The Landmine of Common Sense Media: Book Censorship News, March 1, 2024

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Last week, Mackin announced a new partnership with Common Sense Media. Mackin is software used by school libraries across the United States to help purchase materials for the collection. Common Sense Media (CSM) is a website that launched in 2003 with the goal of helping families find media, including books, that meets their needs when it comes to content. CSM has evolved over its 21 years, and many of the reviewers the site utilizes now have some pretty solid backgrounds in literacy, education, and librarianship to help offer insight into the books that are reviewed. It hasn’t always been this way, and indeed, most people seem to have forgotten that CSM has been subject to controversy in the library and publishing world before.

CSM reviews content, and part of that includes rating titles on violence and scariness; language; sex, romance, and nudity; and drinking, drugs, and smoking. Many of these categories are, of course, pause for concern but also incredibly valuable for parents looking to find books or other media for their kids. Some parents don’t want their kids to read profanity, and CSM offers a space for them to help make informed decisions.

Over its evolution, CSM has also begun to integrate information about how diverse materials are. For example, check out the notes on diversity in Judy Blume’s middle grade classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

image from common sense media review of are you there god? it's me, margaret.

CSM used to be entirely free for anyone to use. It, like many other websites, has gone to a freemium model. Now readers are limited to three reviews to access for free monthly, and if they want more, they can subscribe. The integration of CSM with Mackin presents an opportunity for Mackin users to have these reviews available without the limit, much as CSM used to offer when it was integrated with Barnes & Noble in 2010 (and led to concerns about CSM that seem to have disappeared). The relationship between CSM and Barnes & Noble ended at some point.

Given the rise of sites like BookLooks — a Moms For Liberty-created “review” database being rammed into schools and libraries across the country as an alternative to actual professional expertise — as well as RatedBooks, questions have come up over the legitimacy and use of Common Sense Media in schools and libraries.

Unfortunately, not only is the answer that it is complicated but also this new integration from Mackin makes things even more complex, complicated, and potentially damaging in our current censorship climate.

The Good

CSM is an excellent tool for library workers to use as part of their reader’s advisory work. There are young people and parents looking for specific things in their books. This is a place for library workers to turn when they’re simply not familiar with everything in their collection intimately — the case for most library workers in most libraries because that would be a truly heroic feat.

A parent comes in and asks for books for their 12-year-old. The parent asks for it to be low on profanity and light on any depictions of sex or romance. The library workers have a great tool at their disposal with CSM if they don’t already have a list of such titles.

Common Sense Media reviews have far more depth than trade journal reviews. This is not just through these categorical assessments but about the book’s full story, too. As mentioned before, many reviews are written by actual experts in the field; each review is signed, and clicking their name brings you to their bio. The lack of anonymity helps library workers, educators, and parents get an idea of who is making the determinations behind the ratings. You can also see what else those reviewers have covered. This is especially helpful for diverse books, as you can understand whether or not these are reviews by people of the same background as the story or author. For example, the reviewer of The Hate U Give on CSM is not only Black herself, but she has reviewed a wide array of books by Black middle grade and YA authors.

Parents can write and assess the books, too, though. A book like The Hate U Give has 53 parent reviews and 184 kid reviews as of writing.

image of review list for the hate u give.

The level of detail these reviews can get into might be beneficial for many readers, and thus why it can be super helpful on the reader advisory level. If you’ve got a parent worried about their child’s budding interest in brands and consumerism, perhaps they will want to be cautious with The Hate U Give.

products and purchases review segment for the hate u give.

The Questionable

In comparison with sites like BookLooks, Common Sense Media has a much longer history and paper trail behind it. Yet, there are still a lot of things to consider with it in the library world. What are the concerns behind using it to create a “clean reads” book list or book display? We know already “clean reads” is a deeply problematic label — no books are dirty — but more, what happens if books deemed “clean” via CSM are put onto a display and someone complains? How do you justify using a non-professional review source to create the list or display?

Then, there’s CSM’s creator, James P. Steyer. Steyer is a master networker and has been deeply invested in doing work at the federal level to help protect children. This is a good thing.

But perhaps not always.

Steyer is one of the driving forces behind the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). KOSA is a slate of laws that would govern what websites could and could not do were they accessible to those under 18. It’s bipartisan legislation, and by all means, keeping kids safe online is important.

But much like the book banners operate under the guise of keeping kids safe in libraries, KOSA is a bill that would cause an outsized impact on marginalized kids. State-level Attorney Generals would be in charge of administering KOSA, meaning that the political hands that be would interpret as they wish. Imagine being a gay 15-year-old in Texas — your access to the internet would look and be entirely different than the 15-year-old gay teen in Illinois, all under the guise of “safety.” One of the bill’s coauthors believes that young people having access to actual history — including information about the Civil Rights Movement — could inflict mental harm.

It pays to be concerned with Streyer being such a force behind this bill and being the CEO of a site like CSM.

