Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Reviewing Children's Books, part 2

At a local library event a few years ago, I was chatting with a children's librarian from another library system. She thanked me for the annual round-up of winter holiday reviews that my colleagues and I write for the October issue of School Library Journal, pointing out that the reviews are essential for deciding which holiday books to purchase with very limited funds.

Then she said something that I had always suspected was the case (being occasionally guilty of the same thing myself). "I know I can only buy a few holiday books every year, so I just read the first sentence and the last sentence of each review. If either sentence is negative, I move on. If it seems like a positive review, I read just enough to determine if this is the kind of book I need."

We School Library Journal reviewers have always excelled at succinct reviews, but since then we holiday reviewers have tightened up our reviews even further. Plot summaries are kept to a sentence or two, the type and use of the book is made very clear, and clearest of all is our opinion of each book. Is this a book librarians should spend money on or not? Is it just like every other warm-and-fuzzy baby-in-the-stable book or does it have something special? Is this a book for a preschool storytime? For a rollicking 2nd-grade classroom read-aloud? For a parent and child to snuggle up and read together?

I tend to skim reviews myself. I'm interested in starred reviews, reviews with glowing last sentences, reviews on books by my favorite authors, reviews on books handling certain topics, reviews on particular books, reviews written by certain reviewers - but this doesn't mean I always read the entire review. Sometimes I just want to know if the book is recommended or not, and why.

Although my own reviews vary in length depending on where they will be published/posted, I have some basic guidelines that I almost always follow. These are my guidelines for fiction books:

Read the book all the way through. This first reading should be fluid and as uninterrupted as possible to allow me to fall (if possible) deeply into the world of the book. Sticking post-it notes or torn-up pieces of napkin or (if an ARC) dog-earing the pages to mark key passages is great, but I often forget to do this.

After reading, let the book "sit" for a day or two. Think about basic reactions to the book. Was it enjoyable? Why? Did I have to force myself to read it? Why? Was it utterly compelling? Why? Pondering my gut feelings about the book and really looking hard at the reasons behind them helps me to figure out not just if it is a "good" book, but how my own preferences might be hindering my perception of the book.

Go back and look at passages marked during the first reading (or page madly back and forth because I forgot to mark passages) to find examples of good or bad writing, problems or jewels. Think about the type of reader this book would appeal to. Would most kids zoom right through it? Would only fans of this author or genre read it? Would it bore most kids within twenty pages? Is this only for the so-called good or "special" reader?

Once I feel I've got a good handle on what I want to convey in my review, I begin to write. The first sentence usually signals the genre and if it is a sequel. The next few sentences relay the plot in very concise and sometimes general terms (mostly folks don't need to know the plot, but only the general setting and feel - is this set in outer space? Is it a modern urban mystery? Are there elves?). Next, I try my hardest to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the book, using examples if possible. There should also be a mention of how this book could be used and/or who its potential readers are. The last sentence is a summing-up for those readers who skip right to the end of the review.

This sounds simple, but it can take up to 10 rewrites!! Over the years, I've gotten more skilled at this artform, but it is NOT always easy. My blog reviews are more free-form because I don't have any space constraints, but my SLJ reviews sometimes feel like writing haiku as they have to be quite short. But it forces me to be succinct; I don't envy those reviewers for newspapers who have to write a whole page or more on a book. Sometimes, after reading one of those reviews (particularly for non-fiction titles), I feel as if there is no need to read the book itself!

1 comment:

  1. This was very helpful. I am trying to improve my book review skills and will keep your ideas in mind!