastenders anyway!
An awful lot of the manga sold in western countries has age bands - off the top of my head, it is A (all), T (early teen) , T+ (older teen), 16 & 18+ - determined for the American market who are really prudish so I wouldn't mind any of the kids in my library reading most T+. This is because they're all sold in a similar format and just looking at the cover won't tell you whether there might be some hardcore p*rn or extreme violence in there! It hasn't made a difference to their popularity, as with age banding for films, so maybe doing the same for full text YA books would not cause a problem. It might even increase the kudos of an author, to have their book rated as 15+.
I think age banding is unfeasible. Firstly, who would do it and secondly what would the reasoning be? Would it be like films and done by committee (there are a lot more books published than films made), or the publishers, or the authors? Would a book that involves the massacre of demons have the same ranking as one that involves descriptions of the Holocaust? Would one that deals with the aftermath of a rape have the same rating as one with a gratuitous sex scene? It is the way that the issues are handled that matters, and that is an issue for marketers/publicists/booksellers/librarians - to ensure that the right messages get through to the right people. For age banding to work, every book would have to have it - adult as well as YA or childrens'. Otherwise 15 year olds would be held back from reading something from the adult section of the bookshop 'just in case'.
There would also have to be some way of making it clear that the rating is simply about the suitability of the story rather than the difficulty of the language. Emotional maturity, reading age, and physical age do not necessarily correlate! A child could pick up a book deemed to be suitable for their age group and either struggle terribly because it is too difficult for them or be bored because it is too 'easy'. I can also see a number of teens I know refusing to read something because it has '12' on it but they're 14. At school we buy in a system called Accelerated Reader that levels books based on language content and provides quizzes for pupils to take to demonstrate that they have understood the book. These levels correlate to reading ages, and are actually quite useful as long as you bear in mind that they don't make a judgement on the events in the story. For example, the House of Night series is easier to read than the Harry Potter novels but are for a more mature age group (the opening chapter includes a description of a blowjob). The only indicator of age-appropriateness is 'LY', 'MY' or 'UY' on their labels - lower, middle or upper year. Not enough books are quizzed and the system is too expensive, but it is a useful tool for those that don't have a strong knowledge of children's literature.
Hot Key Books are a new publishing company that have what I think is a brilliant alternative - the Hot Key Ring - in which they give an idea of what kind of issues are in that book without prescribing who it might be suitable for. No hint of reading level or age appropriateness, but a good indicator of content that wouldn't be off-putting for the reader or parent.
I have seen a number of YA books with 'parental guidance' or 'warning: explicit content' signs on their covers - it just makes you want to read it more ;-)