Virginia woman’s website helps parents assess library books |

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — As a child, Bernadette Chimner was a precious reader. She said that when she was in elementary school, she asked her school librarian for “more books like ‘Anne of Green Gables.’”

The librarian brought her a stack of books from the high school library. Chimner picked up one and read a couple of pages.

It took her a few minutes to process what she was reading, but it was a description of a sexual encounter that she hadn’t been prepared for. She shoved the book back into the stack, gave all the books back to the librarian and stayed away from the high school library after that.

Chimner doesn’t remember the name of the book that upset her, but said it had “a chilling effect on her reading” and that she recalls limiting herself to juvenile fiction for a while.

“I came from a small, conservative town, and I know the librarian who handed me that book didn’t give it to me knowing about that passage,” she said.

When the issue of “explicit sexual content” in public school libraries erupted in Spotsylvania County this past fall, Chimner recognized the fear behind the concerns of parents wanting to pull books off shelves.

“The fear we really all have as parents is, my kid goes to the library and I don’t have any way to know what they’re checking out when they’re there,” she said. “They might check out something that is quite intense and might merit some conversations, and I don’t have a way to know that.”

But Chimner also doesn’t want to see books removed from shelves so that no one can check them out.

“I don’t ever want to deny a book to a kid,” she said. “I want to find ways for parents to know the content of a book and to make that information really easy to see and more crowdsourced.”

Parents are able to let school librarians know that their children aren’t allowed to check out books with certain content and librarians can make a note of that request in the child’s library account.

“The problem is that no librarian can know what’s in all the books in the library,” Chimner said. “Book lists and reviews aren’t useful, because there is a diverse community of concerns. That’s where this website kind of came from. Let’s get to a situation where we can rate the book—something that is crowdsourced, for parents and specific to our county.”

The website Chimner developed, which is located at bipartisanbookclub.com, lets parents and community members search for a specific book by title and rate its content based on the intensity of sex, violence, language, drug use, alcohol use and smoking or tobacco use .

It also lets users add tags to flag certain more specific content, such as “condoned gun violence” or “pubescent sexual encounter.” Users can see how many times others have added that specific flag and also indicate whether they disagree with that tag.

There’s a section for adding notes and posing “reading guide”-type questions to student readers.

For example, in Chimner’s review of Judy Blume’s “Forever” — a book that deals with teenage sexuality and is on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 — she asks students to think about the fact that the book was published in 1975, before the AIDS epidemic, and that it depicts a sexual encounter in which the partners decide not to use a condom because the female has started birth control.

The website’s ratings feature also contains a section for noting any pages or chapters the reviewer thinks a reader might want to skip.

Chimner said she hopes the website can be a tool for parents, students and librarians to increase their knowledge of what’s in the school library and that it will help the community feel more invested in the school library.

Chimner, who has a degree in peace and conflict resolution from American University, also established a Bipartisan Book club that meets semi-regularly to discuss some of the books that have been challenged by parents across the country in recent months.

The book club has discussed “33 Snowfish” by Adam Rapp — the book that parents of a Riverbend High School student challenged last fall — and will be discussing George Johnson’s memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which has been the subject of multiple censorship campaigns, this month.

Chimner said she has learned from the book club and from discussions with multiple community groups that all parents have concerns when it comes to what their children read.

Some parents are concerned about sexual content that is “too descriptive,” Chimner said, while other parents are concerned about gun violence or want to ensure that any sexual encounter their child is reading about is clearly consensual.

Anyone can see the website and review the ratings, but only residents of Spotsylvania can rate books—they will be required to turn on their browser’s location tag before they can rate, Chimner said.

That’s because Chimner envisions the site as being by Spotsylvania parents for Spotsylvania students.

Her hope is that it keeps books on shelves.

“We don’t want to pull things,” she said. “We want to find ways for parents to know (what’s in the books) and to make that information really easy to see.”

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