When Barnes & Noble announced earlier thismonth that it was going to add Common Sense Media's ratings of children'sbooks, movies, games, and music on its Web site, few gave it much thought. Afterall, the book retailer already includes customer reviews, reader ratings, andeditorial reviews such as those that appear in Publishers Weekly. Butever since YA author Sarah Dessen raised the subject of Common Sense's ratingson her blog last Thursday, theblogosphere has started to light up. Despite the fact that 12,000 reviews ofmovies, books, games, and other media are available on the Common Sense MediaWeb site, and that its movie reviews appearon Netflix, among others, the way the book reviews seemed to suddenly appear onBN.com and the fact that they seemed to emphasize negative subjects like sex,violence, drinking, and drugs over subject matter, raised a red flag for some readers.
Like many of those who have been blogging aboutit, Dessen's own feelings were initially mixed. "I'm not sure how I feel aboutthis. I mean, I'm sure it's useful for parents. But I worry it's breaking abook down into these pieces that don't do justice to the whole. What do youthink?" she asked. Many of those who were familiar with Common Sense praisedthe San Francisco-based nonprofit's work. "I LOVE Common Sense Media," wroteone parent. "I use it all the time to help me determine what is appropriate formy children (ages 11 and 14). I certainly don't have time to screen every movieand read every book ahead of time so they give me very useful information."Others weren't so sure. "I don't think the way it is broken down does itjustice, because it focuses on what their system considers negative and takeseverything out of context," commented another Dessen fan.
One of the first hints that there could be aproblem in the reviews as they appear on BN.com, as opposed to full CommonSense reviews, came from blogger Sassy Monkey who posted a response to Dessen's tweet on the subject. In "Common Sense? The Message Is Being Lost," she compared Common Sense'sreviews on BN.com for popular YA titles like John Green's Looking for Alaskaand classics like To Kill a Mockingbird with fuller reviews oncommonsensemedia.org. At BN.com, Sassy Monkey noted, the reviews includeonly the negative information from the On What Parents Need to Know section,while fuller reviews on the Common Sense Web site shows ratings byparents, educators, and children, as well as topics for discussion.
On her Tea Cozy discussion siteLiz B (aka New Jersey librarian Elizabeth Burns) cuts Common Sense littleslack, even though she acknowledges that none of the reviews says explicitlythat young people should not read a book. "It is biased," she wrote. "Read somebook reviews of books you have read, and you'll see this is not objective orfactual. Which is fine, because some people want this. For example, in writingabout The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, drinking and parental obedienceis highlighted: "Parents need to know that there is little in the way of badlanguage or mature situations in this Newbery Honor book, but Calpurnia'sgrandfather not only drinks regularly and tries to distill his own whiskey, heseems to have no concept that children 'as young as 11' should not bedrinking."
Context is also the basis for author Meg Cabot's blog post onthe controversy. Cabot looks at Common Sense's take on the Judy Blume classic Are You There God? It's Margaret, whichshe thinks could scare away parents, saying: "Because taken out ofcontext, the warning that Are You There God? It's Me Margaret contains"Playboy, kissing, menstruation, bras, and emerging sexuality" makes thiswonderful, beloved book about a sixth grader who does nothing racier than stuffher bra with cotton balls and worry about disappointing her family sound likeit's about...well, Playboy, kissing, menstruation, bras, and emergingsexuality!"
Common Sense cofounder/editor-in-chief andformer book industry exec Liz Perle, who has held top positions at houses likeWilliam Morrow/Avon Books, has been surprised by the reaction. "It's the firsttime we had any kind of pushback," she said by phone. "I think it has to dowith the way it's been implemented on the Barnes & Noble Web site. So, Ithink people are rightly confused."
Her tech people as well as those at BN.com, shesays, are working on correcting the reviews, not just for books, but for allthe other areas that Common Sense rates on the site, including movies andgames, so that they appear in their entirety. Full reviews include ratings bykids and parents, as well as discussion points that give greater weight to thebook's meaning.
As to what Common Sense is, as some bloggers andtweeters questioned, Perle noted that she and cofounder/CEO James Steyer, anelementary school teacher turned public interest lawyer who has taught atStanford University in the School of Education and Department of PoliticalScience for two decades, founded the organization to supply an alternative tomoralistic discussions about what kids should read or watch. "We want parentsto pay attention and make informed decisions," Perle said. "We don't make ajudgment. We rate based on age appropriateness."
Common Sense book reviewers are selected fromprofessional reviewers, teachers, librarians, or people with experience inpublishing. To help them assess what age level is best, reviewers are given asophisticated developmental grid that relies on input from psychologists.Finished reviews are read by an editor and then there's a read behind. "We domake mistakes," Perle acknowledged. "It's not a factory. We love when peoplepoint out errors." Not that there are too many of them, she added.
Four years after Common Sense's launch,then-presidential candidate Barack Obama singled out the nonprofit, with itsemphasis on "sanity, not censorship," as a model for using technology toempower parents. That same year Common Sense also announced its firstpartnership with BestBuy.com, first for video games, then for DVDs. Since thenthe organization has partnered with Netflix to share its ratings, Google to producea video of online safety tips, as well as Yahoo and AOL and a number of cableproviders.
Common Sense is also working with schools on avariety of projects concerning kids, media, and the digital world. It recentlypartnered with Global Kids and Harvard Project Zero's Good Play Project on the 2009 Focus Dialogues,which involves the first-ever three-way online conversation among parents,educators, and teens about the ethical issues facing young people in theirdigital lives.
And for those who are still concerned that inCommon Sense's attempt to be neutral its reviews are too negative, additional companiesare making plans to use them to give customers guidance. Common Sense willbegin working with Apple iTunes in the near future.