Friday, April 09, 2010

Good and Bad Reads

Look, there are both kinds out there. So why don't we admit it?
I get  friend requests on Good Reads and I seldom take them. First of all because most people say "yes" to my challenge question. (For the record, it is about "Twilight" Wink) and second because I look at their book ratings before I friend them and most don't measure up. Nothing but 4 and 5 stars for EVERYTHING!!!

Sorry, but I am not interested in reading reviews by anyone who can't be critical of what they read.
I AM "friends" with librarian/well known blogger Elizabeth Bird (a.k.a Fuse #8),  one of the young "hip" librarians, mainly because I like to see what she's reading. Working at what I consider the center of the kids book world, the Central Children's Room of the New York Public Library, she gets lots of previews and galleys. And since here in deepest darkest VA I am no longer anywhere near that world, I like to keep informed.
But Betsy Bird is NOT a critical reader. Perhaps it's all that time she spends schmoozing with the publishing houses (and she's publishing a book herself) but  I have seldom, if ever, seen her pan a children's book. She seldom gives a book fewer than four stars. 
Whereas I, the cranky,unconnected unhip middle aged librarian have given more than one kids book ONE star. Quite a few actually.
Especially YA duds like Eragon and Twilight. And I AM going to get back to my picking apart of that waste of paper one of these days...
Children's librarians-especially noted ones like Betsy--are SUPPOSED to be critical readers. I was trained in the same NYPL she was and we were taught that our job was to bring kids the best of the best.
Perhaps things have changed there in terms of that since then. I hope not.
I also suspect that having been in this business far, far longer than Betsy and being a parent of my own kids have taught me a few things she hasn't learned yet. I hope that one day she and the other Young Turks will grow into their jobs and learn to sock it to the authors more often. Meanwhile here are: "The Library Lady's Rules For Reviewing"
1)Even great authors write crappy books. Especially if they are the prolific childrens authors (Jane Yolen comes to mind) who churn out multiple books a year. Maurice Sendak has written some real stinkers as he has aged and gotten progressively more gloomy and morbid. It is okay to pan such books. Indeed, IMHO,not giving a critical review to a writer of standing is an insult to them. If they can write quality books, and fail to do so, it should be noted.
i2)Writers of adult fiction seldom can make the transition and your reverence for their works shouldn't keep you from reviewing them accordingly. Hey, Judy Blume writes crappy adult books, so it was no shame for Robert Parker to write less than wonderful YA novels
Spencer lite and by the end he had even written a "Young Spencer"....
3)Celebrity authors are usually just that--celebrities. Occasionally, a Jamie Lee Curtis will come along but most are more in the mode of Madonna--it's their name and their name alone selling dreck that normally would never have made it out of the slush file.
4)a.Sendak said it himself "a child isn't kind". They don't care about the celeb name, or the awards or the fact that the pictures have redeeming social value. If they don't like it, they don't like it.
4)b. You have to look at books from a child's angle. I like to give novels the "JR" test--if my 10 year old likes it as much as I do, I'm on the right track. If I hate it and she hates it, again. This works a good 90 percent of the time.
4)c. The same goes for toddlers and preschoolers. Is the art for them, or for their parents? If the latter, it will not hold their eye. Want to read a hip book that appeals to you? Save it for after Max and Madison have gone to bed.
4)d. On the other hand, there IS what I call the "Evil Purple Dinosaur Who Shall Not Be Named" corollary: if there is NOTHING but icky stickiness and nothing to delight the grown up eye, it's not a good kids book. If you don't enjoy reading a book to a child, it is not an experience you will care to repeat--and they will not focus on your reading.
5)a. Layout in picture books matters. Look at Beatrix Potter's books. She designed them to be small, for little hands, and it makes her drawings all the more endearing. Color choices, typeface and picture layout can make or break a book.
5)b. A good picture book needs no gimmicks. Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar is immortal, but it's not just because of the holes and flaps--it's the whole package. His books with sound effects at the end are nowhere near as good or beloved. And gimmicks tear, break, or run out of battery power....
BTW, it would be helpful if the reviewers would TELL us without fail about cut-outs, flap pages and other such gimmicks that shorten the life of library books. Especially in these times of big budget cuts Cry
5)c. Awards don't mean squat in picture books in terms of child friendliness (see #4). I once did a post on authors/illustrators who have never won the Caldecott Medal. You may be surprised at who hasn't won.
6)A good older kids book doesn't need trading cards, clues on the Web or any other gimmick to keep a child reading and reading. Gimmicks lose their allure--good storytelling lasts forever.
7)Series books have comfort for kids and they should get to read them to their little hearts content. But most series would be fine if they ended after the first book or two. 
Speaking of series books, I warn those of you with girls that "The Babysitters Club" is coming back into print--revised for the 21st century of course. I guess Ann Martin's retirement funds must have taken a hit in the financial crisis.I'm having to waste money on them AGAIN! 
8)Kids nonfiction is underrated and should be used a lot more in the schools. What kids get off the web can't match the works of someone like Seymour Simon, Gail Gibbons or Steve Jenkins. And it appeals to a lot of reluctant readers, especially--say it with me--BOYS!
9)A well crafted YA novel beats most of the crap on the adult bestseller list any day of the week. However, the bulk of current YA books are crappy. They always follow trends--used to be be bulimia and incest and teen suicide, now it's vampires and werewolves. Not sure it's an improvement.
10)Well meaning parents who feed their kids all natural diets and live in green homes will give them books that are the equivalent of a processed lunchmeat sandwich served on white bread in a house with lead paint on the walls and asbestos in the ceiling. We owe our kids more than that. Sure, the occasional junk food book is fine, but we need to feed their minds. We need to make them laugh, make them cry,make them shriek, make them WONDER.

That is the gift of a good children's book. And that is the point of giving both good and bad reviews.

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