Over at School Library Journal, Brian Kenney's latest editorial is Fear Factor: Kids' Lit Style, about Common Sense Media.
As you may recall, back in February I wrote about Common Sense Media in the context of their reviews being used at Barnes & Noble, called No We Don't All Agree. Many other bloggers and writers also wrote about it. Publishers Weekly did a story, called Common Sense raises issues at B&N.
At the time, I wrote: "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. . . . 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 . . . . So, for those parents whose concern is drinking regularly? And being a dutiful child? This website is for them."
Kenney says, "Well, when it comes to book reviews, it turns out there's plenty not to love. In fact, its book reviews are frightfully inept and tremendously dangerous." and then continues, "For Common Sense's reviewers, children's literature is just one big minefield of scary topics, and their job is to comb through books for any offending passages. The message is clear: based on narrow criteria, some material is problematic, children need to be protected from it, and it's the job of teachers and parents to help kids avoid questionable content. The offending incidents are presented without context, while the overall message, intent, and literary quality of a book are rarely addressed. Book after book, Common Sense reviewers harp on the negative while the positive aspects of reading broadly--including tackling books that are challenging--are never addressed."
Alas, I cannot comment at SLJ and I really, really, want to.
I decided to revisit Common Sense Media and Barnes and Noble.
My new thoughts; and please, if I've made a mistake, give me a link and I'll edit and revise.
Common Sense Media reviews are no longer available at Barnes & Noble's website. The original press releases, the original pages that highlighted the partnership, exist, but I couldn't find a children's or teen book that provided the Common Sense Media review. I don't order books from Barnes & Noble; anyone have any idea when this happened?
Judy Blume's books are no longer reviewed at Common Sense Media. How Blume's books were reviewed was one of the issues raised by Salon and Meg Cabot. Now? Nothing at Common Sense Media. It's as if the books were never reviewed there at all. I did manage to find a "kids review" section about ARE YOU THERE GOD, but when I tried to get to the original review I was told it's protected and I had to join to see it.
Common Sense Media has no transparency about the rules and procedures its reviewers are to follow, or how to use its rating system. The best I could find was a very broad "how to understand our ratings."
And the last one is why I'm changing my mind about Common Sense Media and leaning more towards Kenney's concerns. Because it's impossible to find, flat out, their bias for a parent to make an informed decision about what slant Common Sense Media uses. A scattered number of reviews leads me to conclude that unless a book fits a particular, narrow profile (obedient children, traditional gender roles, proper religious values) it will get more criticism. Yet I cannot find anywhere on Common Sense Media to reveal that to parents.
Example one: Octavian Nothing Vol. II and Bloodline. Common Sense Media says Octavian is a "brilliant, brutally violent novel for mature readers only" yet totally omits from the review the "the good stuff" part of the review. Message: nothing good here! Also watch out for the bad messages, which are (emphasis added): "Plenty of racism and despicable acts and attitudes toward African Americans. Speculation about the inherently evil nature of man, as well as wit about the nature of God that some might consider blasphemous." So a book whose entire meaning is "racism is wrong" is a bad message in that it shows the racism that is wrong. Plus, uh oh, blasphemy!
Now, Bloodline. Common Sense Media includes "the good stuff" for this tale of "Dark ages adventure a draw even for history-phobic teens". Unlike Octavian Nothing, this book is educational because (again, my emphasis added): "Although much written about the early dark ages must be conjecture, Moran has done extensive research that reveals much about day to day life in the seventh century and readers will learn much about the time and the spread of Christianity." What do parents need to know? "This is historic fiction at a very high level that gives a marvelous introduction to the rise of Christianity, the pagans' reaction to the notion of one God, and daily life in the dark ages." And what types of things should families discuss? "Families can talk about the rise of Christianity and how it spread throughout the world. What were the other world religions in the 7th century, and how many of them are still practiced?" Now, readers of this blog know that I love a book that portrays religion positively; I love historical fiction; I want to read this book. But why such a heavy emphasis on Christianity on a secular website? Especially when the professional reviews, as shown at Barnes and Noble, do not emphasize that aspect, leaving me to wonder just how important that aspect of the story is to the average reader?
Example Two: Calpurnia Tate, not a good role model. Calpurnia gets a ranking of only 2 out of 5 for "role model." Why? "Calpurnia is tomboyish, dislikes sewing and cooking, but mostly dislikes being indoors. She recognizes the injustice and points it out." Can someone explain this rating system, as to why that is not a 5 out of 5 in any way, shape, or form, other than she is operating outside of typical gender roles so gets a lesser ranking?
Example Three: Charles and Emma don't inspire. On messages in this book: "This biography probably won't inspire any young readers to become scientists, although it does glorify the life of the mind; nor is it particularly inspirational to those of religious faith. It may inspire some readers to be kind and attentive parents". Yes, let's point out that it won't inspire faith and ignore the message of how two people with opposing views of religion led a happy, loving life. And I still don't understand the role models ranking, as Charles and Emma, like Calpurnia , received only 2 out of 5 for being this type of role model: "The relationship between Charles and Emma, both with competing belief systems, reveals a partnership based on love rather than a union based on similar beliefs and conformity to expectations. They are both devoted parents". Since 2 out of 5 usually isn't a good ranking, I can assume this description means "not good role models." Except I don't read it that way. I think that is a 5 out of 5 role model!
Admittedly, this is only a handful of reviews. And yes, some parents do want a Common Sense Media type of "tell us the bad stuff." My question now is Common Sense Media's lack of transparency about how reviews are done and the standards and training its reviewers follow. There are parents whose questions are about blasphemy, how a religion is portrayed, and traditional gender role models. If those parents are Common Sense Media's primary audience, shouldn't that be clearer to the average person?
As Kenney at SLJ points out, are these full reviews or ones that are quick to point out the "bad" without pointing out the "good"?
What standards are being used?
EDITED TO ADD: Kenney links to this letter sent by NCAC to Common Sense Media about its issues with how CSM treats books. The current review of Chains is significantly different from the one described in the letter and is marked as edited at a date later than that letter. Are You There, God, It's Me Margaret and Beloved, both mentioned in the letter, no longer appear at the CSM site. Does anyone have a link to CSM's official response to this letter?
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy