As both a writer and a reviewer, I loved following School Library Journal’s recent “Battle of the Books” (at www.slj.com). Authors the likes of R.L. Stine, Patricia Reilly Giff and Naomi Shihab Nye whittled a heap of books down to a final Big Kahuna round, judged by the venerable Richard Peck. The winner turned out to be Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud, a prequel to his Bartimaeus trilogy and a book I plan to begin reading tonight.
But happily, refreshingly, this is one contest that’s more about process than outcome. The author-judges wrote wonderfully varied critiques, providing a mini-course in book reviewing. All were cogent and pithy. Some were funny and entertaining; some verged too close to the personal (in my personal opinion); some made me take a second look at books I thought I already knew (the true meaning of re-view). Best of all, though, was how much of their writing was a pleasure in and of itself. Three examples:
Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon) on Kathi Appelt’s Keeper, a novel set by the sea: “Appelt reveals the story like ocean waves lapping away bits of sand on a beach until a treasure is uncovered. And it’s the serene watching of the waves, not the sparkling pearl, that creates the book’s charm.”
Laura Amy Schlitz (The Night Fairy, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!) on Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner, a book that sent her into a little rhapsody on true comedy: “Comedy is a celebration of human resilience. At its best, it takes the tensions and failures and tragedies of life, and transmutes them. It pulls the threads taut, mending the rift in the cloth. It draws the toxins out. And of course this is tremendously refreshing, because we are surrounded by tensions and failures and tragedies.”
And Karen Hesse (Stowaway, Out of the Dust) on the graphic novel The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds: “Homer used a sea of words to carry us on the long, arduous journey from Troy back to Ithaca. In Hinds’ book, we are carried instead on a sea of art, a sea which has a fluidity much like the ocean itself… Readers who are unfamiliar with the original story may at times feel a bit tempest-tossed in this rendering; but feeling at sea with Odysseus is not a bad thing. Particularly when the art serves as life-raft on each page, in each panel.”
All of us are reviewers. To our friends, we recommend or trash books we’ve read. At the library where I work, reader’s advisory—trying to match child and book—is a big part of the job. With approximately 5,000 books for kids being published each year, being critical is a matter of survival!
When I review for formal publication, the quality of my reading changes. I sit up straighter! I hold myself strictly accountable, line by line. And when it comes time to write, I aim for something beyond plot, character, setting and how it all adds up–or not–to theme. I look for a way to connect the book to a larger world of imagination and art. I hope to go beyond simply evaluating. Frankly, I try to discover something more about how good writing works, something readers of my review may appreciate and that I can apply to my own fiction.
Of course, wearing both reviewer and writer hats can complicate things. I get to choose the books I review, and never pick something unless I expect to love it. But uh oh. Now and then I make a mistake, and have to write a negative review. As I used to tell my children when they protested I was too critical of them, “If I only say nice things, how will you ever trust me?”
Still, it’s no fun writing about a book I give a D for didactic, derivative, or just plain dull. As Kathleen T. Horning points out in her comprehensive (and compassionate) book From Cover to Cover, Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, “Most books for children are created with the best intentions in mind. No one sets out to produce a crummy book that kids will hate.” Ouch. Writing these reviews makes me wince and always feel a little guilty. (Horning’s book, by the way, is an invaluable resource for any reviewer, novice or experienced.)
Reviewing well is tough. The best reviewers have distinctive voices, deep and wide knowledge of the field, and that gimlet eye. It’s entirely possible there are more good children’s writers than reviewers. Please, share your own favorite critics—in print, on blogs, whatever– in the comments below
Tricia is a frequent reviewer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which miraculously still has a full-fledged book page and editor. Her most recent middle grade book is WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET. Its sequel, MO WREN, LOST AND FOUND, will pub this coming fall.