Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Do you write negative reviews? The TLT RA philosophy

The other day I walked into work and two of my co-workers told me they were reading Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children because they had read Cuyler's review of it here.  Sometimes it is jarring to see your work life and your, well, other work life intersect.  To be honest, it is nice to know my co-workers read TLT and it is also nice to know that what you are doing makes a difference and that people are reading and discussing the information you are putting out into the universe.  The universe is sometimes a silent partner in the blogging world.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I put tremendous value on the importance of communication.  Because I believe in it, I put out a weekly communication to my co-workers called Monday Musings.  Sometimes it even appears on a Monday.  I'm not gonna lie, it has been late.  The last part of my musings always involves what I call the Teen Title of the Week.  Here I review a book that is owned in our collection and offer similar read-alikes that fans of the title may like.  I believe that staff are empowered with information.  And, as we all know, I think everyone should read the occasional YA title.  My goal is that all staff will become familiar with the teen collection and be able to have positive interactions with teens because I can't be there 24/7.

And I am telling you all this why?  The other day a friend at work asked me about the blog and commented on the fact that I didn't seem to give negative reviews.  I actually have spent some time over the years thinking about negative reviews and, well, this is what I think about them . . .

A good book is a good book

To be honest, a lot of the books I have been reading lately have been really good, satisfying reads.  I genuinely believe that the quality of YA literature has improved over the years and even those books that set out to make a point do so while still telling a good, well written story.  There are always exceptions, but this is definitely a great time in ya lit.

My two sets of glasses
Otherwise known as, at the end of the day - I am not a teen

For me, as a librarian, I have to separate my personal opinion from my professional opinion on collection development and reader's advisory.  When I read a book I read it with two sets of glasses on: the personal and the professional.  Even if I love a book I always sit back and ask myself one important question:  will teens love it and why?  If I want to be successful at my job, getting teens to read, then I need to make sure I am getting them the books they want.  As a reviewer I can't help but reflect parts of myself in the review, but in the end I also have to make sure and answer the question we all want to know: should we buy it?  As a VOYA reviewer and reader, I have always put tremendous value in their review system, the way they acknowledge the difference between quality and popularity.  The two do not always go hand in hand.  And as a person who constantly has to defend their love of zombie fiction, I begrudge no one their right to read the things that interest them. 

What's Your Message?

At the end of the day, the idea of telling someone not to read a book is just counter-intuitive to my life's goals.  I am not the person who is going to shove a rotten gallon of milk in your face and say, "This tastes horrible, try it."  Never has made sense to me.

Honestly, there are sometimes books I hate when I read them and I will talk about them to my friends and coworkers.  Part of the reason I love having Stephanie as a TLT partner is because I have someone to text when I finish reading a book and find out what she thought.  And we both love it when people comment on our reviews because that is part of the dialogue; we want to know what others are thinking about the books we are reading.

But in terms of doing collection development and RA – which is what I view this blog as being – it doesn’t seem beneficial.  What I want is to introduce you to titles that I think you should purchase for your collections so that you can get your teens into the library and reading.  None of us has lots of time, so what is the value in reading through a negative review so you can determine that nope, you are not going to buy that book. 

My hope is that while reading TLT perhaps you will find a teen book you want to read and then share it with teens.  Or maybe you will remember that I said if teens like book A then they will probably like book B and so a teen walks out with 2 books instead of 1.  We could tell you, or our patrons at the circulation desk, how much we hate a book, but there is more value in being able to steer them towards books that we think they will like and helping them have satisfying library and reading experiences; this is how we build a happy customer base.  In most cases I can tell you that I hate a book but that a certain type of patron would probably like it.  For example, I hated the book (wouldn't you like to know) with a red hot fiery passion of burning putrid hate, but I could totally see how older teen boys and young adult men would like it.  So even though it was not the right book for me, I could sell it to the right type of patron.  I was completely the wrong reader for this book – which is not the same thing as saying it was a bad book or badly written.  That’s what RA is, matching the right reader with the right book and our personal opinion is not part of the equation. 

