Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #3

Re: Children’s books

Well this started off as an thank-you email and ended up as some sort of catharsis. Feel free to skim.

I wanted to start by thanking you most sincerely for the pleasure which your reviews have given me over the few years I’ve been reading them. It’s not just the fact that you manage to present a coherent appreciation of a film’s artistic and moral merits. It’s also the style with which you do it. My enjoyment comes in some cases because it’s always worth reading a competent analysis in any field; and in others because reading a review where someone’s really enjoyed the piece is just so much more fun for the reader.

I had, of course, meant for some while to write in appreciation of your work, but aside from pointing out a few typos I hadn’t actually got round to it. Now your correspondence page has given me the stimulus I need. I wear, in addition to other hats, that of the editor of goodtoread.org, a guide for parents to books for youngsters. And, like you I think, I’m pretty much of a one-man band. My focus is books for young people between the ages of 10 and 16. I’m a Catholic and an avid reader from a young age. I’m also a professional computer programmer and I’ve been involved in youth work for more than 15 years. So I decided to bring things together and to publish my private book database as a website. Hence goodtoread.org.

Your point about the reviewer being like a barrister who is there to present a compelling case struck a real chord. I spend a fair bit too much time worrying whether I’ve covered every angle which a concerned parent might need. (As far as I know, there’s no ScreenIt for books). I dread the sort of reaction that you received from the obviously well-intentioned parents who’d been persuaded into watching a film on the basis that you hadn’t said “Don’t” even though ScreenIt mentioned an undesirable scene. I imagine that, like me, you know several parents whose reaction to books & films is fairly black-and-white: if it’s the slightest bit dodgy, we don’t want it here. My approach has tried to be: I’ll tell you what’s there; you decide. But for a book, the “what’s there” can be quite complex.

I also welcomed your point about political films, bolstered by C. S. Lewis’ well-known quote, because there are some books I just can’t seem to bring myself to review. My choice of reviews is dictated by several factors: my own time is a big one; what I can (cheaply or freely) get hold of is another; how popular the book is, or is likely to be; and how worthwhile it is, even if it’s not popular. My site has two starting points: books which are going to get into children’s hands because they’re popular with schoolteachers or booksellers, whether they’re worthwhile or not; and books which are worth recommending even if they’re not popular. I don’t usually bother with a book which is not worth recommending if no-one’s going to see it anyway!

One certain difference between books and films from the point of view of parental concerns is that reading is such an under-represented activity among children that many parents are happy if their children are reading anything at all, regardless of what it might contain. And then you have the issue of the borderline between artistry and, well, immorality. “But it’s a classic book!” “Yes, but it’s promoting a lifestyle or a worldview which clashes with your faith.” “But it’s on the school syllabus” “Yes, but…” etc. For practical purposes, it’s unlikely that you’ll actually prevent any child from reading Book X nowadays. What I hope to do is to inform the parent in such a way that they can at least know what Book X has to offer — the good, the bad and the ugly — and to be able to discuss same with their children. Parents are busy people; I’m busy too but part of my business, if you’ll pardon the pun, is to help parents out.

Thank you, if you’ve managed to read this far, for the effort you put into DecentFilms. Unless you’re reviewing a film made closely from a book (such as the Golden Compass / Northern Lights [*] might turn out to be, for example) it’s unlikely we’ll overlap directly. But I certainly learn a lot from reading your articles about an approach to reviewing which helps me to frame my own work rather better.

Tim Golden
tim@goodtoread.org
(Mr GoodToRead)

P.S. Incidentally, why do these American editors insist on changing the names of books imported from the UK? Surely Northern Lights means as much to an American youngster as it does to a British one. And likewise Philosopher’s Stone / Sorceror’s Stone.

Dear Mr. GoodToRead, aka Tim,

Thanks for writing, and for your kind words, and for the link to goodtoread.org, which is quite impressive for its scope, its thoughtfulness and its robustness. I love your interface with everything cross-linked, and your two-part ratings system (especially the ability of your “attitude” rating to span multiple categories, much like my own mixed moral-spiritual value ratings).

I’m glad my lawyer (or barrister) analogy resonated with you regarding your concerns for covering all possible bases (do you cover bases in the UK?) for all possible parents. In a similar vein, I sometimes feel that I fail to cover as many movies as I could by insisting on covering too many of them at too great length, a point touched upon in your “Why have Quick Reviews?” answer. I really need to make an effort to resume posting shorter reviews on more films, and increase my breadth of coverage.

Like you, I find that my selection of material is dictated by a range of factors including my time, reader interest (positive or negative, for good or ill), my own interest (especially regarding worthwhile projects likely to be overlooked), and most of all long-term interest, which has to do with the ongoing relevance of a movie and review one, two, five or more years out. (Right now lots of people are wishing I would review Transformers, but by this time next year no one would ever read that review again.)

Don’t get me started on the Philosopher’s Stone / Sorcerer’s Stone name change. A generation of American readers has been robbed of a meaningful cultural reference to a, ah, touchstone in the history of Western thought and culture. Sort of like going through the old Looney Tunes cartoons and dubbing over all the allusions to Casablanca and Liberace, because how many kids know what that’s all about? I certainly didn’t when I was a kid; the point is, when I grew up and watched Casablanca, I understood. (I don’t feel the same sort of objection regarding Northern Lights, in part because the new title isn’t dumbed down, only more focus-group-y.)

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