Is Your Review A Tool?

Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak is being attacked for being “filthy” and “soft porn” in an editorial in a Missouri paper, Filthy Books Demeaning to Republic Education. (Note: no, not Republican. Republic, it’s the name of a town.)

Here is the money quote: “In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography. One such book is called “Speak.” They also watch the movie. This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.” Because Speak is not the only book being written about, click through to read the entire essay.

To learn more, check out Anderson’s blog post about this.

Pretty much anyone who has read Speak is now twitching over the misrepresentation of the book. Not to mention reading satire and sarcasm as factual presentations and, oh, I could go on forever.

Pretty much anyone who knows that rape and sex are two different things is twitching over the fact that rape is being characterized as soft pornography. Actually, that characterization scares the hell out of me.

I have no idea whether or not the author of this essay read the books or is relying on other sources. When someone wants to remove a book from a library or school, often the first question asked is “did you read the entire book?” Objections to the book are often not their own, but ones that, at best, are based on reading a few chapters or, at worst, based on something someone else said. Example: the objections are word for word what appears in PABBIS.

Pat Scales wrote about this in Booklist (Weighing In: Three Bombs, Two Lips & A Martini Glass). She also wrote (without naming the book): “While Common Sense Media isn’t censoring anything, it is providing a tool for censors. There is already a documented case in the Midwest where a book was removed from a school library based solely on a Common Sense review.” As a quick aside, Common Sense says that Speak is “iffy” for readers 13 and up, only “on” for those 17 and up, and yes, includes “rape” in it’s “lips” (AKA Sex) category. As a second quick aside, I’ve seen Common Sense revise a review quietly, taking it down and then reposting it a while later. Keep your eye on the Speak review; I bet within six months, these two things will be changed.

If you’ve read From Cover to Cover, you may recall how Horning cautions reviewers not to turn into censors or to provide tools for censors.

Here’s my question, bloggers. Like PABBIS and Common Sense Media, our reviews are online for anyone to read — and use. It’s entirely possible that a blog review could be used as “tool” — a tool that stops a librarian or teacher or bookseller from buying a book. Or a book banner may print out that review and march into their school or library saying, “this review says xxx,  so this book doesn’t belong here, get rid of it!”

Could your blog review be used as such a tool? What would you do if someone used your review as “proof” that a book shouldn’t be in a library or a classroom? How do you write your reviews to make sure that doesn’t happen?

Edited to clarify: I am not advocating self-censoring. I am advocating thinking about reviewing by “inform, not warn” (that was from Roger Sutton, stating the policy of the Horn Book.) For example, when talking about bullying in a book, is it by a “warning” to parents that this is “bad”? Or is by informing people what a book is about? Once you’ve said, “this is a moving story about a sixteen  year old dealing with bullying,” why add a “warning” to the review?

And frankly, I’m curious as to what one does when a review or conversation has been taken out of context. How to stay strong to not self censor; whether it’s even possible to fix the abuse.


19 thoughts on “Is Your Review A Tool?

  1. This is difficult in that if someone used your review but did not give mention of where they got the information then it would be hard to respond or counter. However, if I did know that it was being used to assist in banning a book I would be furious. I am not one to ban a book and I want adults and teens to be able to discuss openly difficult situations in a book. The words in a book may also give a teen strength to “speak” out about something that is unfairly happening to them. Banners infuriate me…you are welcome to control what your child reads but don’t force it on others. Thanks for your post.


  2. I would be REALLY UPSET if one of my reviews was used to ban/censor/remove a book. When I was growing up, no one ever censored what I read. And I believe I am a better person because of it. I don’t think any book should be censored. If someone used one of my reviews to censor a book, I would write to that person explaining why my review shouldn’t be used and why the book shouldn’t be censored. I would also post that letter on my blog, of course.


  3. Years ago I recall PABBIS putting a bunch of material from an online discussion I was part of on their site (direct, unattributed quotes) and writing to object. Unfortunately I can’t remember the topic or time period. I think it might have been from ccbcnet so perhaps KT Horning may remember something more about it.


