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>Do these people even like to read?

>Brian Kenney’s SLJ editorial about Common Sense Media led me over to their site for a gander. While Brian and Liz Burns, among others, have pointed out the problems with their labeling system and lack of a review policy (plus the creepy way they simply disappear reviews that have raised eyebrows), what bothers me most is that their ratings reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of how and why kids read. Which is to say: like the rest of us.

I spent this weekend reading John Sandford’s Wicked Prey. I can see the little Common Sense Media icons lighting up, five little bombs for violence, five “#!”s for language,  maybe three lips for sex, five cocktail glasses for substance abuse (bourbon for the good guys, crystal meth for the bad) and probably a couple of dollar signs for detective Lucas Davenport’s vanity about his clothes and shoes. As far as role models (CSM’s big thing) are concerned, there’s a young girl who goes all vigilante on a pervert without telling her parents. (Deceiving one’s parents seems to be the number one sin in the CSM bible.) Almost twenty-four hours have passed since I finished Wicked Prey, and I haven’t yet killed anyone, abused any substances, or bought any shoes.

But it’s different for kids, I imagine CSM would say. No, it isn’t. It’s different for parents. Parents who think Educational Value, Messages and Role Models (their caps, for what CSM calls “the good stuff”) are what reading is about need to remember why they became readers in the first place.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Peni R. Griffin says:

    >My own experience of censors is that no, they don't enjoy reading, they don't read, and it panics them a bit when kids do.

    My experience is mostly based on Christian fundamentalists (I live in Texas), and my theory is that forcing themselves to believe that they read the Bible literally has screwed up their capacity to interpret narrative at all. I'm serious. Read the book of Isiah literally, as in no metaphors and no symbolism, and see if there's any rational way to conclude, on that basis, that Jesus is the Messiah predicted there.

    For censors of other stripes, other theories may apply. But the CSM (hmmmm, also stands for Cigarette Smoking Man, that insidious villain of the X-Files universe – coincidence? Or conspiracy?) does sound like that stripe of censor. One wonders why they won't come out and say so.

  2. professornana says:

    >I am happy to see more being written about CSM. Some folks have suggested it is somehow not censorship. However, to me, it smacks of narrowing down what our poor impressionable kids can read. We rated movies and music and TV. Is there a study somewhere that indicates we "saved" kids from all that bad stuff?


  3. Michael Grant says:

    >A few weeks ago I found an openly homophobic reviewer working for CSM. She had written the following about Tamora Pierce's "Will of the Empress" in an Amazon review:

    I was very disappointed to discover that this book had a homosexual character. This is absolutely inappropriate for a young adult book, and unless a parent has read the reviews that mention it, said parent would have no clue as it sure isn't mentioned anywhere on the blurb in the book.

    I want to make clear that this was a CSM game reviewer, NOT a book reviewer. In a Facebook message to me CSM disavowed her stands and said she was no longer with them. The Amazon review disappeared . . . then reappeared when I pointed out to CSM that their ability to yank the Amazon review displayed a degree of control they denied having, and further was hardly non-partisan since, sadly, a substantial percentage of the population would agree with the reviewer's views.

    My 13 year-old was also able to locate CSM's public tax returns and make them available to groups dubious of CSM's motives and methods.

    We have repeatedly asked CSM to explain their relationships with "corporate partners" and to explian their vetting process for reviewers. They've so far refused.

  4. Peni R. Griffin says:

    >Technically, of course, it isn't censorship, since the government is not involved; but we don't have a good and useful terms for "inciting of parents to challenge and withhold books for nitpicky, silly, and bigoted reasons instead of encouraging reading enjoyment and the opportunities offered by vicarious experience of another's point of view within the safe confines of a book."

    We need one.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >Michael, I don't think we can hold CSM responsible for a review that was written for a different website, and I don't understand how you know that CSM was responsible for the yanking and reposting of the Pierce review.