Of course, we always tend to push the books we love the most.  And at the end of the day that is probably why we don't really write negative reviews: we love the books we love so much we need to share them and just don't have time to talk about the books we hate.  (Although, for the record, if I never read another love triangle again it will be too soon.  In fact, I think there is more value in talking about elements of books that may trouble us or trends that disturb than taking the time to write a review of a book and telling you not to buy it. But that is the topic of another post.)

So, tell us - what is your book review philosophy?  How do you handle RA with a book that you don't like?


  1. This is always a bummer for me when I read a book and I just don't like it. However, when I am working with my teens, my opinion no longer matters. It never fails that the book I don't like will be the one that they want to know what I thought about it. Usually, I follow with my, "Well, it wasn't really my style but there are tons of people out there who really like it." Then we usually get into the debate of how I just don't really like fantasy and I like realistic books but I know about some awesome fantasy books...yadda yadda yadda.

    I think that it shows our teens that we are real and we aren't faking 'book love' just to get them to read. They need to learn that it's okay to not like certain books.

    Don't know if that is helpful or not?

    1. I think one on one interactions are different for me then doing something like booktalks are book reviews. For one, you can't fake book love and if a teen is asking you about a book you don't like - or haven't read - I do go to the fall back of saying I have heard or others teens seem to like. And I always ask them to read it and then come back and talk to me. Then I feel like I am more open to talking to them about why I didn't like a book or the parts of it that bothered me. But that only happens when a teen picks the title and asks me about a book. I do find that if they are browsing and I say what type of books do you like to read that I will stend to gravitate towards the titles I love or fall back on "this is really popular".

  2. As a book review reader, I appreciate hearing the negatives about a book as well as the positives. Like TLT, most reviewers I follow are thoughtful about posting negative reviews. Usually it comes in the form of "X book was disappointing because..." or "Y book worked in terms of character, but didn't hold up in terms of plot." It's rarely just a bashing. And like you said, just because a book doesn't appeal to you doesn't mean it won't appeal to lots of readers. Overall, I don't mind if a review is positive or negative as long as it's written thoughtfully.

    1. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I should have separated this post out more as there is a definite distinction between book reviews and doing RA with a teen in your library. And I think this is a topic that we can go into a lot more depth about. And again, that is part of the reason why I really value the VOYA review system, which we of course can use here.

  3. There is a difference between not liking a book because of the genre and not liking a book because it is badly written. Sometimes a great book surprises me BECAUSE it is from a genre I would not usually consider.

    I understand a reluctance to be mean, but I also appreciate some distinction among the slew of new books out there, whether they're touted as must-buys or not-worth-my-time.

    If your stated review mission is "Good books only," that's fair, because I know what to expect. But I think the review world owes it to readers and writers to hold books to a dang high standard. God knows editors don't do this often enough...

    1. You are correct, there is a huge distinction between not liking a book because it is not the right book for you and not liking a book because it is not well written, which I think we do make a point of highlighting in our reviews. I think you can write a negative review and not be mean. There are a few middling reviews on TLT, things that I personally struggled with as a reader or felt that teens wouldn't be that much into. Quarantine is an example of a book that really did nothing for me as a reader; but even as I read it I could see the audience that would. It was interesting becasue Stephanie and I both read it and she ended up being the one to review it. The violence was a little over the top for me personally. We have talked about having second take reviews which I think would have value. I think at the end of the day I end up posting most about books I like because those are the ones I want to talk about. I think if we had more resources - more reviewers - we would have the ability to cover a greater number of titles and increase the variety and scope of those titles covered. At the current moment though it is just Steph and I trying to share our passion one title at a time. As a reviewer I think we set out with very specific goals: 1) review the title honestly and 2) give recommendations based on whether or not we think TEENS will like reading the book. In comparison, our Why YA? feature is about highlighting titles we think that adults should be reading because it helps them step into the world of teen. And you are right - there are a TON of new books out there and it is hard to get past the hype and know which titles our teens will really come in looking for. I hope TLT is doing our part to help make that easier for you, for us all.