  4. It all really comes back to the question of “deciding something isn’t right for you or your children=okay” vs “deciding something isn’t right for EVERYONE=not okay.” If you mention in a review that a book has content that somebody might find objectionable, it’s not YOUR fault if somebody uses that as an excuse to call for censorship. There are many, many more people who appreciate when a reviewer points out exactly what they’d be dealing with in a book or movie or whatever, whether kids who genuinely know they’d rather not read a book with certain content, or a parent wondering if their advanced reader is really ready for concepts that might come along with the older reading level; and THOSE people want to know for their own situation, not to keep it from anybody else. As long as the reviewer gives an idea of the context and some kind of indication of the age of reader the book is meant for (to cover for those nuts who are like “But Speak was on a best books for young people list! That means it should have been appropriate for my first grader!”), I don’t see how anyone can hold a reviewer responsible for someone else taking their reviews and attempting to make widespread policies with them.


  5. Alyson, it’s a bit scary how things could be mis-used.

    Tarie, the higher profile bloggers have, the more we’re read. Someone on Twitter (who hasn’t posted it here so I’m not sure if she wants it shared) said that in response to a review of her book, a librarian contacted her about changing their mind about buying the book. Totally NOT the intent of the blogger.

    Monica, a terrific (and terrifying?) example. Also a heads up on how things can be shaped/ twisted/ taken out of context — or just viewed in a totally different context!

    Rockinlibrarian, when discussing this online Roger Sutton at the Horn Book put it nicely: a review is not to warn, but to inform. That someone else would use “inform” as “warn” – -well, we cannot control what other people will do with our words.


  6. I know I work hard to write balanced reviews – yes, even though my policy is only to review books I actually like, I’m positive that I’ve mentioned things that may prove challenging to some readers, including advanced vocabulary (by which I mean Big Words), cursing, sex, drug use, etc. I’ve never classified those things negatively, but I suppose it is within the realm of possibility that someone could wave it around and mischaracterize something. That said, I can’t imagine NOT mentioning those things because that would be misrepresenting the book through an act of omission, really, which also isn’t cool. I mean, how could you mention SPEAK without mentioning rape? It wouldn’t be right. Then again, it wouldn’t be nearly as wrong as what Wesley Scroggins has done.


  7. When we start censoring our own book discussions for fear of their misuse, the terrorists win.

    Anything can (and will) be taken out of context, which is exactly what Scroggins did in his missive challenging 3 books (as well as other areas of the curriculum, including sex ed and history). He copied 5 pages of random excerpts from each of the “filthy, immoral” books and highlighted the phrases he considered graphic — phrases that he could use to support his case. This is what zealots do — they take bits and pieces of truth, cut them up, and rearrange them to support an otherwise weak, unsubstantiated argument.

    As an author of one of the books on Scroggin’s hit list, I firmly believe this: There is no way we can or should start censoring our own book reviews and discussions for fear that they may be used to make a case for banning. Doing that is just another form of censorship. Anyone who loves books enough to engage in intelligent, passionate discourse about them should be able to freely do so without fear of those discussions being used to propagate censorship. A person who’s intent on challenging a book like SPEAK by calling it soft porn will find ways to make his ridiculous case. The honest, open conversations engaged in by those of us who support freedom of expression and literature for teens is what helps fight censors. Don’t let them silence us by silencing your blogs!

    As an aside, I just want to thank everyone for the wonderful discussions and support this case has sparked!


    Sarah Ockler
    Author of Twenty Boy Summer


  8. As much as I’d love to tell someone using one of my reviews as a tool of censorship to cease and desist it’s virtually impossible to do so. Once it’s out there (even copyrighted, etc) it’s pretty impossible to keep it from being passed around. Heck we want our reviews to be passed around and influential.

    A productive way to attempt to avoid this situation is to be sure that language used within the review itself reflects the reviewer’s encouragement for others to read it. With books that may have controversial subject matter I would fall just short of saying “this book should not be banned!” but if there is a way to get that point across more delicately take it.


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  10. I’ve had some trouble with that, because I have lots of conservative Christian friends. Most understand where I’m coming from, and most are wide readers, but I don’t want them to read a book because I recommended it strongly or have their kids read it, and then be shocked by what it contains. So I try to include something to let them know there’s content that some might object to, but why I think the book is still worth reading. Here’s how I did it in my review of Rampant:

    “With the importance of virginity to unicorn fighters, sex and whether or not to have it is definitely an issue in this book. I think it’s handled tastefully and realistically, but keep in mind that it deals with these issues head on, and so is not a book for very young unicorn lovers.”

    Here’s how I did it years ago in a review of Feed:

    “My readers will have noticed by now that I don’t usually like a lot of profanity in a book. In the case of What Should I Do With My Life? it detracted from the serious message of the book. In the case of Jester, it was overdone. Feed is full of profanity, but in this case the book wouldn’t be nearly as effective without it. The use of profanity underlines the poverty of language in this future society. M. T. Anderson perfectly captures the voice of a teen of the future who has a brain but doesn’t know how to use it.”

