Sunday, February 21, 2010

No, We Don't All Agree

On Twitter, SassyMonkey brought to my attention that Barnes & Noble is now using CommonSenseMedia age ratings on its website. SassyMonkey has a pretty thorough review of the situation, especially how what appears at B&N is a lot less nuanced than what is at CommonSenseMedia. Click through to SassyMonkey's post, especially as she has great screen shots that compare what is at Barnes & Noble and what is at CommonSenseMedia.

Linda Braun at YALSA's blog chimes in with a detailed exploration about the concerns with such age labelling in "Who Owns Common Sense:" "Think about the messages the ratings send to parents, and to teens. Consider how the ratings might have an impact on the materials you have in your collection. Be willing to stand up for the books you have in your collection and talk to parents about the positive aspects of teen reading of books that might have content that makes some nervous."

According to a press release at CommonSenseMedia, this arrangement began early in February.

Big Brother, er, I mean Barnes & Noble has this to say: “We know how challenging it can be for parents to make smart choices for their kids,” said William Lynch, president of Barnes & “Adding Common Sense Media ratings and reviews for books, movies, games, and music is our way of making life easier for parents and taking the worry out of making age-appropriate selections for their kids.”

I guess the existing professional reviews that indicated content was not enough; now a big red button that screams "THIS AGE ONLY" is necessary.

Here's the thing.

If a parent wants the type of detailed "how many f*cks?" "is there kissing with tongue" "is it blasphemous" type of review, fine. Great! I even think CommonSenseMedia is a great resource for us readers who don't count the number of times a kid talks back to an adult, but have patrons who want to know. CommonSenseMedia does NOT say "don't read this book" or "this book is evil"; rather, they give a detailed analysis of the factors they think set off alarm bells for adults who monitor the reading choices of their children.

Yes, it is biased; read some book reviews of books you have read, and you'll see this is not objective or factual. Which is fine, because some people want this. For example, in writing about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, drinking and parental obedience is highlighted: "Parents need to know that there is little in the way of bad language or mature situations in this Newbery Honor book, but Calpurnia's grandfather not only drinks regularly and tries to distill his own whiskey, he seems to have no concept that children "as young as 11" should not be drinking. Callie knows, though. Callie also reveals that the tonic her mother takes so often for headaches and stress contains 20% alcohol. Callie also finds ways to bend the rules, but like her siblings, is mostly a dutiful child."

So, for those parents whose concern is drinking regularly? And being a dutiful child? This website is for them.

So why does Barnes & Noble assume this is true of all parents? As Braun points out in her blog post at YALSA, who decided that judging such a book this way IS common?

The Barnes & Noble reader is just told that this book is for ages 12 and up according to CommonSenseMedia. (For the record? I've given it to my 9 year old niece, who will read it if and when she gets through all the Warrior books). If the parent clicks "more" they will get the reasons for the 12 plus rating. Barnes & Noble gives the publisher age range (ironically, ages 9 to 12, which I agree with). If the parent reads to Editorial Reviews (but why should they, when they aren't highlighted as CommonSenseMedia does?), they get a variety of ages: ten and up from Publishers Weekly; grades 5 to 8 from School Library Journal; ages ten to fourteen from Kirkus.

I am disappointed. Not in CommonSenseMedia -- as I said, they are what they are and the parent who wants it can go there. It's a resource.

I am disappointed with Barnes & Noble, and how they have decided to use the age rating of CommonSenseMedia.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Color Online said...

Good grief.

Thanks for the heads up, Liz.

Liz B said...

It's rather...interesting... to see just what sets off the "oh noes this book is for older readers" alarm. Check CHAINS and OCTAVIAN NOTHING; check LIPS TOUCH THREE TIMES. Check to see whether any Rainbow/GLBT titles get reviewed at all and how accurate.

Tricia said...


Thanks for pointing this out and for sharing SassyMonkey's post. I went and checked out a few myself. I had to laugh when I read some of the points highlighted about The Graveyard Book (adults drink gin, a reference to couples kissing and "roll[ing] about").

