Are you there God? Margaret’s Not OK for Tweens

February 24th, 2010

Playboy! Kissing! Emerging sexuality!

Would you buy a book for your eleven old you thought was about these things?

Probably not.

But if parents go to Judy Blume’s newly updated Barnes and Noble page for Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, that’s exactly what they’re going to find out that the book has in it…

…at least ever since BN.com partnered with Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization “dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology.”

Because Common Sense Media has attached a yellow caution light warning to their review of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret that lets parents know they need to “watch out for” mentions of Playboy, kissing, menstruation, bras, and emerging sexuality” in the book.

Weirdly, while on BN.com’s main page for Margaret, it’s suggested that the “appropriate reading age” for the book is 9-12, Common Sense Media rates it for kids age 11, but if parents “Click to learn more,” they’ll find out that Margaret doesn’t actually get a “green light” unless readers are above 14 years of age.

How old were you when you read for Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret for the first time? I bet you were younger than 14. Maybe you were younger than 10! I know I was.

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!

Tuesday morning, Publishers Weekly ran this story about the BN.com/Common Sense Media partnership, mentioning that some librarians and educators are concerned about the “age banding” issues raised by it.

And many of you who follow author Sarah Dessen’s blog know that she was dismayed by the fact that some of the information on one of her Common Sense Media reviews was factually incorrect.

When I went to check MY Common Sense Media reviews, I was surprised to learn that, despite the fact that what parents are warned to “look out for” in my book Being Nikki are “brand names, kissing, and heavy drinking” (which, taken out of context, makes the book sound like it’s about a bunch of degenerates who do nothing but make out and party. Which it’s not. But I digress) the book is green lit for readers 12 and up.

The heroine of Being Nikki is 17, and as such does racier things than Margaret, the heroine of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, who is just starting sixth grade.

Is it just me, or is something wrong here?

Let’s look at that again:


Only one yellow light for Margaret.


Red and yellow lights for Being Nikki!

But according to Common Sense Media, Being Nikki is OK for 12 year olds? And Margaret is not?

I have a question: Why can’t both Being Nikki and Margaret be OK for their intended audiences…tweens and teens?

Common Sense Media admits it makes mistakes in its reviews. Lord knows, we all do! But in the reviews my author friends and I have read on BN.com so far, we have found a LOT of mistakes like this. Did you know, for instance, it’s only safe to the read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants if you are over 17, because it contains skinny dipping, and there is an incorrect assumption that a girl has sex?

I respect Common Sense Media’s goals. I understand that they feel they’re not about censorship. I can even understand why some parents might feel the need for a G/PG/R-like ratings system for books (although I believe publishers do a pretty good job of that already by writing “12 and up” or “14 and up” on the books, and booksellers do a great job of making that clear as well, as BN.com already did on Margaret‘s and Being Nikki‘s pages. Librarians and educators do so as well, by writing reviews that clearly spell out the books’ contents).

I just wonder if putting lists of content to “look out for”—especially out of context, sometimes incorrectly, and with huge spoilers—and then giving the book a red, yellow or green warning light (and assigning them to age groups that, from what I’ve seen so far, appear to be a little arbitrary) is the most thoughtful way of doing it.

More later.

Much love,

Meg