    Peni, of course it isn't censorship (the post has that tag because your suggested substitution is too long 😉 but that doesn't mean it isn't wrongheaded.

  6. >I agree with Penni that the people who are the most concerned are not reading for enjoyment. They want books to Model Correct Behaviour.

    I understand Michael's concern. This is how I see it: CSM has an official "we're not biased" policy. CSM appears to allow its reviewers to be as biased as they want, creating an official position that is only countered by extensive reading through reviews of books (I have not looked at other media). The bias that exists in CSM is hidden and so can be tricky to find, absent a great deal of time spent going review by review, reviewer by reviewer. The Amazon review provides an example of the types of biases that CSM allows, either explicitly or implicitly. The issue of corporate sponsorship calls into question motivations of what and how CSM reviews.

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >Except that CSM's review of the Tamora Pierce book is very positive re the lesbian content, so I'm not sure what bias is being displayed.

  8. >Roger, the review at CSM is not by the same reviewer Michael talks abouts. Part of my point is that CSM rarely reviews GLBT books so it is hard to determine what, if any, their official policy is towards GLBT content. Back in February I tried going thru various titles from awards & authors, and gave up when I kept getting 0 returns. One way to figure it out what CSM's policy is to try to determine the individual biases of the reviewers. As for the one on CSM, my concern with that review (and reviewer) is that it has omitted "the good stuff" portion, including only "stuff to watch out for." As with his review of OCTAVIAN and other books, there is only stuff to watch out, never any "the good stuff".

  9. Michael Grant says:

    >The points I was making to CSM relative to the Hollingshead review were:

    1) That they had not vetted their reviewers. It's not a question of holding CSM responsible for an Amazon reviewer, it's simply evidence that they don't know who they're hiring.

    The review was taken down within hours of my posting the link on Facebook as CSM distanced itself, and pointed out (accurately) that the reviewer in question was no longer with them — although she was listed as a current reviewer by CSM.

    2) Their own (presumed) actions in ordering the Amazon take-down and in condemning the attitudes their reviewer displayed, belied their claim to non-partisanship. After this exchange the review re-appeared on Amazon.

    3) I asked them to make clear what that vetting process was. They have not complied.

    More generally, CSM needs to explain its relationship with various "corporate partners." We know that in 2008 they received substantial income from these partners for providing content. (The bulk of CSM's money seems to come from the MacArthur Foundation and the Omidyar Foundation.)

    We don't know the details of these corporate partnerships. Nor do we know whether officers of CSM are paid to give speeches or render other services– perhaps at these same corporations.

    Incidentally, people might assume that these self-appointed moral police are a conservative group. They are not. Of the seven top corporate officers of CSM, five have made political contributions and all five were to Democrats, with a particular tilt toward Hillary Clinton.

    We have now requested the full suite of tax documents that CSM is required to provide on request under the law governing non-profits.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >I’m sympathetic to your critique of CSM and to your ideas about why children and adults enjoy reading, and yet I still think there is a difference in the way children and adults read, and in what they take from reading, that should be acknowledged. Children don't read with as much critical thinking and context and life experience as you read John Stanford. Young readers are still often working to find their own and society’s sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s not, and their sense of themselves, to a degree that adult readers have moved beyond, most of the time. And kids look to adults and to other sources of authority for cues about these messy questions. And books, bless them, are a source of authority. They’re made by adults, many are delivered from authority figures like teachers and parents and librarians, and maybe books are not the semi-sanctified objects they used to be to the youth, but the culture still sends them signals that there’s something special about a book.

  11. Michael Grant says:

    >One other point to make: CSM is a protection racket.

    They begin by generating and hyping fear. In the CSM world view all technology is dangerous and all media are suspect. Media threats are all around us. Only CSM can keep us safe.

    Having hyped fear they then toddle over to the media companies — book stores, movie ticket web sites, cable companies — and form a "partnership."

