Why Don’t YA Books Come With Trigger Warnings?

Growing numbers of YA readers are looking for trigger warnings for books they’re interested in. So what’s the holdup? Ellen Ricks investigates the possibilities and pitfalls of integrating content warnings into the YA landscape.

Trigger Warnings for Books

Trigger Warning: This article contains… 

Reader demand for “trigger warnings,” notes that a work includes materials that could be distressing, is growing rapidly, especially among young adults. While the use of content warnings is still hotly debated, the idea of trigger warnings for books opens itself up to new questions when we talk about YA. How could YA publishing use trigger warnings in their books going forward? 

Right now, there is no set standard or practice for including trigger warnings in any genre of book. Adding trigger warnings is typically up to the discretion of the author and whether or not the publishing company decides to include them.

Readers are driving trigger warning availability

Since most publishers are not providing trigger warnings, some readers have taken matters into their own hands. Review sites like Goodreads and Common Sense Media allow reviewers to post content warnings if they wish, and many readers highlight certain subjects in order to help readers make educated choices about what they are reading. 

A number of book bloggers and BookTubers are also putting trigger warnings in their book reviews. Julia Sapphire, a BookTuber with over 18,000 subscribers, says she started using trigger warnings when she started vlogging in 2013, even devoting an entire video to the importance of trigger warnings in literature.

“I would notice topics in books that I thought people should be aware of before they start reading, such as topics of abuse, sexual assault, animal abuse, etc. It was and still is important to me to clarify if there are topics that readers should be warned about prior to reading,” Sapphire told the Young Adult Reader. Sapphire believes it’s important for BookTubers to clarity potential triggers in the books they review. “It helps the audience and many readers do appreciate it,” says Sapphire. 

Perhaps one of the most comprehensive resources on YA trigger warnings is the Book Trigger List, which currently contains crowd-sourced trigger warnings for over 350 books, mostly YA, and includes range of trigger warnings from ableist language to war.

The list was created by Netherlands blogger Lauren Hannah, between 2012-2013 on her old book blog “Lauren Reads YA”. Hannah says she created the list because she “noticed that people had no place to give others trigger warnings” and “was sick of starting a book and being triggered. It can take the fun out of reading if you’re not prepared.” 

Hannah says that her list is extensive because she doesn’t know what someone may be triggered by. “I don’t have experience with all trauma. When someone tells me something triggers them and would like me to put it on the list, I do it. Even if it’s something that others might find weird,” says Hannah.

But reader-collected warnings aren’t perfect

While online reviews and trigger warning guide can be helpful, they’re an imperfect system. When trigger warnings are collected by individual reviewers, it is up to the individual to decide what to list. One review might think a book containing drug use should come with a trigger warning, while another reviewer may not. 

Even extensive lists of many potential triggers might not be the most effective form of content warning. Psychologist Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. and creator of writereflectgrow.com says that creating a list of possible triggers might not be helpful. “I can see that some people would want to be given advance warning, but in a general way as it often is in other media. (eg this novel contains sensitive content that may be upsetting to some readers),” says Dr. Amsellem. “Anything more than a general warning seems redundant.” Amsellem notes that we never really know what might trigger someone. “What can serve as an emotional trigger can vary between person to person.” 

“What can serve as an emotional trigger can vary between person to person.”

Reviewer-driven lists also raise an issue of accessibility. Some people might have access to books but a limited access to internet; some people aren’t on social media, and others don’t known where to look. There is no easy access to trigger warnings. 

One possible solution? Including trigger warnings in the books themselves

Even without an industry-standard system in place, some authors are working independently to include trigger warnings with their work. Amanda Lovelace, poet of the series Women Are Some Kind of Magic, has included trigger warnings in each of her poetry collections in the form of a one-page list at the start of the books. Clearly labeled “trigger warnings,” the page lists all possible triggers from child abuse to fire, ending with “& possibly more.” at the end. Lovelace also reminds the reader to “practice self-care before, during & after reading,”. 

“It’s not perfect—far from it—but it’s less about perfection and more about preventing as much pain as possible.”

