Flashback to high school. My best friend slid into the seat next to me on the bus and placed a well-worn paperback into my hands. “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS,” she said. “You just HAVE to.”
The cover was enough to draw me in — a forlorn-looking woman in a white dress, standing in a forest, a mysterious black-robed figure approaching her. But more than the cover, it was my friend’s recommendation that held all the weight in my fifteen-year old world. I started the book right there on the bus.
It was, by the way, Green Darkness by Anya Seton, a historical romance novel with themes of reincarnation and witchcraft. You may not have heard of it, but believe me, it was the teen equivalent of Eleanor & Park back in the day. At least in my high school. We were all reading it and passing it along to a friend.
Fast forward umpteen years later, and I’m now an author myself. On a recent school visit, I saw a girl hand another girl a paperback and whisper, “You have to read this. It’s so good. It’s the best book I ever read.”
My heart leaped. In this age of online everything, a time so different than when I grew up, the same personal reader-to-reader moment was still happening?
Witnessing the exchange between the two girls made me think about the question many authors have been known to obsess over — exactly how do young readers find books today? Most authors I know promote their books in every avenue possible — trailers, blog tours, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, marketing campaigns, bookstore visits, Goodreads.
It can be quite exhausting, to be honest.
I asked an agent at a recent writer’s conference what really sells books these days, and her answer made everyone in the room laugh. “If we knew the answer to that,” she said, “we’d all be millionaires.”
So with kids and teachers and librarians on the receiving end of all this virtual publicity today, I’ve often wondered, do kids even recommend books to each other anymore? Is word of mouth still relevant?
I want to share part of an email I received recently from a 12-year old reader:
“So I don’t like to read but my friend told me I should read this book so I went to the library and checked it out. It was amazing! This makes me want to read more books. All I want to say is thank you for writing this book. And by the way, it was published on my birthday!”
Every author loves fan mail, but this one in particular touched my heart because the reader found my book through a friend’s suggestion. And I have to admit, I’m always thrilled when I visit schools and libraries that reinforce the personal aspect of finding books.
I’ve seen book trees in school libraries where kids write mini reviews, a favorite paperback swap event, and a lobby bulletin board where kids post book recommendations for their peers. Several public libraries post reviews on their site written by teens, or have a teen reader’s board in place.
I truly hope that these type of word of mouth recommendations will always continue to be part of our reading world, no matter how technologically connected future generations become. Nothing can replace that well-worn paperback passed from friend to friend with the ultimate stamp of approval: “You HAVE to read this.”
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold, both from Wendy Lamb Books. She still has a copy of Green Darkness in case you want to borrow it. Find her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.