Common Sense? The Message Is Being Lost

I was puttering around last night (ie. trying to work but also watching the Olympics and in general procrastinating) when a tweet from Sarah Dessen caught my eye.


Rating on the "appropriateness" of books? I didn't like the sound of that. Not one itty bitty bit. So I hopped over to BN.com and checked out the listings for Dessen's books to see what she was talking about.

This is what I saw  in the listing for Just Listen.


Do. Not. Like.


I dug a little bit more. What would they have to say about John Green's Looking for Alaska, you know, the one that he won the Printz award for?



Now not only did I not like it I was getting steamed. And ranty. But before I went too far I needed to know who or what Common Sense Media was.


This is from the Barnes and Nobles site.




About Common Sense Media


Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology. Kids today spend more time with media and digital activities than with their families or in school. It profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and physical development and well-being. Kids consume and create media, experiencing the good and the bad, and they need the guidance that only involved parents, educators, and other adults can provide.

Common Sense Media was formed in 2003 as a non-profit organization to ensure that parents remain the primary influence in their kids' lives. We're helping parents and others teach kids how to use media and not be used by it, and see media for what it is.

Through information, education, advocacy, and a belief that sanity, not censorship, should guide our approach, we're leading the way to a better life for kids and families.

Visit www.commonsense.org to learn more.

"Sanity, not censorship." Hmmm, not too bad but based on what I saw in on the book listings I was not convinced. So I went to their website to learn more and whoa Nelly did I ever. First stop was their mission page, which includes these "Ten Common Sense Beliefs."




Ten Common Sense Beliefs



  • We believe in media sanity, not censorship.

  • We believe that media has truly become "the other parent" in our kids' lives, powerfully affecting their mental, physical, and social development.

  • We believe in teaching our kids to be savvy media interpreters -- we can’t cover their eyes but we can teach them to see.

  • We believe parents should have a choice and a voice about the media our kids consume. Every family is different but all need information.

  • We believe that the price for free and open media is a bit of extra homework for families. Parents need to know about media content and need to manage media use.

  • We believe that through informed decision making, we can improve the media landscape one decision at a time.

  • We believe appropriate regulations about right time, right place, and right manner exist. They need to be upheld by our elected and appointed leaders.

  • We believe in age-appropriate media and that the media industry needs to act responsibly as it creates and markets content for each audience.

  • We believe ratings systems should be independent and transparent for all media.

  • We believe in diversity of programming and media ownership



Again, they say "sanity not censorship." I'm not crazy about all their points or rating systems on children's books in general (too much like age-banding) but I pushed onward and went to their book reviews. My first action was to look up Looking for Alaska to see what is said on their site versus BN.com.


When I look at that I see significant differences between the way it is presented on their own site versus BN.com. The different categories such as consumerism and sex have degree ratings. The descriptions of each remain the same on both sites but without the degree rating it removes the context. On BN.com it's a yes or no equation. It says that there is consumerism but on Commonsense.org actually receives zero dollar signs indicating that any consumerism is very minor. The "Families Can Talk About" section? Completely blank on BN.com but contains some pretty good discussion points on Common Sense Media.

On BN.com they only list the bad or potential troubling stuff.  Did you notice that the BN.com screen shot does not have the Role Models category? That it doesn't have the Good stuff ratings?

Common Sense Media also includes ratings by parents and educators as well as kids. It's kind of fascinating to look at the differences in opinion between adults and kids on that.


And here's what the Common Sense Media website had to say about Dessen's Just Listen:


I have two different reactions looking to the two different interpretations of Common Sense Media's opinion of this book on the two different sites. But I wanted to push the comparisons a bit further with a more beloved book - a book that is both much lauded and challenged.  A book that is one of the best books I've read. Yes, I looked up To Kill a Mockingbird.

From BN.com:


From Commonsensemedia.org:


It's two totally different takes on the same book, supposedly from the same source.  The message is truly being lost.

I was prepared to be really ranty about Common Sense Media. I was prepared to dislike them and everything that they stood for. When I saw the ratings on BN.com last night I was angry. After going to their website I really don't have an issue with what they are doing. I may not agree with their age-appropriateness on a lot of items (I was a free-range reader as a kid) but they are giving kids their voice as well as the adults and I appreciate that. They are anti-censorship. They aren't against any of the books, but they are trying to provide ways for families to discuss the issues in the books rather than for them to simply not read them. I can see Common Sense Media being a good tool for parents and educators. I have to give them kudos for their efforts.

But (there's always a but) I have issues with the way that their service has been implemented on BN.com. The focus is entirely negative. It lists only what the book has in it that is potentially "wrong." There is no context for any of those potential issues. There are no merits to any of the books like how they deal with those issues.  I think it completely derails what Common Sense Media set out to do.

It's not lost on me that I found this just days before Canada celebrates Freedom to Read week. When I look at BN.com's implementation of Common Sense Media's rating I see a haven for book banners. I can hear them say, "Just look at this! Look at all the bad things in this book! Must! Protect! The! Children!" When I look at Common Sense Media's website I see them trying to encourage discussion about issues. I do not see their ratings as a warning not to read these books. I see them saying, "Look this book contains x, y, and z and here are some suggestions for how you can discuss these issues and themes as a family. Oh and it also has these awesome a and b messages as well."

I'm glad I pushed into this. I'm glad that I took the time to check out Common Sense Media'a website. But BN.com? You get a big ole FAIL on your implementation of Common Sense Media's ratings.