Book reviews that parents can use

Posted: Sep 22, 2006 12:00 AM

“Mom, all my friends are going to see a movie tonight. Can I go, too?”

How many millions of parents over the years have been asked this question? It’s all too easy to simply focus on who is going and forget that we need to look at what they’re going to before we arrange the transportation (i.e., whether you’re taking or picking up). Thankfully, for several years we’ve had great Web sites like Focus on the Family’s “Plugged In” to provide guidance on content. As a mom of three teens, I can tell you that no one sees a movie in our home without my first visiting Plugged In.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a Web site that could provide content reviews of books? Well, I have some good news: Thanks to the Alabama Policy Institute’s “Facts on Fiction” Web site, now there is.

Some parents may question the need for such a service. After all, we’re talking about books, often ones recommended by teachers. Besides, we’re always trying to keep kids from spending too much time with electronic entertainment, and we don’t want to discourage a wholesome activity such as reading, do we?

As I’ve written before, though, some of the books that have found their way into the “teen” section of your local bookstore and onto school-sponsored “recommended reading” lists are questionable at best -- and downright immoral at worst. Consider this case, courtesy of Sharon Evans, program director of the Alabama Policy Institute:

Susan Gamble, founder and president of Magic City Webs, could not keep up with her third grader’s voracious appetite for books. She was thrilled that her eight-year-old loved to read. However, when he came to her with a question about a curse word in his book, she was curious. Upon perusal, Susan found the book peppered with expletives. There also was an instance of a man fondling a woman's breasts, children looking at pornographic magazines and references of gore and child abuse.

Then Susan spent some time on the Internet and made another unpleasant discovery: The kind of detailed reviews available for movies, TV shows and even video games didn’t exist for books.

Until now. Visit the new Facts on Fiction, and you’ll find a list of more than 125 books (with many more on the way), complete with the kind of specific information busy parents need to make informed decisions about whether a particular book is right for their child.

And that, Sharon stresses, is exactly what Facts on Fiction is intended to do -- make it easier for parents to do their job. The aim is not to censor books or call for boycotts, but to allow parents to decide if a certain book is right for their child. Sometimes it’s a question of timing: A book that’s acceptable for a 16-year-old, for example, may be wrong for an 11-year-old. Other times, a book is so bad that a parent may decide it’s never acceptable. But that’s the beauty of Facts on Fiction: Either way, the parent decides.

The reviews, conducted by retired teachers, librarians, home-schooling moms and writers, summarize the books and then examine how they approach certain sensitive topics. There are six main categories:

§ Mature Subject Matter

§ Profanity/Language

§ Sexual Content

§ Violence/Illegal Activity

§ Tobacco/Alcohol/Drugs

§ Disrespectful/Anti-Social Elements

Each category is broken into specifics. For example, does the book in question contain mild obscenities, sexual references or scatological terms, and if so, how often? The reviews will tell you. And if you need more detail (including quotes and page numbers), the reviews give you that as well. The “Disrespectful/Anti-Social Elements” is particularly helpful for those trying to gauge the overall moral tone. For example, do characters lie, cheat or steal without consequence?

As for selection, some might expect Facts on Fiction to profile the more salacious titles out there, like Cecily von Ziegesar’s “Gossip Girl” series. But as Sharon notes, there’s limited value to doing that. For one thing, these books tend to be upfront about what they offer. (Ziegesar’s book proudly calls itself, right on the cover, “Sex and the City for the younger set.”) Plus, books that appear safe but sneak in some inappropriate content can be worse, if only because they catch parents off guard. That’s why Facts on Fiction concentrates on the books that don’t seem threatening -- the allegedly “safe,” award-winning titles found on school reading lists.

The bottom line is: There’s now a site designed to equip parents with the information they need to make the right decisions about what their children read. Kudos to “Facts on Fiction” for making the tough job of parenting just a little bit easier.