I was more interested in what doesn't appear on B&N that is found at the CSM site. I found only one book that actually included text for the Families Can Talk About section, and it wasn't pretty.

CSM can talk about not wanting to censor books, but they sure sounded like that's what they wanted for Tender Morsels. Here's what they said.

What Parents Need to Know About Tender Morsels

Parents need to know that this is not by any reasonable standard a book for children of any age. A teen is repeatedly raped by her father, then gang-raped by other teens who are then sodomized. Horrible miscarriages are graphically described. See the advisories for more horrifying details.

Families Can Talk About

Families can talk about why the publishers might have decided to publish this as a young adult book instead of an adult book. Do they hope to make more money? Do they think that any book with children should be sold to children? Why would it have been chosen for so many best-of-year lists? Does its literary quality balance its content? For what ages would you recommend it?

I am disappointed in B&N.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I also find it strange that not all books are rated. This makes it look like only books you need to worry about have the CSM rating. How are they choosing which ones to rate? I looked up books like Evermore, Need, Lament and As You Wish and none of them had ratings.

It reminds me of Tipper Gore's push to label music back in the 80s. As soon as I saw that sticker telling me it was graphic, I bought it, just for the thrill of listening to something that someone said I shouldn't.

Scope Notes said...

Thanks for commenting on this, Liz. I didn't realize B&N was using this service. I was taken aback by the quotes about Tender Morsels that Tricia pulled from the CSM site. Troubling.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I had no idea about this. I dont use B and N a whole lot other than the fact they have better book descriptions than Amazon. Otherwise, I am an Amazon girl.

Alison/Alison's Book Marks said...

Liz, this is the first I'm hearing of Common Sense(?) Media, so thank you for posting.

See, I grew up in a family where the bookshelf was open territory. Reading was learning, and it was, if nothing else, a jumping off point for dialogue with my mom.

I admit, when I review a YA book, I will often comment on the content if I think it is wildly inappropriate or rightly so. I do this more to prepare parents, not to censor the kids.

I'm going to click on the links you've given us...I may come back and comment more. This has me thinking now...

Sarah Stevenson said...

This IS troubling, and I'm glad you brought it to our attention.

It's the kind of thing I wouldn't feel so weird about if B&N made it clear that this site DOESN'T constitute the sole definitive judgment on age-appropriateness or content evaluation.

I hate to sound cynical, but I can't help thinking Common Sense Media must have a really good sales and marketing team...

Liz B said...

My prime concern is HOW B&N uses this, not if/whether. To have more information in their review section? Fine.

However, once BN elevates CSM ratings as they have (and also changes it, as they have), the question of who/what/standards/bias HAS to be asked. What are the standards for reviewers? What is the process for reviewing the reviewers? And no, relying on public comments about CSM reviews ISN'T the answer because then its no longer about CSM's own standards, rules, regulations.

I think CSM has sold themselves as "common sense" for all. CSM hasn't said -- but others commmenting about it (comments made to PW, Sassymonkey posts) have said things like "oh, decent parents can use this" and "no reader of TENDER MORSELS would ever say its for a child (ie. someone under 18).

That is the thing, isn't it? The us/ them implication (even tho not made by CSM) that decent, caring readers all agree.

Tricia said...

Ooh, I hope you didn't think I said that about TENDER MORSELS. I was quoting CSM, and even though they claim they are not banning/censoring books, they are the ones who said it was not for a child of any age.

Just wanted to clarify...

Liz B said...

oh, no, i totally know what you meant!

to me, TENDER MORSELS is a great example of how yes, this is offering judgment. and I wonder how much BN realized that going on.

have you read the meg cabot/ salon look at how CSM treats ARE YOU THERE GOD ITS ME MARGARET? Fascinating, and makes me wonder all the more the procedure at CSM for being a reviewer, standards, guidelines, etc.