I’m not sure how old I was the first time I read Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” but probably around nine. It’s a book meant to resonate with girls right before they hit puberty, and unlike nearly-twelve-year-old protagonist Margaret Simon, I was well on my way by ten. Like so many women my age, I read and reread it until my purple-bordered paperback was torn, stained and needed a rubber band to hold together all the escaped signatures. On the cusp of adolescence, Margaret made me feel a little more normal, a little less lonely, and above all, like I couldn’t wait to read more — more Blume, more coming-of-age novels, more everything. What more can you ask of a kids’ book?
But according to Common Sense Media — an organization that offers parents the bullet points on popular children’s and young adult media — “Margaret” is not appropriate for kids that young. It’s deemed “iffy” for children 11 to 13 and only earns an unequivocal green light for kids over 14 — i.e., when most are well past the point of wanting or needing to read about a sixth grader struggling with faith, crushes, training bras and heel blisters resulting from her clique queen’s insistence on penny loafers with NO SOCKS! If my parents had waited until I was old enough to read it by those standards, I would have dismissed “Margaret” as boring and babyish; by the time I was 11, my friends and I were already passing around the oft-banned “Forever” — if you want to know about the impact of that book, a fortysomething friend just told me off the top of her head that “Ralph” was introduced on page 89 — and I would have missed one of the most memorable novels that contributed to my becoming an obsessive reader and writer.
To be fair, on its own Web site, Common Sense offers a lot of detailed information, including reviews by parents, educators and kids — who rate the book appropriate for ages six and up. Out of 30 possible mature content points, “Margaret” earns only six — two for lying characters, four for “Mentions of Playboy, kissing, menstruation, bras, [and] emerging sexuality.” So for parents who fear the pernicious influence of fictional bras, I suppose it’s a fairly unobjectionable resource. But Common Sense recently partnered with Barnes and Noble to offer shoppers on the latter’s site a glimpse of young adult books’ content, and a lot has been lost in the translation.
All that appears on the B&N site for any given book is an age recommendation and a rundown of the negatives. As young adult author Meg Cabot wrote on her blog, “If your parents were looking to buy this book for you now, and they clicked on Common Sense Media’s review of it, they might be scared away from buying it for you entirely. Because taken out of context, the warning that ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ contains ‘Playboy, kissing, menstruation, bras, and emerging sexuality’ makes this wonderful, beloved book about a sixth grader who does nothing racier than stuff her bra with cotton balls and worry about disappointing her family sound like it’s about — well, Playboy, kissing, menstruation, bras, and emerging sexuality!”
She’s not the only writer who’s upset. Author Sarah Dessen wrote, “I mean, I’m sure it’s useful for parents. But I worry it’s breaking a book down into these pieces that don’t do justice to the whole.” Book blogger Sassymonkey, who compared several books’ full Common Sense profiles to the B&N versions, says she has no gripe with Common Sense itself, “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.” And Publisher’s Weekly reports that even Liz Perle, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Common Sense, thinks the truncated reviews are problematic. This is, she says “the first time we had any kind of pushback. I think it has to do with the way it’s been implemented on the Barnes & Noble Web site. So, I think people are rightly confused.”
Judy Blume agrees. “I suspect someone at the online BN site hasn’t thought this through,” she said in an e-mail today — noting that over the years they’ve been selling her books, she’s “made many happy visits to their stores, meeting young readers and their parents. The parents of my current readers have often grown up with my books. They love to reminisce. I would think they’d be horrified to know about Common (Non) Sense.” Blume recalls a similar experience, “years ago, when a bookclub (Scholastic? Trumpet?) used yellow flags to warn parents (about ‘Margaret’ as well as other books). I remember writing to them, trying to explain, and they removed the flags. But it doesn’t always work that way.”
Fortunately, it looks like this time, it will. Carolyn Brown, director of corporate communications for Barnes & Noble.com, acknowledged the problem in an e-mail and said there are plans to fix it — in fact, like the infamous Amazon fail, it may all have been the result of a technical glitch in the first place. “Barnes & Noble.com posts a variety of reviews to assist our customers with their buying decisions,” wrote Brown. “We did receive some incomplete feeds from Common Sense Media and we are working to correct this.” But whether the error was caused by computers or human beings, the passionate response from writers and readers suggests that a public apology might also be a smart move. You don’t mess with The Blume, people. You just don’t.
Blume said she hopes to find time to write more about “the negative effects of using this scoring system,” based on her long experience as an author of challenged and censored books. But in the meantime, she offers some excellent advice to parents who are nervous about giving their kids the kind of freedom I cherished as a young reader and writer: “The best thing to do is read with your kids. Talk with your kids about everything. Then you won’t have to be afraid of what they’re reading. “