Friday, February 26, 2010

Common Sense

(Titled in deference to Thomas Paine's much longer blog post about the authority of the monarchy)

A post by Ben Esch alerted me to Common Sense Media (CSM), a group dedicated to informing parents about the appropriateness of books, movies, etc. for their children. This group has begun to partner with Barnes & Noble online to provide this kind of subjective information on its product pages. Specifically, Ben pointed me to the fact that CSM rates Judy Blume's Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret as inappropriate for children under eleven, "a little iffy" for kids eleven to thirteen, and only fully appropriate for people fourteen and up. In case you think you misunderstand that: CSM believes that Blume's classic about the onset of puberty is truly appropriate only for kids who are post-pubescent. Which I don't really understand, but they must have their reasons.

All this got me wondering what CSM thinks of my books. Let's look at The True Meaning of Smekday. They consider it a little iffy for eight-year-olds, fine for nine and up. That's roughly what I tell parents myself when they ask, so great! CSM also has sections titled "The good stuff" and "What to watch out for," in which praise or warnings are dished out on a 0 to 5 scale on a variety of subjects. Regarding "Violence," Smekday gets a warning level of 3. Okay. I would have given it a 2, personally, but Star Wars: A New Hope gets a 3 as well, and I think they're similarly violent.

Regarding "Drinking, drugs, & smoking," CSM gives Smekday a warning of 3. Reason? "Several types of alcohol mentioned." This is true. On I believe about two pages (out of 423) my narrator does mention alcohol. She even implies that her thirtysomething mother partakes from time to time. There is no actual consumption in the book, but merely acknowledging the existence of alcohol apparently is worth a 3 of 5–that's pretty bad, and I feel a little ashamed of myself. The movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for example, earns a five, and the protagonists of that story consume absurd amounts of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco nonstop, even while driving, for days. Again, to be clear: there is only one step between my middle grade novel's depiction of substance abuse and that shown in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Oddly, if we look at Star Wars again we see that, while CSM recognizes actual alcohol consumption therein and the smoking of a pipe, it earns a warning level of zero. I'm guessing this is because Star Wars features only space alcohol and so forth. I have a lot to learn.

There are other things, but I don't want to go on and on. Smekday also earns a warning of 3 for what I'd previously thought was fairly PG-rated, prime-time language. It gets two frowny faces for "some racial tension between Native Americans and whites, and between African Americans and whites." I haven't read my own book in a while–can someone in the comments remind me which page the black-white tension is on? Thanks in advance.

But enough of all this negativity, lets get to "The the good stuff." What does Common Sense Media say are the positive messages in The True Meaning of Smekday?

There are no positive messages in The True Meaning of Smekday.

Okay! That about wraps up my post about Common Sense Media. This is Adam Rex, wishing you safe reading.


Nathan Meidell said...

I agree with the idea behind it, and the intent, but that system sounds pretty skewed. There has to be some way to find a greater impartiality.

Adam Rex said...

Yeah, agreed. I have nothing against the responsible conveyance of information, though this sort of thing seems like it's hard to do responsibly.

I wonder if there's a system in place for readers to appeal the details of entries. I appreciate that they already have reader evaluations in a sidebar.

Brian Biggs said...

I had to read this post twice to make sure your dry humor was evident. As a parent of two kids, I'll happily raise my flag on the "this is absurd" side.
Alcohol being mentioned gets a 3? What's a 1?

I hope these ratings systems all go away into the dustbin of history, and I hope our kids read Judy Blume at 9 years old and I hope we have the sense to talk about puberty in thoughtful ways when they ask.

I say baloney.

Holly said...

Eurgh! Have you ever seen a librarian come over with the horrors? Much clutching of desk edges and eye quivering. There is good writing and crap writing, but the content generally sorts itself out. A 7 year old boy isn't going to want to read about getting his period. (And if he does - give him the damned book, quick!)Admittedly, I was slightly worried about the kid who came in and asked where the "books where people get shot in the face" were, but I suspect he's in worse danger from his home than from his efforts to pick his way through Halo novels. Probably.

Then again, the whole point of parenting is to never discuss issues your kids will have to deal with as adults. In which case, this system is awesome.

Lovely stuff for mulling over - off to kick more people in the shins (it works!)

Anonymous said..., "Common Sense Media" is an oxymoron?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Adam. Wow - who knew the mere word "alcohol" could earn you a 3? And about the absence of good points - I have to wonder whether alcohol or something harder impaired the judgment of the Common Sense people.

RNS said...

I thought the real "racial tension" in the book was between aliens and humans, but maybe that's just me.

Ethan Aldridge said...

Oh, come on. that book was loaded with good messages and stuff. Any parent could be proud to have their child read that book.

Phil said...

No positive messages? I suppose one could rationalize the system overall and some of the ratings they give your book in particular. Like you said, the existence of such a system isn't a bad thing. However, the people behind it are clearly missing the point if they claim that Smekday didn't have a single positive message. When they get something that big wrong it throws the entire endeavor and the people behind it into question.

Liz B said...

I haven't had much luck finding guidelines for CSM reviews. Meaning, if I had to guess, it's up to an individual reviewer and so, while CSM has no written bias, if an individual reviewer does (i.e., any mention of alcohol, whether imbibed or not, whether by a person of age or not, is "warning label") then it impacts the review. This means that it's almost impossible to compare reviews to guess at the standards, because as your analysis & Meg Cabot's has show, doing so creates confusion.

