Collection Development

Posts: 3

Bored with Book Reviews

I’m getting kind of bored with book reviews. Writing book reviews. Reading book reviews. You know, those ones that begin with a summary of the story, and then a small amount of obligatory opinion/critique/accolades? But not just those ones, also the more long-form bloggy/Pitchfork-y ones where it’s more a showcase for me and my unique and sophisticated perspective, my cleverness, quirkiness or snarkiness, my incredible breadth and depth of knowledge, my wonderful research and analysis, and not so much about the book. I’m pretty much disenchanted with the book review. I want to write something else. I want to read something else. I’m bored.

But I’m not good at sharing my enthusiasm for the books I like in other conventional ways. Like talking, for example.  So that’s a problem when, as a pretend librarian, I have this strange urge to share and promote good books. More importantly, I am in a situation professionally where I need to review books online, and I need to encourage my colleagues to do the same. In our district we need to share and collaborate to get good books into the hands of our students, and the best way to do this is in public, online. And I want to share what I am learning.  It feels almost selfish and wasteful to read a book and then not share what I learned about it and from it with others.

But writing a summary or even accolades for a good book has begun to feel redundant with all the other book reviews out there. If I want to entice others to read the book, the publisher-provided written blurbs often do a better job of selling the book than I could do anyway. That’s the whole point of those things, and one of the reasons authors are so blessed to have publishers, right? Why duplicate efforts? (For example, I’ve wasted way too much time already trying to come up with a summary for A Snicker of Magic that brings anything of value that isn’t already better expressed by the wonderful blurb on the inside flap of the dust jacket. I’m guessing the author drafted that one herself, but whoever wrote that blurb, she/he/they should be proud of it.)

There’s another complication that practically neutralizes my book review drafts into meaninglessness if I think about it too much, and I do think about it too much. That is this whole business of authors, agents, and editors being on twitter and subscribing to Google update alerts for their names and books. So as soon you post anything anywhere about a book, good or bad, (even a 50-year-old title by an author who is long dead) people are suddenly all up in your business converting your praise into a marketing opportunity, or, if you said something negative, possibly having their feelings hurt or at the least attempting damage control. And you are just a random person saying what you like or spouting your opinion, but it all connects and it all has consequences.

Also, if I write or tweet something good about a book or an author I now know the author is likely going to see it, and then the author is practically obligated to respond kindly to me because that is the nature of this social media game. So, being conscious of that, it can begin to feel almost like I am just flattering them to get their attention, to have a personal interaction with a real, published author. But that’s silly to worry about. Authors are just like everyone else, they like to be told when they’ve done a good job, they like to hear that what they have made or done is appreciated and connecting somewhere. I know I sure would like that. Most of the published authors aren’t rich and aren’t famous outside of their little circle of influence. So I really shouldn’t be worried about being overly nice or complementary to authors.  But fear of that interaction tempts me to be more boring  and unsocial in my book reviews, which then further defeats the purpose of writing a book review in the first place.

Occasionally there is the need for criticism, too.  Working with libraries with very small budgets, it is worthwhile to tell/warn people if a book is only just so-so or not good at all, so they can spend their limited funds on the very best stuff.  Just sharing that information in conversation isn’t effective enough, and ignoring a book just makes it look like you don’t know about that book, not that you don’t recommend it.  So it can be necessary to post those negative comments in written form, online.  But because those negative comments usually  then become transparent to the author, it makes me loathe to even post a bad review.  And this sort of thing sure doesn’t inspire me to post anything negative about someone’s book:

Despite this, or maybe because of this, authorial gaze, on the other side there is the occasional temptation to be mean, just to make it more interesting, just to try to make something happen, just to be contrary to the hype, just to try to be funny, and in some cases just because I was genuinely dissatisfied with the book and would have preferred something else. I shouldn’t say mean, I don’t mean mean, I have no desire to be mean. Nor personally destructive. But critical, yes. Contrary, definitely. Maybe even irreverent, when I encounter something that I feel has been unduly sacralized. But not mean. To me there’s a difference, but others may not see that difference.  I don’t genuinely hate very many things, and I want to like most things. But there are books I’ve wanted to like that I just don’t like.  And there are books that everyone else wants me to like that I’m resistant to liking just because of the hype.  I have been trying to teach myself that it is usually more fun to like something than to hate something. But still, listening to the Billboard Hot 100 usually only makes me sad.

So I’m tired of writing book reviews. I think I’d rather just write books, because that will be a lot easier.

Speaking of book reviews, here’s my latest book review:

The Myth of the One

[Theory and Praxis, Part 2]

If or when I fail to predict quality, appeal, or popularity accurately, I can at least comfort myself with the thought that not every kid needs or wants the same kinds of books. So even if I push a quirky book or a distinguished, critically acclaimed book and it turns out not to be a popular book, it might at least be the right book for one kid. That’s at least something, although it hurts when budgets are tiny.