The Bad

One thing worth noting is that “professional reviews” are in a separate tab from “Common Sense Media reviews” on Mackin. For now, at least.

We know that quiet/silent/soft censorship is a huge problem. District-initiated book bans — those either coming from administration or boards that direct library workers to remove titles they fear are going to be a problem or that they themselves find distasteful — are why we do not have a true handle of the scope of book banning right now. Dozens of incidents of quiet censorship are sitting in my personal to-write list, thanks to brave whistleblowers who’ve reached out to share what they’re being subjected to. This is not just happening in “red” states; Gavin Downing, a school librarian outside Seattle, saw himself handling censorship requests in his institution done quietly.

Indeed, it might be those so-called “good blue states” where this kind of censorship is not only happening but is rampant.

So what happens when library workers and administrators have easy access to a source like CSM, which rates books on profanity, diversity, romance, and physically-focused scenes?

We like to think library workers would not use those to make decisions, but in today’s censorship-friendly world, many will. It won’t be because they are evil or hate books or want to deny queer people or Black kids access to books about people like them. It’ll be because they’re operating in fight or flight mode and know that their job could be on the line were they to buy the book that, per CSM, has too much of something in it.

Library workers have been living this reality for 3.5 years now. At any time, they might find themselves in this very position, and more, they are tired and worn out from this many years of being called groomers, pornography peddlers, indoctrinators, and so forth. They have mounting bills to pay to simply survive in America, alongside tens of thousands of dollars of debt from needing to get a master’s degree to be seen as legitimate librarians. Now, a district administrator is asking why you bought a copy of an LGBTQ+ YA book for the collection, knowing that Common Sense Media said that it not only included a physical description of a trans teen falling in love with a nonbinary teen but that it also included a subplot about police violence and the book itself is set during the Civil Rights Movement.

“It’s not like it’s BookLooks,” explains the administrator asking for the librarian to be complicit in censorship. “It’s been integrated right into Mackin — it must be legitimate!”

What do they do then?

The field is being eroded by outside interests eager to delegitimize the profession. We shouldn’t be surprised that vendors themselves would choose to cash in rather than step up to fight. When librarians spoke up in early 2022 following a proposal by Follett — a vendor similar to Mackin — to include parental ratings, the plan was criticized and dropped.

