It started with a tweet. A student in an online young adult literature class that I teach mentioned a blog post by Sarah Dessen (scroll down to number 5), about Barnes & Noble’s use of Common Sense Media ratings on the B&N web site. The student tweet asked what members of the class thought about the use of these ratings in this way.
If you aren’t familiar with Common Sense Media ratings, you can easily find out about them by searching the Barnes & Noble site for any book that’s a favorite of teens. Search for Dessen’s Along for the Ride (Which students in the YA lit. class read and decided that middle school and high school girls that liked stories of this type would like this one.) and find out that the book is appropriate for ages 14 and up and includes keggers, parents that drink, eating of junk food, use of swear words, a hook-up, and a threat to beat someone up. In the section labeled “What Parents Need to Know” the Common Sense Media rating says that the book is a realistic portrayal of teen life, but that’s not noted as a positive. You can tell because at the end of the “need to know” section you read, “On the plus side, all of the female characters are very intelligent and there’s a subtheme that people can change for the better.”
Back to the students and the tweet, the one tweet led to an active discussion about the ratings and their pros and cons. Students wondered:
- Can’t this help parents to know what their teens are reading?
- There are movie ratings why shouldn’t there be book ratings?
- Won’t this be an entree to parents for finding reasons to ban books in libraries?
- Isn’t this a way to help people understand what we are talking about when we talk about YA?
- How can generalized ratings determine what’s appropriate for teens when there is such a great variety of teens and what appeals to them, their maturity, what they want to read?
- Aren’t reviews a better way to find out about a book – find out what teens and adults say about the story, the content, etc.?
- Isn’t this a way for parents to monitor and filter teen’s reading without ever having to talk with their teens about reading, interests, life, etc.?
(It was great to be apart of this debate with students. It definitely demonstrated how using something like Twitter is a good way to talk about an issue in real-time. But, I digress, this post isn’t about Twitter.)
The thing is, who does get to own common sense and determine what’s right for a particular teen or a particular family? Sure, in Along for the Ride there is drinking, sex, swearing. But what the rating doesn’t get into, even in the short paragraph about what parents need to know, is that there is a context to the story in which Auden, the main character, learns about life and how to handle a variety of difficult situations because of all that goes on around her.
By reading about the consequences of Auden’s own choices – some good and some bad – teen readers get insight into their own decision-making both past and future.
Teens that read Along for the Ride (AFTR) discover that a teen girl can take control over her life, even when she’s made mistakes in the past.
Teens that read AFTR find out that what they think about someone’s character, personality, and even brains, is very possibly not realistic. Teen readers find out that it’s important to look beyond the superficial in order to really find out about the person you work with (or go to school with) every day.
This is all more than an afterthought “on the plus side.” These themes are deeply engrained in the story, but a parent wouldn’t know that from reading what Common Sense Media has to say about the book.
Spend some time looking at titles on Barnes & Noble that are favorites with teens at your library and see what the ratings have to say about those books. 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.
What do you think about the ratings? Are they a step down a slippery slope? Or, do they give parents important information about books their teens might want to read? In my mind it’s a slippery slope and it would be better to have parents talking with their teens about books, reading, life, etc. instead of simply taking the word of someone else. What do readers think? (And if you want to read more about the ratings another blog post to check out is SassyMonkey. Thanks to @lizb for the link and for the information that NetFlix has also started to use Common Sense Media ratings on their site.)