I also haven't figured out how they decide what titles to review or not review. Given the odd lack of certain titles, I'm guessing it is up to the individual reviewers.

The only avenue to argue that I have seen is by the "reader reviews" at the end, which really are just comments to the not-changed original CSM review and puts the responsibility for such correction on the public, not on CSM.

Ted Dawson said...

I didn't realize reading had become a hazard to children.

With books, the publishers are already the "watchdogs." Is there really a need for a watchdog group for children's books?

Movies, TV, video games, graphic novels... these areas need to be monitored because of how they can be marketing toward inappropriate age groups.

There is never any excuse for a parent not screening what his or her children read.

Maureen R said...

I abhor groups like this! I want kids to read. It is a scary world out there and they know it. I discussed books with my son all the time and still do! I hope that's what parents do.

Kaethe said...

My daughters and I have loved all of your books, especially Smekday. I'm glad I enjoy reading middle grade books, so I don't have to rely on reviews like that.

Chris Van Dusen said...

If it makes you feel any better, CSM panned my book,"The Circus Ship" too. They took it way too far in my opinion. They thought that when the ship captain caves into the demands of the mean circus boss, it was sending kids the wrong message. Give me an ever-loving break!

Adam Rex said...

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. I hope people will keep me honest and remind me, when I have kids, that I believe they can handle more challenges than our culture seems to currently give them credit for.

For the record, I don't believe every good parent has the time to be able to read and screen everything their kid reads and sees. I just also don't believe little Caleb and Madison are going to turn into sociopaths if they read above their Lexile measurement.

Adam Rex said...

Oh, and Chris–"so brightly colored they veer toward gaudy?" Nice how they manage to insult you with praise.

megwrites said... has a much better system in place for movies. There is a parent's guide that anyone can contribute to. It includes the following guidelines:
"Since the beliefs that parents want to instill in their children can vary greatly, we ask that instead of adding your personal opinions about what is right or wrong in a film, that you instead use this feature to help parents make informed viewing decisions by describing the facts of relevant scenes in the title for each one of the different categories"
This seems like a much better idea to me: no overall ratings, no value judgements, just a description of what's in there.

Ben Esch said...

Adam, I'm having a little blog envy over how much funnier and well informed your post was than my own. Thanks a lot for the mention and bravo on a really great blog. Also, "space alcohol" made me laugh snort. So thanks for that as well.

Okay, I'm off to reread Smekday for all the racial tension scenes I must have missed the first time.

Ben Esch

Ortega Library Kids Book Club said...

Hi Adam. I'm a children's librarian @ San Francisco Public Library, and I host a monthly book club for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. This Saturday @ 4:00 we'll be discussing your The True Meaning of Smekday. I'll be serving snacks that will be foods mentioned in the book. Trying to figure out a health bar that looks like an eraser! I'm half way through the book and loving it. Love your imagination, creativity, and way with words. Can't wait to hear what the kids have to say. I wanted to do a little research on the author and found this blog. Wish you could come to our book club! I am going to tell the kids about this blog. Maybe they'll write to you. I keep running the bo-o-ov word in my head. Don't want to say it wrong in front of the kids! Is the o sound like the o in choose, lost, or grove?

Adam Rex said...

Hi Ortega Library Kids' Book Club!

I'm so grateful. Please do write to me if you like. Let me know if you have any questions.

Boov is like "choose."

You should have my friend Mac Barnett visit your club. He lives in Oakland, and I illustrate a lot of his books.

Ortega Library Kids Book Club said...

I will suggest Mac Barnett to the kids. It would be great if he could come and talk to them. I don't choose which book we'll read each month, I let them vote for whatever they want to read. I'm going to bring up Common Sense Media's review of your book as a discussion point, I'll let you know what the kids think.

I normally shy away from Science Fiction, but I'm loving your book. Gratuity is a courageous little heroine. I'm trying to figure out why you named her "Gratuity." I hope I come up with an answer by the end of the book. That will be another question I'll ask the kids.

Ortega Library Kids Book Club said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ortega Library Kids Book Club said...

Well, Adam, we had our book club. 1 of the kids got it and loved it, but I think it was over the heads of the rest. All I could get out of them was "long" and "boring". I tried to get them to be more specific, but you know tweens.

I think your writing is brilliant, one passage in particular about sheep walking on bubble wrap still makes me laugh. Keep up the good work.

Adam Rex said...

@OLKBC–Ah, well. Least I reached that one kid.

rhonda said...

Long time reader, first time commenter. Great post, Adam, and after checking out CSM it seems that they have around 90 reviewers. Not a lot when compared to the number of parents in the world. Checking the bio of the board shows a diverse group of what seem to be opened-minded adults, but clearly the reviews are heavy with personal judgments. I hope that instead of relying on these skewed reviews, parents instead seek to understand the themes in middle grade and YA fiction and why their child may want to read a certain book. As a writer who "writes the edge" in my novels, I don't do it for shock value. Writing the true experience of a character can connect readers (kids) to an answer or some inspiration or empathy for others. Besides, as you said, we have to give kids some credit. They are very observant beings. They get life.

NĂºria Coe said...

Wow. It seems as skewed, subjective, and absurd as our current movie ratings. And the fact that B&N is taking them mainstream is problematic at best.

Anonymous said...

My seven year old just read it and loved it.