The Careful Art of Writing Book Reviews

I love reading. And I love writing. I also like writing book reviews for the things I have read. Writing reviews is a way for me to keep my finger on the pulse of children's literature and what is new. It gives me a manufactured deadline to finish reading books and a way to organize my thoughts on each book in a way that goes beyond my own headspace. Having worked for bookstores for over a decade, five years doing storytime, an internship at a children's book publisher, a Bachelor's degree in Publishing and an additional Master's Degree in Children's Writing, I have the credentials to back up my reviews.

Of course, not every book I read is one that I like or love. I try to be as objective and fair as I can be. If I cannot be objective I try to let the reader know this. If the book is truly horrid, I don't usually review it. (with a few notable exceptions) I will never link a review on Twitter unless the review is glowing because I don't think it is fair to the author to link them to a review that isn't raving. Particularly if they are the kind of author who doesn't normally read reviews. I am aware that these books are an author's (and editor's) baby. They think it is awesome, as they should.

The problem, one that becomes more apparent as I make more and more friends and connections with authors, editors, and other KidLit people, is the idea that if you can't give a book a good review, you shouldn't give one. If you don't have something nice to say, in essence. I get it. Really I do. No one wants to read a bad review. And some can be downright nasty, as if the reviewer has some kind of personal vendetta. The review reads more like an epic bully rant than an honest review of a piece of art. I still wish there was a rule that stated that if you didn't finish a book you are not allowed to review it or give it stars on Goodreads and Amazon. It brings down the average for the book and isn't fair since you didn't actually read the book in its entirety.

When I read a post from a friend complaining about reviews and reviewers, I admit that it hurts my feelings momentarily. Because I am writing reviews with good intentions too, just like the writers who wrote the book. I genuinely enjoy the act of reading and writing and just like they feel when a book gets a bad review, I don't enjoy it when people thumbs down the reviewer. I have not always written glowing reviews. There are times where I have written a review and rewrote it because I felt like I was being too harsh. But I am not going to stop writing reviews for books that weren't completely fabulous either. Most books have redeeming qualities even if I felt like there were some issues. Some books are great for a very specific audience. Others are just mediocre or more-of-the-same and I don't think it is okay to just pretend like those books don't exist or act like they are great in order to pander to the author or other people involved with the book.

It is hard, because some of the people who do the complaining are publishing books that I am going to review. What if this book of theirs isn't good? I ask myself. Do I dare post a bad or mediocre review? Do I just pretend like I didn't read it? In the end, I try to be fair and kind, while still being professional and informative. In the end, the goal is to get people reading and since everyone's tastes are so different, I am going to assume that some of my readers will actually love some of the books I am lukewarm on.

It's a balance. I could simply write reviews only for the books I like, but I also think it is important to talk about the books I didn't enjoy too. It is intellectually stimulating to look at a book critically, see the plot holes, to wonder about character choices, or meander over the theme and meaning. Children are taught to do this in school from a young age. We review poems by Keats and discuss their hidden meanings. We make students write reports on The Outsiders and Pride & Prejudice. Why would we not think any less critically of books coming out now? I get that these books mean a lot to the people who wrote them and I try to honor that. But once you have released your art out into the world, it is up to the reader to disiminate information, find meaning, and take away what they will. And sometimes, your book just doesn't connect with your reader. The Great Gatsby is considered one of the greats of American literature...and I hated it. I found it a slog to get through. Verbose prose that masked a boring plot and intellectual snobbery. My opinion isn't going to change this book's status in literary history. Others who also suffered thought it will find solace that someone else didn't love the book and others will shake their head in confusion, seeing the work as a masterpiece. I haven't seen a book yet where everyone loved it.

If you are in the book business, or any kind of business where you are creating some kind of art, one must grow used to criticism. To rejection. That was the primary thing I came away with in Grad School. Rejection is par for the course. You will be rejected by agents, editors, gatekeepers, and readers. If you have a hard time handling a bad or mediocre review, then I recommend not reading them. If you can't avoid them, then one must learn to let it roll off their backs. I have had people email me with complaints about books, usually kids and teens who are upset that I didn't give a glowing review to one of their favorite books. I too must learn to shrug my shoulders and understand that some people really can't take criticism. And in a perfect world, every book would be perfect and everyone loves it. As it stands we have such a wonderful variety of people and readers that it should be accepted that someone won't like. And if someone is lukewarm on it and is reviewing it, at least it is being reviewed. I get thousands of blog views in a month, which means that, even if I didn't like the book, thousands of people have read the book and if I did my job well, you have a couple more readers who are intrigued.