Lovelace told the Young Adult Reader that when she self-published her first book the princess saves herself in this one, she did not include trigger warnings. “While I always rallied behind the idea of trigger warnings, I’d never personally seen it in action in the publishing industry (or any industry, really), so I wasn’t too sure how to go about it myself.” 

Book Cover: the princess saves herself in this one

When her book started to sell it stores, Lovelace was contacted by several readers saying that they “wished they had prior warning about the sensitive topics found inside so they could better prepare, or decide to read it at a different time in their lives,” says Lovelace. “The last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt anyone with my story, since I, too, have been hurt without trigger warnings. So I basically just said ‘screw it’ and did it the only way I knew how to do it. It’s not perfect—far from it—but it’s less about perfection and more about preventing as much pain as possible.” The next printing of the book with her poetry publisher, Andrews McMeel, included trigger warning for which Lovelace received “only words of gratitude” from her readers. 

Putting trigger warnings before the story starts seems like a preferred method for many. “I believe that trigger warnings should go at the beginning of the book just to warn reader,” says Julia Sapphire. “If people do not care to see them, they can simply flip past it, but at least it would be there for the people that do.” 

So why don’t books begin with trigger warnings?

The beginning of a book might be the most effective place for a list of warnings, but putting that information right up front draws another possible objection: Spoilers. Some claim that trigger warnings are “spoilers” to the plot of the book. We have to ask ourselves: what is a spoiler? Is rape a spoiler? Is there a difference between saying “mentions of suicide” and “main character kills themselves”? These are the questions we might have to ask when talking about trigger warnings. 

From personal experience, Lovelace says that she never had a problem with her trigger warnings being considered as spoilers.  “I’ve never encountered feedback like that from readers before. While I write poetry and not fiction, I do write using an overarching narrative that tells a story from beginning to end, so you would think it wouldn’t be too different of a situation.”

And it’s not as if people haven’t seen trigger warnings for reading material before. Those who have ever read fan fiction have seen incredibility long lists below a story title, listing everything from “self-harm” and “smut,” to “enemies-to-lovers” and “[character] is a jerk”. If these are spoilers, it hasn’t stopped people from reading. 

A screencap of popular tags on Archive of Our Own
Hugo-award winning fanfiction site Archive of Our Own allows users to tag works with custom descriptions, including many common content warnings.
Screencap: Archive of Our Own

Lauren Hannah suggests that a rating system, similar to the ones we have with movies and TV show is “probably the only realistic way (trigger warnings) could ever happen.” While it’s true that we already have an established system for rating, is it enough in today’s culture?

Standard rating categories could be simple, but would they be detailed enough to be effective as trigger warnings? Rating something M for mature because of sexual situations doesn’t give context. There is a huge difference between a consensual sex scene and a rape scene. When it comes to potentially triggering content, there’s a difference between a brief mention of a past assault to a graphic description of one. But ratings don’t give you that clarity. 

“There’s a difference between a brief mention of a past assault to a graphic description of one. But ratings don’t give you that clarity.”

Perhaps one solution would be a combination of a rating system and a list of triggers. This could be similar to the way fan fiction is given detailed tags according to content. Publishers could hire sensitivity readers of various ages, gender and sexual identities, races, and mental health backgrounds to read over each manuscript before publishing, putting together a list of possible triggers. Would they be able to catch everything? Probably not, but it would be a start.

The biggest obstacle is misinformation

The biggest obstacles to spreading the use of trigger warnings are still the widely-held misconceptions about their purpose.  

The point of trigger warnings for books isn’t to stop people from reading, or to coddle them into believing the world is full of sunshine and rainbows. Trigger warning exists to give the reader power. To be able to make informed choices about what they read and when. They teach people—in this case, teenagers–to know their boundaries and push them on their terms. Trigger warnings are a form of consent and a form of compassion. Our trigger warning systems may not be perfect, but they matter enough to fight for.

To quote Amanda Lovelace, “I just think it’s past time to stop prioritizing fictional problems and to start showing a lot more empathy for readers.”

Ellen Ricks is a writer, advocate, and complex female character. Her words have been published in Teen Vogue, LitHub, Bustle, HelloGiggle, and The Mary Sue, among others.

This article is part of a very special “Issue Zero” of the Young Adult Reader

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