Who Owns Common Sense?

Along for the Ride CoverIt 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.)

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.

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10 Comments

  1. But wait–did you notice that right under the Common Sense rating, there’s a Lexile rating too?

    No, you can’t read that book. It says Age 14 and 750, while you’re only 12 and you read at 850.

    I have been aware of Common Sense Media for a while, and considered it as one tool available to overly concerned parents. One problem I have with B&N featuring the ratings so prominently is that it normalizes the idea that parents SHOULD worry about the content of books their kids are reading. Even though it’s OK if you don’t.

    Also, while on the Common Sense Media website you can read a full assessment and consider factors on a book (if inclined), on Barnes and Noble what you see is a simple, harsh “14+” in the case of Along for the Ride. My experience looking at the website is that the recommended age skews very much to the HIGH end. I’ve looked at books that my 12-year-old and up middle school students have read and found them labeled “iffy” for 14+. While book challenges, thus far, have not been an issue in my school library, featuring age ratings so prominently gives a great tool to people who want to get young adult books out of middle school libraries (which seems to be a prominent concern of those who challenge books around the country).

  2. CommonSenseMedia as a tool some parents want to go to and use? Fine. Unlike other websites, it doesn’t say not to read a book.

    To have it thrust upon you, without any of the context or nuance that appears at the CommonSenseMedia website? Not cool. To have one group’s opinion about age be showcased as fact? Not cool.

    I’ve written to B&N complaining. I’ve recieved no response.

  3. I’m all for parents being aware of what their teens are reading. You can have a conversation from that, you can, I don’t know act like you’re still involved in your kid’s life. But to rely on a cut and dry rating system that gives no real context to the material is just plain lazy.

  4. It sounds scary to me. This is just another development of the power brokers taking control of peoples lives and telling them what to do or think. If parents want to know what their kids are reading, let them look through the book themselves and get a clue.

    This is a sign of the times and it’s not good.

  5. I’m not opposed in principle to ratings systems (yet), but this isn’t the way to do it. Not only does the B&N system spoil major plot points for the casual internet book-buyer, but by stripping the events in a book of their context – even simply the narrative voice, or the character’s experiences/ thought process – the CommonSenseMedia reviews can definitely mislead, or misrepresent the overall tone. From reading the blunt description of all the sex references in my YA novel ‘Sophomore Switch’, I’d forgive anyone who thought the book was a non-stop rollicking sex-a-thon!

    Yes, it’s a college-set novel, and has been billed for 14+, but by highlighting the sexual activity of minor characters (referred to in passing dialogue) and off-screen actions, listing them in a catalogue of scandalous events, the rating gives them far more weight than my book actually does. For a novel which focusses on teenage girls trying to navigate sexual expectations, and the way that the media/society tries to fit them into neat boxes of behaviour and stereotype, it’s almost ironic that the rating system accompanying it does just that.

  6. Thanks for this, I hope people pay attention and B&N is made to come up with some answers about this.

    If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the phrase “common sense” … as there really is no such thing. And besides, even if there was, you can bet “common sense” in, say, Tanzania is different from common sense in Boston.

    I also think it’s interesting that taking a look at the Just Listen page reveals this first line under “Is it Any Good?” Until near the end, this is an almost plotless book, and it covers pretty familiar territory. And yet that’s supposed to be a compliment! Nothing happens in the book but I couldn’t stop reading! What? That doesn’t make any sense! I think this reflects the larger problem with the Common Sense approach. Books can’t be divided so easily into chunks like “violence” and “consumerism” and they are MORE than just the number of times someone says a naughty word. The inability to understand that, to approach the book as a whole, leads to shallow, uninformed statements like, Until near the end, this is an almost plotless book, and it covers pretty familiar territory. Ratings don’t work because ratings don’t tell the whole story, or reflect the craft, they’re just big red scare tactics.

    And, on another, completely different point: spoilers like this SUCK. It might be totally obvious to every adult reader what happens in Just Listen or Looking for Alaska but I know from speaking with many teens that have read these books, it’s not always obvious to them. So a site that happily proclaims all the twists in books because it’s trying to “warn” people does everyone a disservice.

  7. Additionally, I find it interesting that according to Common Sense, when it comes to Just Listen, “89% of parents don’t think the messages are positive.” So, apparently, a text where a character comes to terms with her sexual assault, confides in friends and family about it, and then confronts the issue in court and a text where another, minor character begins therapy which helps successfully treat an eating disorder isn’t viewed as positive. OKAY THEN!

  8. I really bristled at “There are movie ratings why shouldn’t there be book ratings?” (And if anyone has seen the documentary, “This Film is Not Yet Rated” they know what I’m talking about)
    Because what the MPAA (the organization responsible for film ratings) ends up being in this country is a sort of closet censorship group. Filmmakers realize that if their film gets stamped with an NC-17 rating, it won’t be widely distributed and won’t reach viewers. So, when the MPAA suggests certain cuts for a kinder rating, it’s a real conundrum. Yes, the filmmaker certainly has the option to accept her NC-17 rating, or she can take the MPAA’s suggestions, and her movie might actually find an audience. “Remove these bits or your film won’t be seen.” That certainly smacks of censorship to me.
    And of course, there’s the age-old hypocrisy about which material gets which rating. Gleeful gratuitous violence get a PG-13, yet sex get an R or NC-17. Explicit sex between straight people gets an R, while another movie with no nudity is slapped with an NC-17 because of a scene in which a girl masturbates over her underwear…but that movie just happens to involve lesbian desire (Anyone seen it? “But I’m a Cheerleader”? Good, campy movie)

    Then there’s the question of who exactly is making the decisions about these ratings. I find the flat age limits ridiculous, because it really depends so much on the kid. What works for one fourteen year old won’t necessarily work for every fourteen year old.

    I know all this MPAA stuff seems really off-topic, but I think these rating systems end up being toxic to culture. They masquerade as tools, but what they’re more likely to do is cut off access to certain works based on the opinion of some anonymous group of people. I’d hate to see this really take hold in YA lit.

  9. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with people who want to use the common sense as a rating system. BUT I do have a probelm with the fact that not all of the facts that they present are accurate. For instance, in AFTR it is said that the main character owns a boutique … that’s not true. The owner is her step mother. There is also mention of Auden losing her virginity, which also did not happen.

  10. It’s a tool like any other tool. You can’t support free speech only when it agrees with your point of view. Why would libraries be afraid of providing too much information? Surely, our goal is not to support access only to information that we agree with? As long we provide access to other reviews and ratings, I don’t have a problem with it. As with most things, it’s okay to have grey areas and understand that nothing is wholly good or bad.

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