Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shannon Hale Asked Me A Question...

Well, actually, Shannon Hale asked the world several questions via her blog.

Hale has a great post up about books, reading, reviewing, and evaluating. I strongly recommend it, and the comments. And she throws out these questions, so I figured I'd throw out a few answers.

Shannon Hale: 1. Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience?

Liz B: It has focused my reading experience; but that focusing had already begun as a librarian. As children's/teen librarian, I had to shift my reading from "what I like" to "what will my patrons like," which quickly became "what about this book can I book talk / recommend". So I began my blog with the idea, already, of an audience other than me behind my book reactions.

Originally, I began with the idea that my readers were other people who had read the book and wanted to discuss it or read more about it. This shifted to include readers who would be interested in the book -- either to read it, purchase it, or recommend it. I think of my readers as both the end-reader and what I call the "gate keeper": the parent, librarian, etc. who purchases the book so that a reader may have access to it.

It varies according to book, but as I read I think, what about this book do I want to share with others? What impressed me? I jot down ideas about themes, plot, characters, or copy language that either I really liked, or that I think conveys a flavor of the book.

In terms of how to share my reactions -- beyond the simple loved it/ hate it/ liked it -- I found From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books by K.T. Horning to be a fabulous resource on how to get beyond simple conclusions. I heard somewhere she is working on a revised edition, and fingers crossed it includes something on online reviewing. It helped me to refine how I discussed books and, hopefully, saved me from some mistakes. "Mistakes" meaning overused language or phrases that in the end do little to convey to the reader what I'm trying to say about a book.

Shannon Hale: 2. Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up?

Liz B: If I don't "like" a book, I don't finish it. Life is too short. That said, I put "like" in quotes because I may read a book, finish it, and review it knowing that the book is not my cup of tea but that it would appeal to or be loved by other readers. So I'm reading and reviewing with not just me in mind, but also other readers. For the most part, if something makes it onto my blog it's already passed either the "I liked it" or the "readers will like it" test.

That said, I realized quickly that I also had personal favorites that I wanted to highlight; sometimes because a book really was that good, other times for something more personal. A character may have more meaning for me, a location I love be lovingly portrayed, the language speak to me. At first I called this "best books" and limited it to books published that year; now I call it "favorite books" and include any books read that year, whatever the publication date. See my sidebar for those books. A book may become a "favorite" only after I've read it and time has passed-- for example, a book that sticks with me or haunts me.

Shannon Hale: 3. Does knowing you'll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place?

Liz B: As blog readers will know, I get a good number of review copies (solicited and unsolicited) in addition to attending conferences where I can pick up review copies. When I was "just" a reader, not a librarian (and even in my first few years of librarianship!) I had no idea how review copies worked or that people got them or why. It's that type of reader I have in mind when I include in my reviews the source of my books. The person who wouldn't know otherwise, and would think either a, my library gets all these books, b, I buy all these books, or c, how the heck do I read a book that isn't published yet?

Various factors that lead to a book being shifted to the top of my TBR pile: Did I actively solicit the book? Was it sent in response to a specific request? Has someone else's review made me curious about the book? "Review" can mean a professional journal such as SLJ; mainstream media such as the NYT or EW; as well as blog reviews and discussions. Hearing the author speak in person. Reading something the author said online. Checking out my scheduled posts and realizing I'm heavy in one area and need to balance it. Heavy could mean too much by one publisher or genre. Since LiarGate, I also attempt to be more conscious that the mix includes books by and about people of color. Has it been a while since I reviewed picture books? What about audiobooks? Visiting the bookstore. Finding out a favorite author has a new book. Liking the cover. Being intrigued by the plot.

Shanon Hale: 4. Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book?

Liz B: Trying to capture what I feel about a book in words, and share that with others, can deepen my appreciation for a book and what an author accomplished. Sometimes, though, all I want to say is "I really really liked it!" For repeat Tea Cozy readers, that may be enough; but for the first time reader, who may be there just for that one review? I know I need more and have to push myself to verbalize why I really really liked it.

Shannon Hale: 5. What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world?

Liz B: I covered this in my above answers. My motivation is both a book I adored; or a book I know others will adore. I love, love, love booktalking -- the process of being a book matchmaker and finding the perfect book for a reader. So, for example, whether or not I like Twilight doesn't matter; what matters is when I find other books for that Twilight lover to read and enjoy. Liz B., book matchmaker.

Shannon Hale: 6. If you review a book but don't rate, why not? What do you feel is your role as reviewer?

Liz B: I'll skip the first bit and concentrate on the second. I'm not always comfortable with the term "review" being used for all online book talk. Sometimes it fits; but just as often, there are personal reactions, discussions, etc. going on that really aren't "reviews". That said, it's an easy shorthand term to use for online book talk. And personal reactions and discussions etc. can be just as valuable and just as fun as a review. I'm not knocking them; I just wonder, as I am wont to do about words and definitions, what really is a review?

My role is to be honest. And that honesty needs to include knowing when the reason I don't like a book is because of the book itself or because of my personal reaction to something the author did or did not do. Using a very broad example, a person who doesn't like fantasy reviewing fantasy books and saying "this book is terrible" would not be honest; saying, "I'm not a fantasy fan so this book didn't work for me" is honest. (Again, those are VERY BROAD examples and most reading and responses and reviews are, we all know, more complex than this example). That also applies to knowing why I liked a book; is it because the book is that good, or because I have a soft spot for that subject, plot, or character?

My role is to know who I am writing for; is it for me? Yes. Is it for other readers? Yes. Is it to engage in discussion about books and authors? Yes.

Is it for publishers? Much as I adore publishers and the publishing industry because I find them fascinating and they produce the books, I don't see them as my audience. Same for authors. Don't get me wrong; I love hearing from an author as much as the next person. But I don't write with the anticipation or expectation that an author will read it, respond to it, link to it, etc. Do I like when I find my review blurbed on a website, etc? Hell to the yes. Do I write thinking "this will be a good blurb for an author/publisher to use"? Hell to the no.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Carol H Rasco said...

This week found me getting my hands on THE HUNGER GAMES, SARAH'S KEY, and RED SCARF GIRL. So the piles grow larger and larger, and I start new piles. New room soon? Happy reading in the new week!

susan said...

I followed Carol over there. Loved it. I didn't think to post on my blog. I might do that.

Enjoyed this. Thanks.

susan said...

Carol, we have Red Scarf Girl. If you're intent on buying it, I'll happily loan you ours. You're an active member at CO. One of the perks are book loan privileges.

Melissa said...

Nice thoughts, Liz. I liked what you had to say about honesty and audience.

Oh, and thanks for the link to the reviewing book -- I think I'm going to go check it out.

Mary Ann Scheuer said...

Liz, I absolutely agree with you - what I seek as a librarian is to think about how a book will connect with a particular reader or type of reader. How will a certain kid enjoy a book, or get wrapped up in a particular world, or think more about or beyond their own world?

I also love what you've said before about the role of online reviewers bringing their personal reactions to books. I like the space that blogs give us to share that personal reaction - it's far beyond the rating system that Shannon talked about in her blog.

Thanks for the thoughtful response to Shannon's blog.

Mary Ann
Great Kid Books