Nathan Bransford asked the question in September of last year, Tony Buchsbaum asked again last week, and we'll probably still be asking in the next century: should fiction for children and teens be content-rated?
To me, words are different from visual images. (And, as I was discussing recently with author Gary Corby, I'm actually pretty lax on my opinion of images as well, so long as they have some artistic or historical value.) Basically, I don't think there's anything my kid can find and read on her own that I can't trust her with. If it's violent or sexual beyond her maturity level, she can put it down or discuss it with me. That's what I did when I got hold of certain books "too early."
(Oh, and as for the mature books that I read all the way through? That meant it wasn't too early. I suffered no long-term damage from the adult books I managed to pick up at my elementary school's used book sale.)
Why am I rehashing this old turf? Because yesterday I listened to an episode of the podcast Writing Excuses, on the subject of violence, and heard this awesome quote:
I think morality is more about consequences rather it is about than what you depict or choose not to depict.
Beautifully put, gentlemen. It's the consequences that befall the characters that really determine the tone and message of a story, not the sex, drugs, or violence. Does a character feel bad for hurting another person, or is s/he indifferent? Does the world around the character react to the behavior in question, or is the society indifferent? And, are those reactions and consequences (or lack thereof) ultimately portrayed as positive, negative, or neutral?
Have you ever read a work of fiction that you felt was genuinely immoral? Why?
(Hmmm. Ambiguity. I meant "what made it immoral?" not "why did you read such an immoral book?" Ha!)