Book Censorship News: March 1, 2023

  • “Greenville County libraries’ Board of Trustees unanimously voted Monday to relocate children’s materials depicting transgender minors from the children’s section to the parenting section — where only adults or minors with library cards allowing them to check out books from any section, can access them.” This is in a South Carolina public library system.
  • Hernando School District (FL) has banned Fade and All The Things We Do In The Dark. All-American Boys will remain on shelves.
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie was pulled from Redford Union Schools (MI). This story is wild — it begins with a substitute educator lodging a complaint because of the book’s former title and ends with the book using the current title being pulled.
  • San Ramon Valley Unified School District (CA) will keep The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on shelves.
  • The New York Public Library’s Books for All anti-censorship book club has named their latest pick, The Downstairs Girl. Details on how to get a free copy and join the discussion are here.
  • New Hampshire’s state-run book banning bill is dead.
  • It Ends With Us has been banned in Mat-Su Schools (AK).
  • The state of Georgia has upheld the decision made by Cobb County Schools to fire an educator who read a book about gender fluidity to her students. This is frightening.
  • A really powerful and important read about the realities of education during this censorship climate — specifically, one year after a book challenge in Grinnell, Iowa. “Every time I talk, I just feel like I’m on eggshells,” Hosbond said. “I’m often qualifying everything with ‘In this location, in this time period, certain individuals,’ so that it doesn’t come across like I’m saying bad things about America or that everybody’s racist.”
  • This story is about the grandmother challenging trans books in Denton Independent School District (TX) but doesn’t name the three books she already successfully got removed.
  • The Wellington, Colorado, town board just banned book bans at their local public library.
  • More than 1,500 signatures have been recorded on an online petition from Let Washoe Read and circulated by groups like Silver State Equality titled ‘Stand Together Against Censorship in Washoe County.’ This comes after word got spread this past week about a local group that is allegedly trying to remove certain books from school libraries and move them to the adult section in county-owned libraries.” Here’s the link to the list of books that the bigots in Washoe County, Nevada, are targeting.
  • It is now very easy to ban books in Dothan Houston County Public Library (AL). That’s great.
  • New older teens have become part of the lawsuit in Arkansas that challenges their book banning bills.
  • Something shady is going down or about to go down when it comes to book bans in Virginia Beach Public Schools (VA). The district just passed a ban on “sexually explicit content” in books in the school library. Those books DO NOT EXIST IN SCHOOL LIBRARIES, but go on with this waste of time, energy, and resources.
  • The Idaho Senate killed their “harmful materials” bill, but it’s likely not the end of this particular brand of legislation in the state.
  • In news that is good but should not be news is that the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors (WI) won’t be banning access to minors in the county.
  • Remember the single person who challenged 444 books at Elkhorn Area School District (WI) a few months ago? Here’s what happened: “Most books are back on the shelves. Some books — including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple — are gone from the middle school. Over 100 are on a ‘restricted’ list, requiring parental permission.”
  • This story is paywalled for me, but parents protested the arrival of Moms For Liberty at Howard County Schools (MD), where the group planned to challenge several books.
  • The future of Fun Home in Brookfield schools (CT) will be determined this week. The book will remain on shelves by a vote of only one.
  • Also in a just-barely vote, Fun Home will remain on library shelves in Maple Grove Senior High School (MN).
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (NC), which has been cozy with the local Moms For Liberty group, is getting rid of a popular and broad ebook app for students to restrict their access to items that might offend the bigots.
  • What parents have so much time that they peruse their students’ school libraries to find something to be offended by? In any case, Lake Travis Independent School District (TX) is making it easier for them. The damn online catalog is too hard.
  • Gender Queer will remain on shelves in MSAD 6 (ME). This continues the tradition we’ve seen in Maine where when the board reads the book in full, rather than the passages the perverse bigots love to fixate on, the book remains on shelves because it is not pornographic nor obscene.
  • There is a new director for Lake Luzerne’s public library (NY). This is great news, given how long this facility has been closed.
  • “A state library association that is impacted by a regulation or law that limits, proscribes, or prohibits state funds being spent on the association’s regular business should consider pathways for relief in the courts. One possible pathway is to allege that the law constitutes a Restraint of Trade, Ant-Trust, or a similar business-focused framework. If the law unfairly restricts competition or the ability of organizations to engage in their lawful business practices, a claim might be made under antitrust laws, arguing that the law constitutes an unlawful restraint of trade. They might also consider state law claims, such as violations of the state constitution or statutes that protect the rights of businesses and non-profit organizations.” For those states dealing with bills and actions where libraries are being disallowed from membership at state library associations, this is a very compelling argument for taking legal action.
  • This piece from Adam Gidwitz is a must-read: “This is the sad state of affairs we live in today. Where every­one is so angry, so hurt, so afraid that some­one else will say some­thing that will make them angry or hurt, that all we seem to do is shout our own opin­ion or tell oth­er peo­ple to shut up about theirs. Even peo­ple who had nev­er had any inten­tion of express­ing an opinion.”
  • The Nowhere Girls was banned by the board in Brevard County (FL) schools, despite the review committee saying they should keep it on shelves.
  • The Heartstopper graphic novels are being challenged in the Milford Schools (CT).
  • Pasco Schools (FL) have their first official book challenge, and it’s to the book The Letter Q.
  • The anti-book ban bill proposed in Oregon has passed through the state Senate.
  • Unfortunately for Colorado, the anti-book ban bill in the state has died in committee.
  • Way Public Library (OH) has now become a place where “concerned parents” are buying the manufactured story about porn in the library. This is because a school district student requested a TikTok steamy adult romance book from it, and the library fulfilled the request. One of the comments in there is about a parent being shocked their kid could request a book without their knowledge — which, weirdly, sounds like a problem of poor parenting and not the library offering materials for the entire community.
  • Catawba County Schools (NC) discussed hiring a court reporter for the upcoming hearing on books one of the school board members is complaining about.
  • “Body camera footage recently released to the public has ignited a debate over censorship and the role of law enforcement in libraries. The footage shows Kootenai County Sheriff Robert Norris searching a local library for a young adult novel, Identical by Ellen Hopkins, which he deemed ‘obscene.'” An Idaho sheriff entered a public library to find a book complained about — of course he was accompanied by the book banners in this utter abuse of his job and taxpayer money mission.
  • To avoid being called a book banner, one Tennessee lawmaker is proposing a new bill where anyone could get books relocated in libraries. That’s still censorship, btw.
  • Me and Earl and The Dying Girl will remain on shelves in MSAD 44 (ME).
  • “‘I’m a conservative and I’m a Christian, and I’m just wondering. Do I get included in the diversity as everybody else — gays, lesbians, transgenders, whoever — should be included? And I feel, as a committed conservative Christian, that my views should be represented as well,’ she said. ‘Equity. Is it fair to deny reading materials to any group, including conservative Christians? And the I is for inclusion. As a conservative Christian, shouldn’t my choices in my reading material also be included? I’m paying a lot of property taxes in this county, and I just feel like my views should also be (represented).'” The radical right is back on their complaining that Marshalltown Public Library (IA) won’t subscribe to fake news sources for them.
  • The Garfield County Public Library District (CO) is potentially going to be taken over by county commissioners, which is a flagrant abuse of power. It stems from some folks being mad about manga in the library.
  • A chaplain in Montgomery County, Georgia, wants Queer, There, and Everywhere removed from the teen section and put into the adult section. Note here he’s mad that the book doesn’t have the rainbow sticker on it, too. Georgia is also working on a bill where school counselors — trained professionals in mental health — would be replaced with chaplains, but it seems like maybe chaplains aren’t mental health nor library professionals. Weird, that.