But even then, purchased, processed, and sitting on the shelf, will that forlorn book I advocated for, even with its four starred reviews in professional journals, even with its multitude of applicable connections to the common core, even with its luminous writing or its message of hope, even with its creativity and off-the-wall humor, ever get into the hands of that one kid who “needs” it? Is this idea of the obscure, life-changing book (more often than not with a boring or cheesy cover) a truth or a myth?  My occasional reluctance to weed certain books from libraries that  circulation statistics or dated cover art (or lack of cover art at all) tell me should be weeded is an indicator that I believe in “the myth of the one.”

Is my predilection for the unique, the obscure, and the underdog an asset that brings greater diversity of selection in the library to a greater diversity of potential young readers?  Or is it a tendency that leads to weird and boring books sitting on the shelves untouched for years, making the collection look bad, and filling the circulation reports with lists full of sad titles that have never been checked out?  Paraphrasing the great King Moonracer, “a book is never truly happy until it is loved by a child.”  As much as I like that winged lion of claymation lore, I don’t want to follow his example in presiding over my own Library of Misfit Books.

And Santa is not coming to rescue those books.  The other complication of my particular practice is that when I purchase a book or when I leave an older book unweeded, it is not in my own library.  I’m not there every day to talk it up, display it, or recommend it to anyone.  Many of my colleagues who work in the libraries are hourly employees sometimes overburdened with duties or otherwise unable to promote or recommend books, so in some cases in some libraries the book must wait patiently on the shelf and call that mythical one reader unto itself by fate, coincidence, or good graphic design.

This soft spot for the underdog is bad enough when weeding, but the myth of the one is terrible on small budgets, because when taken to extremes it justifies almost any purchase.  Not every book can have it all (both quality and appeal), but most of the professionally published children’s books have at least something going for them.  Those award winning books that have little street appeal are frustrating, but what about a mediocre book with an awesome cover or in a trending genre?  Are  those books any better of a purchase? Is it “selling out”  and betraying education and literature to pick that flashy but forgettable book over an unappealing or difficult but more “educational” or message-infused title? Do we give the kids what marketers think they want? What teachers think they need? What others with a specific artistic,  moral, or political agenda feel they should be exposed to?  What about what the kids themselves want? The easy answer would be to just buy it all and let them decide, but the budgets are not there.

I’ve never actually seen a kid bring the book that will change his life up to the circulation counter, so I don’t know if it’s a real thing.  But still, I vaguely remember digging through the stacks of beige books without cover art in old libraries trying to find gold, and sometimes finding it.   Once upon a time I was that kid.

Theory and Praxis

[Re: My Qualifications?]

In my profession as a cataloger and digital resources manager for a public school district, I work closely with school libraries, but on the periphery. I rarely have direct interactions with children or teachers, but I have many interactions with school library and technology staff, and some small influence on the purchasing and promotion of literature in the school libraries. I enjoy being involved in the school libraries and their collections, and seek opportunities to continue that involvement.  Although I have my perceptions of what books would be good to add to the libraries and share with young people (and occasionally express those perceptions and opinions and act upon them), I am increasingly aware of the reality that I cannot prove my hypotheses concerning collection development choices and promotion. I don’t have opportunity to read books out loud to children, other than my own two toddlers.  I don’t get to ask and find out what my students like and need, because I don’t have any students. I am missing a key piece, and I fear that I lack some credibility because of it.

And yet I love children’s literature, and I want to share and advocate what I feel and hope are good books, and get them into the hands of children, sometimes working with staff members who themselves do not have much inclination to explore the literature themselves.  So what I miss in the on-the-ground experience dealing directly with students I hope to at least partly compensate for by reading and studying widely, and engaging in conversations on children’s literature.  This learning project is one of the primary purposes of this website.  Aware of my limitations, I do try to maintain vigilance in making sure that my decisions and promotions are not based too much on my personal tastes and my weird hopes for what children and teachers could or should use and read, in case my tastes are disconnected from the reality of what is used, enjoyed, and desired. What I do have, at least, are my circulation reports to help me, my children’s choice award ballots to count, my professional journals to read, and of course my impeccable taste.  And still further in my favor, I would point out that there’s a lot of hope and guesswork all the way down the path from writer to editor to marketer to librarian/book store purchaser/Amazon algorithm programmer to parent or teacher or even maybe finally actually to that kid himself who might read a book. There are many mediators and gatekeepers between a book and a reader, many of whom don’t deal directly with young readers.  I’m just yet another one along that path, and perhaps no more or less qualified and capable than most anyone else along the path at finding good books for children.  I do want to keep the good books going down that distribution path.

I want to take this seriously, and I want to be good at it, for several reasons. First, I don’t want to make a bad purchase or encourage someone else to make a bad purchase and waste taxpayers’ money for a book that will sit on the shelf and never be enjoyed or used. Second, I am afraid that if too many such books are purchased and promoted (or even worse, nothing new is purchased or promoted) what is there will constitute a critical mass of lameness, with many students determining that the contents of the library and the books being provided to them, and perhaps even all books, are irrelevant to their needs and interests.  But I realize that there is also a deeper, more personal fear at work here that has nothing to do with my current position of employment or the good of the learning community: if I cannot successfully choose quality literature that children will like, how can I ever hope to create quality literature that children will like?

[See Also Part 2: The Myth of the One]