Thursday, September 30, 2010

Books are dangerous! Protect your kids from subversive ideas!

Nine leading national organizations have joined forces to protest the way Common Sense Media rates books.   

(National Coalition Against Censorship, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, International Reading Association, Association of American Publishers, PEN America Center, National Council of Teachers of English, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, Authors Guild)

Why, you might ask?

Because ratings oversimplify material 
and take it out of context. 
The letters written to Common Sense Media 
by the National Coalition Against Censorship explain it so much better than I.

Follow (the link) for Common Sense Media's rating for 
Walter Dean Myers' historical fiction Fallen Angels.

I have reproduced the first letter here 
because it is a cogent and important argument against
reducing literature to a mockery of itself, barren of ideas, imagination, and life,
in a misguided attempt to "protect" children from exposure to "dangerous" ideas.

May 7, 2010
James Steyer, CEO
Liz Perle, Editor-in-Chief
Common Sense Media
1550 Bryant Street, Suite 555
San Francisco, CA 94103

Dear Mr. Steyer and Ms. Perle:

We represent national organizations that promote reading and literature. We are writing to you because our organizations share many of the same goals as—in particular, the desire to guide young people to the best sources of information and entertainment and to keep parents informed about the educational value of books, even those that some may find controversial or offensive.

While we think that Common Sense Media provides a great deal of useful information, we have serious concerns about the ways CSM rates books. Our concerns fall into three general areas: 1) the implication that certain kinds of content are inherently problematic, 2) the negative attitude towards books, and 3) the potential that the ratings will be used to remove valuable literature from schools and libraries.

1) The implication that certain kinds of content are inherently problematic.
Under “What to watch out for,” the reviews rate books for violence, sex, language, consumerism, and drinking, drugs, & smoking. By focusing on these categories, the ratings imply that young people need to be “protected” from such material, and they encourage parents and students alike to avoid literature containing this kind of content, regardless of its merit. By quantifying content using a few emoticons that focus on only a small part of the content of the book, the ratings take material out of context and deny the message, intent, and value of the book as a whole.

Instead of encouraging people to view books through such a negative and value-laden lens, we urge a focus on the positive things books bring into the lives of young people. Reading enriches, educates, and entertains readers, and challenging literature can play an important role in a child’s learning and development. People select books based on their own values, needs, and interests. Parents can make better and more informed decisions if they have information about the age appeal of a book, its literary merit, topical interest, thought-provoking potential, and entertainment value. Kids read not only to learn, but also to have fun.

2.) The negative attitude towards books.
Reading has intrinsic educational value. Children become discerning learners and thinkers by reading broadly. There are many positive aspects of reading, even in the context of complex and challenging books. However, the positive aspects of reading are rarely noted and, even when they are, they are often obscured by the site’s list of things to “watch out for.”

For example, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson is the story of a slave girl in 1776 who is confused when she discovers that both the Loyalists and Patriots support slavery. The review features two frown faces, four bombs, and three martini glasses, but says nothing about the book’s educational value. Not until the very end of the summary, after the ratings and warnings, does the review note that the novel “brings history to life with unforgettable power.”

The review of Beloved, by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, is likewise silent on the question of educational value, but states that “[s]ensitive readers of any age might find this material too disturbing to make the book worthwhile.” This statement is inconsistent with virtually all professional reviews of the book. Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “This novel is a milestone in the chronicling of the black experience in America. . . . [I]t should not be missed.” Other reviews called it “a masterpiece,” “brilliant,” “a triumph,” and “dazzling.”

The idea that a book might not be worthwhile reading because it contains disturbing material would disqualify a vast quantity of great literature, including Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies, and the Bible. We doubt that your intent is to discourage the reading of books of unquestionable value because they may upset some readers, but that is precisely the message conveyed.

3) The potential that the ratings will be used to remove valuable literature from schools and libraries
The age ratings in the reviews are frequently inconsistent with the ages at which the books are commonly taught in schools. For example, CSM rates Chains, discussed above, as “iffy” for 12 – 14 year olds, even though it is widely taught in 8th grade. Slaughterhouse Five, a classic work, is rated “iffy” for 14 to 18 year olds yet widely taught in high school. Judy Blume’s novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, is widely read by 4th and 5th graders but rated “iffy” for 11 – 13 year olds. The fact that the age ratings are inconsistent with the opinions of educators and librarians not only casts doubt on the validity of the ratings, but also creates a serious potential that they will be used to remove valuable, age-appropriate materials from schools and libraries.

Book censorship is a major problem in schools and libraries all over the country. Books are challenged because they contain something that someone - a parent, religious leader or elected official - considers “objectionable” or “age-inappropriate.” Challenges run the gamut, from objections to books that contain profanity, violence, sexual content, racial language, and religious references, to those depicting “bad” role models, non-traditional families, unhappiness, or death. It only takes one person to file a challenge and launch a battle that can last for months and disrupt an entire school system.

Unlike requests for alternative assignments, which most schools offer to parents who object to a particular reading assignment, most book challenges seek to have a book removed from the curriculum, library, or reading list, limiting access by all students. When they succeed, these challenges impose one set of views and values on everyone, including parents who don’t want to have the book removed. More importantly, the students are deprived of the opportunity to read important literature under the guidance of a teacher.

While your mission statement denounces censorship, we believe that your selection tools can easily be used by censors. This is a predictable consequence of the focus on sex, language, violence, etc., removed from their narrative and literary context, rather than on the mind-expanding and life-altering potential of challenging literature. Beloved, for example, is a classic American novel of unquestioned worth, yet it is frequently challenged for language and sexual content. It was among the American Library Association’s list of the ten most censored books in 2006, and not long ago it was removed from an advanced placement English class in a high school in Kentucky. Catcher in the Rye is on the ten most censored list for 2009 – also because of complaints about sex and violence.

CSM reviews endorse and encourage this blinkered view of literature and will ultimately undermine the very goals you purport to promote. If anything, parents need help understanding how reading widely helps prepare their kids for life, not scare tactics about exposure to books depicting sex, violence or bad role models. Children are rarely, if ever, harmed as a result of reading a book, but they can be disadvantaged for life by ignorance.
We do not believe this is what you had in mind. We assume we share important goals – providing information to parents, helping them understand the value of literature, respecting the right of children to read and their need to explore the world through books, and opposing censorship. We hope we can engage in a productive discussion about how to achieve these goals and would like to arrange a meeting to consider how we might proceed towards that end.


Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship
Christopher M. Finan, President, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Barbara M. Jones, Director, American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom
Richard M. Long, Director of State Federal Relations, International Reading Association
Judith Platt, Director of Freedom to Read & Communications/Public Affairs, Association of American Publishers
Larry Siems, Director of Freedom to Write & International Programs, PEN America Center
Kent Williamson, Executive Director, National Council of Teachers of English
Lin Oliver, Executive Director, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators
Paul Aiken, Executive Director, Authors Guild

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