Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book Thoughts: Of Ratings and Censorship

Common Sense Media is back in the news around the blogosphere again, this time thanks to an excellent editorial in School Library Journal. Previously, Common Sense ended up in our sights when short versions of their reviews and ratings showed up on Barnes & Noble's website, and notably they were way harsh on some classics like Are You There God, It's Me Margaret.

Coincidentally, Judy Blume's books aren't on the Common Sense website anymore.

Anyway, the SLJ article rightly points out once again that many of the Common Sense reviews really aren't so much common sense as taking any potential negative aspect of a book wildly out of context. For the Newbery Honor title The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, having a tomboy heroine who points out the injustice of enforced gender roles is only worth two out of five points under "role models" and apparently the grandfather's only contribution to the story is offering Callie some whiskey. I haven't actually read the book, but judging from blog-reviews I've read, the whiskey-offering isn't actually the point of Callie's relationship with her grandfather. Could've fooled me.

To get a better idea of how off-base their ratings can be, I looked up two books that I have read and loved and also gained a bit of notoriety as well as critical acclaim: Fire and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

For the most part, I agree with Common Sense's take on Fire, though I agree with SLJ's opinion that "for Common Sense's reviewers, children's literature is just one big minefield of scary topics, and their job is to comb through books for any offending passages," as some of the things "to watch out for" are incredibly minor. Yes, a parent might want to know that multiple men attempt to rape Fire - but the reference to "drugs used to prevent pregnancy" is minor in the story, and really I consider it a huge plus since I'd much rather safe sex be mentioned than everyone just magically not get pregnant. Also I find it terribly inappropriate that the birth control is in the violence section of the review. But otherwise, recommending the book for ages 15 and up isn't too far off. Sure there are plenty of kids who could handle it before 15, but as a general guide, I'm not going to knock it. So clearly, Common Sense Media isn't all bad, right?

Well, then I looked at Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which Common Sense calls "iffy" for 15-17 year olds, apparently based entirely on the language and the early scene in the porn shop. Never mind that it's one of the best stories of acceptance and friendship I've read in ages. Which reminded me of a blog post that generated a lot of attention back in January, Are Your Kids' Books Rated R?
"R" rating of Motion Picture Associa...Image via Wikipedia

In that post, the author proposed ratings on kids' books just like we rate movies, and much to my and other commenters' frustration refused to engage in any dialog that such ratings lead to censorship in film. All it would take is one major retailer to decide they weren't going to carry book that are rated "R" for publishers to start deciding not to publish any more R rated books - or books that might even possibly get an R rating from whatever rating board popped up (this was also something the original writer couldn't answer - who would make up the rating board? Would the publishers give the ratings themselves? So much for consistency in that case!). 

And of course that is exactly what would happen - look at the Silver Phoenix cover change after Borders and many B&Ns didn't carry the hardcover version thanks to its proudly Asian cover. The new cover shows a protagonist that is racially ambiguous at best - isn't that a form of censorship? Hiding or obscuring the content of the book?

Hiding behind the argument of capitalism and the free market doesn't get you any outs here, either. The Rated R post argues that not carrying titles with a certain rating would be purely a business decision and authors/publishers could simply take their books elsewhere - but at a time when independent book stores are becoming few and far between, authors rely more than ever on the chains in order to make sure the books find an audience. Refusing to carry books based simply on a rating is in effect a moral judgment on the book (even if you don't know why its rated R - after all, such a policy to ban all of one rating is done just so you don't have to evaluate individual titles on their unique merits), and making it as difficult as possible for others to have access to that book is censorship.

After watching the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, I take film ratings these days with a grain of salt, since it's clear the MPAA has some major biases - this is how you end up with gratuitously violent PG-13 movies but movies with a bit of loving, consensual sex get slammed with an R. Common Sense Media seems to be the same way, especially as context and the benefits of reading challenging material don't seem to be taken into account. As SLJ notes, Common Sense Media "aren't censors. But ... they're making censors' jobs a whole lot easier." Concerned about whether a book is appropriate for your child? Read reviews, talk to a librarian, or even read the book yourself. Parents always have the right to dictate what their child can or cannot read - it's when you want to decide what the other kids can read that I get squeamish.
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Ellen said...

Hi Angela! I enjoyed this article very much. Thanks for sharing. Have a Wonderful Day.

Anonymous said...

Nice! Thoughtful and fair.

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