Evaluating Children’s Books

5 11 2009

When I started thinking about what to post here, I started with an issue we discussed for a short period of time in class: is After Tupac & D Foster the kind of children’s book that only adults like?  I really wanted the answer to be no, and I know it is sometimes, as evidenced by the kids Peggy provided the book to who apparently loved it.  But I wanted to see what some of the teen review sites said.  I started by just googling the title and I wound up somewhere I really did not expect to be: Commonsense Media.  If you haven’t heard of it (and I had not until I accidentally happened upon it), it’s a site where a self-proclaimed “non-partisan, not-for-profit” group provides information about media–books, movies, video games, TV, websites–so that parents have a better idea what their child is watching/playing/reading.  You can also personalize it to get recommendations based on your child’s age, write your own reviews and allow your child to write her own reviews.

There are positive and negative sides to any sort of rating system, even those that give grade levels for some of the books we’ve been reading can be totally off the mark.  Rating anything is complicated because certain tallies don’t give a full picture of the story.  I’ll use the Commonsense Media review of After Tupac & D Foster as an example, since that is the book I originally wanted to discuss.  I’ve got the book out in front of me to refer to, especially since I know I am skeptical of some of the ratings listed.  (My opinion, before I get started, is that this is a great urban fiction book that addresses the issues that do crop up in many kids’ lives.  You can’t edit out those issues but you can treat them intelligently, which has been done in this book.  I think it’s great for kids who have had some of the struggles that D Foster has had but it’s also illuminating for kids who have grown up in different situations.  I didn’t notice anything gratuitous–violence, sex, drugs–in this book.)

Generally, the book is rated as “on for ages 11 and up.”  That means the content is appropriate for the age range, rather than “iffy” (it’s “iffy” for 10 and up, and not appropriate for children under 10).  The book was also given 4 stars, meaning it’s “very good” and “What Parents Need to Know” review is very positive.   Overall, the book did well.  But it’s the quantifying of various things, like violence, sex, language, consumerism and drinking, drug & smoking on the negative side and the “messages” on the positive side that I really have a hard time with.  Just as some movies are rated R because they use the f-word one too many times while other, possibly less age-appropriate movies wind up with PG-13 ratings, I think distilling a book into these areas can go a step too far.  For instance, the “Violence” section for After Tupac & D Foster gets 3 “bombs” for mentioning Tupac’s shootings and stabbings.  That’s as many “bombs” as in their review of The Lightning Thief.

I went back to both of these books.  In Woodson’s book, the mentions of the violence inflicted on Tupac and Neeka’s brother Tash are there, but they are cursory.  They give only enough information so that the reader understands what is going on.  In The Lightning Thief, there is much more actual fighting.  Because Percy most often fights gods and mythical beings, there is no blood, only things exploding and turning to ashes.  But heads still get cut off, even if it isn’t explicitly mentioned (at Crusty’s Water Bed Palace).  Is it different because we know these kids and creatures are part of a fictional story whereas Tupac did get shot as many times as Woodson mentions?  Is more violence allowed when it’s so that Percy, our hero, can continue to live?  Does it matter that Percy Jackson’s books are about him fighting–for his life against mythical creatures–whereas After Tupac & D Foster is mostly about friendship and compassion (with a helping of music, homosexuality, foster care and double dutch thrown in for good measure)?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  It varies from person to person, kid to kid, how they interpret real violence and “fantasy violence,” as Commonsense Media refers to it.  I loved both of these books and I didn’t find either of them to be overly violent.  But I would have said that The Lightning Thief is actually more violent than After Tupac & D Foster.  Maybe I shouldn’t ignore the inherent violence in the shootings Woodson mentions.  I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.  And I don’t mind that the website mentions that both of these books contain some violence or mentions of violence.  But it’s hard for me because I know that a parent who hasn’t read Woodson’s book might get the wrong idea from the statement Commonsense media offers about the violence in that book:  “Refers frequently to the multiple shootings and death of Tupac Shakur. A robbery and severe beating, a knife fight.”  The second sentence makes it sound like we hear in detail about these three violent events.  But we don’t.  And I would hate for a child who might be interested in reading After Tupac & D Foster to miss out because a parent thinks it contains explicit violence.

I could write multiple blog posts about the rest of the ratings used  by this site, especially “Messages” which seems problematic.  (The messages in The Lightning Thief are “Not an issue”?  I can’t even figure out what that means.  I think there are tons of messages here, starting with the message to kids with ADHD).  But I’ll leave it here, without having come to any real conclusion because truly, every person sees the world through their own lens based on their beliefs, morals, upbringing, etc.  Which means the only way to really understand what your child will get from a book is to let them read it (and maybe read it with them, or before they do).

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One response

8 11 2009
Jennifer Hubert

Alexa,

I love the way you always pick something that piques your interest in class and then go off and investigate it on your own. It shows a lot of initiative and intellectual curiosity, two qualities every aspiring librarian needs!

Rating books is subjective, and there have been TONS of arguments among professional librarians about how the different journals rate and star books, and how a star from this journal is different from a star in that journal, and so on and so forth. And forget about bringing parents into the mix! We’re not likely to solve the debate in this lifetime, but it’s good that you’re beginning to get your feet wet in terms of understanding where different groups are coming from when they rate books and what their particular agendas may be. Forewarned is forearmed!

I do think there is a difference in the “cartoony” violence in books like The Lightning Thief and the realistic violence in books like D Foster. Students reading about the violence in The Lightning Thief know that it is taking place at least one remove away, in a made up world, so therefore feel safer because this isn’t something that is likely to happen to them in real life.

It’s tricky writing about realistic violence for kids, because authors no doubt want to balance addressing the very real threat of violence with discussing it in an age appropriate way that helps kids understand without scaring them. There are some kids to whom D Foster is a familiar setting, others to whom this is a setting utterly foreign to them. But what both groups of kids will probably recognize is that this is a depiction of the real world, and therefore, these terrible things really CAN happen to kids and the people they know. Woodson does a great job of discussing the violence in a way that educates readers without scaring them, because she is a lyrical and nuanced writer. Not every author could probably handle this subject matter as deftly.

Thank you for your thoughtful post, and see you in class on Monday!

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