    The corporate partner agrees to pay CSM for its content — ill-informed reviews and magic number slides — and that corporate partner can then wear the logo of CSM with all the purity of purpose that implies.

    CSM also works cross-promotions for movies. For example, they promoted the latest Twilight movie. They also promoted MacAfee — a new corporate partner.

    So they go beyond mere protection and actively participate in corporate marketing and promotions.

    As of 2008, compensation for the two top CSM officers was not particularly high — in the quarter million range. But we may see a different picture when we get the 2009 numbers. And the big unknown remains whether CSM's officers get side deals — well-paid speeches, consultancies.

  12. >To Anon:

    Not everyone feels that books are authorities. It seems as though people who love reading think of them that way because we love them and respect them, and often look to them for guidance, a way to relate to the world, and entertainment. However, as this conversation seems to establish and/or agree, people that attempt to censor reading material do not 'love' reading, so it seems odd to me that they would assign authority to something they do not love and respect. I only wish that books had as much power as censors claim they possess.

  13. Roger Sutton says:

    >I agree that kids don't read with the same experience–either life or literary–that adult readers do, but I don't think the CSM rating system is speaking to that.

    Readers and non-readers ascribe power to books in different ways. While readers enjoy the way a book can allow them to imagine different worlds, non-readers think books are instructions, that books want you to do what they say. And maybe because adults want kids to do what they say, they (some of them) think they can use books as proxies. We all know the experience of catching ourselves saying something to kids we SWORE, as children, never to say.

    I might be over-simplifying to say it's an adults and children thing. When I read kids' reviews on CSM and recall conversations I've had with teens, I see a tendency to use books as a way to define one's own maturity–"this book is great for me, but younger kids might not be ready for it." Fran Leibowitz said that people love to feel superior to their pasts!

  14. Michael Grant says:

    >Very well put.

    Kids read like good phenomenologists — they bring fewer assumptions to the experience. It's one of the reasons it can be harder to write for kids. I have a scene in one of my books that's essentially a lynching. Just the word "lynching" calls up so many associations for adults, and the writer can use that as leverage. The kid reader has no notion of the weight of history behind that word. The kid reader sees what's right there on the page and doesn't let me play with his memory and borrow weight and importance from other events.

    Kids aren't fragile. Adults are fragile. Kids are often fearless, we learn fear over time.

  15. Peni R. Griffin says:

    >I can only speak from my own experience, but here's what happened to me as I read books by authors with strong opinions that often differed from each other and from what the adults in my life believed:

    I learned to think for myself.

    I read C.S. Lewis with considerable pleasure, and Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of my favorite books; but when Caspian removed the Governor of the Lonely Isles and replaced him with a Duke, I thought he was making a mistake. I thought implementing a democratic solution would have sat better with abolishing slavery. And in The Silver Chair, the stuff that implied that no corporal punishment and co-education in schools were bad things I found quaintly old-fashioned and wrong-headed.

    I was twelve at most when I first read these. I also read books with anti-heroes and books about girls who made serious mistakes, partly for enjoyment but also absorbing the consequences of those mistakes. Girls around me were constantly making mistakes that I already knew better than.

    The more books you read, the less authority any one of them has and the more you learn to take what you need and leave the rest.

    Later, when I was in my early 20s and realized I was an agnostic, working out my position on the issue was done largely in response to reading C.S. Lewis's popular Christian apologetics. This wasn't rebellion, either; it was reading someone I respected who was obviously intelligent and thoughtful, disagreeing with him, and feeling a responsibility to work out why, when he was so intelligent and thoughtful, I did so. I wouldn't know what I thought myself if I hadn't read somebody I disagreed with.

    So I naturally tend to think that children should read difficult, confusing, and complex books as often as possible. And, since I more than once put back a book realizing I wasn't old enough for it, I expect them to be able to decide for themselves when a book's beyond them.

    We all judge others by ourselves.

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