Three Bombs, Two Lips, and a Martini Glass Revisited

This editorial, by longtime Book Links columnist and Booklist contributor Pat Scales, appeared in the August 2010 issue of Booklist in response to Common Sense Media’s practice of labeling books by controversial content. Recent discussions on ALSC-L about this organization, and why the American Library Association doesn’t work with them, have prompted us to reprint Pat’s essay here. Minor changes have been made to reflect alterations in the way Common Sense Media presents its reviews.


If you had asked me a year ago what bombs, lips, and martini glasses have in common, I would have answered, “A fraternity party.” Now I have a different answer. It’s called Common Sense Media. This not-for-profit, web-based organization is in the business of using a “rating” system to review all types of media that target children, but their “ratings” of books are especially disingenuous. They claim that they want to keep parents informed. Informed about what? What their children should read or what they shouldn’t read?

Good turns to bad when reviewers aren’t really reviewers,
and the focus is on what to watch out for.

This isn’t the first time that an organization has used the web to influence parental opinions about children’s literature. Parents against Bad Books in Schools and a number of right-wing groups have been at work for years trading “forbidden” lists of children’s books. It’s never been clear who decides which titles make the lists. Now, Common Sense Media joins the long list of organizations that think they know what is best for children. The frightening part about this group is that they have a marketing strategy to convince parents and even teachers and librarians that “rating” materials is a “good” thing. But good turns to bad when reviewers aren’t really reviewers, and the focus is on what to watch out for.

Common Sense Media claims that it is about “media sanity, not censorship,” but after a long meeting with their editor in chief, I remain puzzled about how they define “media sanity.” As a company, it is free to do what it pleases, but the belief that “media has truly become the ‘other parent'” and its approach to media guidance display great disrespect for children and their families, not to mention the disdain it demonstrates to librarians who are trained to provide reading guidance to families.

Children deserve to be challenged intellectually, and they deserve to be the judge of the books that suit them. Most children will reject books they aren’t ready for, and they don’t need adults to help them with that decision. Common Sense Media assumes that all parents want to police what their kids are reading, and they use the following emoticons as warnings: bombs for violence, lips for sex, #! for language, $ for consumerism, and wine glasses (an update of the original martini glasses) for drinking, drugs, and smoking.

The Evolution of Calpurina Tate by Jacqueline KellyIn addition to rating books in these five categories, the site also decides whether books have any educational value and redeeming role models. They no longer use the “on,” “off,” or “iffy” ratings. Instead they use a five star ranking. For example, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, a 2010 Newbery Honor Book, receives five stars for ages 12 and up. Parents responded to the website’s review and recommend it for ages 11 and up; kids say it is for 10 and up. My bet is that there are plenty of nine-year-olds waiting in line for the book. It gets one bomb for violence because of a description of a Civil War battle and reportage of a servant who is pitchforked to death; a lip because Calpurnia’s older brother is courting and animals on the farm mate; one #! because Calpurnia’s grandfather curses; and two wine glasses because her grandfather drinks whiskey and port daily. What Common Sense Media doesn’t tell you is that 11-year-old Calpurnia is a spunky kid who would rather be collecting scientific specimens with her grandfather than learning to become a housewife.

Looking for Alaska by John GreenCommon Sense Media clearly doesn’t know how to deal with young-adult readers. Looking for Alaska, by John Green, winner of the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award, gets four stars for ages 16 and up. Booklist graded this book at grades 9–12, and even the “Average Rating” by parents on the Common Sense site recommends Green’s books for ages 14–up. Kids say it is for ages 13 and up. Regardless of what these readers say, the Common Sense Media reviewer warns, “Parents need to know that this books hits all the controversial pulse points: drinking, sex, bad language, and smoking, including marijuana smoking.” They do quote Michael Cart, a former chair of the Michael L. Printz Committee: “There is nothing gratuitous in this book.”

The Book Thief by Markus ZusakIn May, 2010, the National Coalition against Censorship, American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, National Council of Teacher of English, Association of American Publishers, Pen American  Center, International Reading Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Authors Guild, and Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators sent a joint letter to the editor in chief and the CEO of Common Sense Media that outlined the following concerns with the company’s rating system: (1) the implication that certain kinds of content are inherently problematic; (2) the negative attitude toward books; and (3) the potential that the ratings will be used to remove valuable literature from schools and libraries. A meeting was held with the editor in chief, and questions were raised about why books such as Markus Zusak’s Book Thief and Annika Thor’s Faraway Island, both set during the Holocaust, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, set during the American Revolution, weren’t given any “educational value.” The editor in chief had no clear answers, but those books have now been awarded “educational value” on Common Sense Media’s site. It is clear to the nine organizations that are working hard to protect children and young adult’s freedom to read that Common Sense Media is a moving target, and their piecemeal response to such questions won’t fix what is at heart a misguided and dangerous concept.

While Common Sense Media isn’t censoring anything, it is providing a tool for censors. There is already a documented case in the Midwest where a book was removed from a school library based solely on a Common Sense Media review. They instruct their reviewers to point out anything “controversial.” And the narrative part of the reviews addresses, in their opinion, what parents need to know. Such warnings encourage site browsers to take things out of context instead of looking at books as a whole.

Bombs, lips, and wine glasses! Indeed, let them be a warning. We must be proactive in helping parents understand that rating books is dangerous. Otherwise, more censorship bombs are sure to explode.




About the Author:

After 36 years as a school librarian, Pat Scales is a freelance writer and children’s literature advocate.

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