    The YA novels I read now are far sexier than anything I read before I was married! (Hey, I was way sheltered.) So I’m pretty sensitive to what I wouldn’t have wanted to read when I was younger. But I try to tell the reader what’s there and let them decide — and indicate my strong support if I mention an “issue.”

    Though it’s interesting — it’s been seven years since I wrote the review of Feed, and now I can’t remember any recent books where I mention profanity as a problem. Perhaps I’m becoming callous, just as I feared would happen to my kids…. (But my sons are definitely callous to profanity. They aren’t as sheltered as I was. But they don’t use it — at least not around me. Okay, I lied. My 22-year-old son uses mild profanity on Facebook. So my lax standards have resulted in my most conservative friends’ worst fears happening! But I’m proud of my boys and their outlook on life, so I’m not worried…)


  11. In my column I have mentioned when I think a book is best for the high school crowd. This isn’t necessarily due to sex or profanity (both of which I think can be in junior high libraries if handled a certain way) it’s more of how the author writes it. For example, Cecil Castellucci’s QUEEN OF COOL I thought was very much high school because the kids joked about sex a lot, but BOY PROOF which is about romance but more importantly about finding yourself is fine for junior high. It’s kind of how I look at an adult book and decide if teens would like it – is the language, are the situations presented here – something that teens could identify with? A story about date rape, like SPEAK, is entirely teenworthy for obvious reasons. I don’t ever put sex or violence or profanity warnings in a review – I’ll just note on occasion that something is more aimed at high school kids. (I also do this if it’s a complicated NF book like CARTOGRAPHIES OF TIME in my current column – which is an adult book that some map-curious high schoolers will love.)

    I do put warnings on every book with a dead dog. But that’s because personally I want to know that before I read a book. (I was way more scarred by OLD YELLER than any book with sexual content.)


  12. I don’t think there are any easy answers here. We want to be honest. And we also want to have complete discussions. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts & process.

    Kelly, I don’t like to say Melinda was raped in my booktalks of Speak! I say “something happened” at a party. Some kids get it, others don’t, but those who don’t who go further with Melinda’s journey because of how she holds back what happened.

    Sarah, I hope very much no one censors themselves or holds back. And thank you for not being quiet, for speaking up!

    Michelle, going all practical on me! True, it would be impossible to know. Not all books are for all readers. Some adult horror is over the top too much for me (books or films like SAW and the like). Saying “it’s explicit torture” gives me the info to know “not for me.” That someone else takes that to say “not for anyone, ever” is beyond our control.

    Sondy, FEED is such a terrific example of language! For YA & sex – none of them are as explicit as any of the adult romances I read as a teen.


  13. Sondy & Colleen — what’s funny is the emphasis on sex/words and age sometimes ignores that some books are just, well, more sophisticated and mature than others. Beloit’s YOU, for example — no explicit sex (anything is off screen and is talked about, so I’d put it down to PG if it were a movie), no bad langauge, but the topic is such that it has an appeal to older teens.

    I love SPEAK on so many levels, and one is the very practical “yes, this is rape”. Waiting to give it to someone until they are 17 (per Common Sense Media) would be too late for some girls. Or boys, for that matter.


  14. You have given us all a lot to think about.

    When I review YA, in particular, I often will include a “Parent’s Note” if I found some of the content to be of a sensitive nature. This could be anything from sexual abuse to alcohol use or harsh language to sexual promiscuity. I don’t mean this note to be a tool for anyone to pull these books from the shelves, but since many of my readers are parents of teenagers, I always looked at it as a friendly heads-up. One of my friends, based on my Parents’ Note, decided to read this particular book WITH her daughter, so they could talk about some of the issues brought up in the novel. Another of my friends read the book before deciding if it was appropriate for her 14 year old daughter. These are examples of how I WANT the Parents’ Note to be used.

    I am questioning this piece to my reviews now. You can be sure that in the future, the Parents’ Notes will be very carefull worded, in hopes that no one uses it against the book in any way.


  15. I did a monologue from Speak this past year for a forensic tournament. I did the actual telling of the rape, and the judges all thought my portrayal was wonderful, and I got a 2nd place state trophy for it. Whoever says it’s “soft porn” hasn’t read the book or seen the film. I don’t know what kind of sick person classifies the rape of an innocent teen as porn.


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