So, we're just back from beautiful Seattle, where the food is insane and the drinks are even better. Bob and I snuck off for an out-of-town anniversary weekend, using the excellent KidLitCon 2011 as an excuse.
Thanks to Mary Ann Scheuer of Great Kid Books, I was there helping her do a presentation about ebook apps for kids. We were joined via Skype by Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production - and if you've never used videoconferencing as an essential part of your presentation, allow me to tell you, it's just as nerve-racking as you might expect. But all the tech worked, including a nifty document camera that allowed us to not only project what the iPad was doing, but what we were doing to the iPad.
It was truly a pleasure to stand up there alongside two such knowledgeable professionals.
The whole conference was like that (the sessions I attended anyway. We were only in town about 60 hours, and we wanted to connect with old friends, see a couple of personal landmarks, have a romantic anniversary dinner, AND attend KidLitCon... so unfortunately I missed some stuff). Full of articulate people who really knew what they were talking about. The sharp and funny Colleen Mondor (Chasing Ray), who along with passionate and funny Jackie Parker (Interactive Reader) organized KidLitCon, has a great list of Things Learned at KidLitCon that she has posted already.
See, sometimes at these things the attendees are so qualified that the presentations are a little beside the point. If you have Anne Levy and Carol Rasco and Lee Wind and Liz and Pam and Jen (etc etc etc) in the audience, who exactly are you going to get to sit up front to be an 'expert'? KidLitCon really avoided this. Most of the presentation subjects were very timely - new stuff that not all of us have had time to learn about in any depth.
Other presentations, however, were on subjects that are actually timeless, and worth talking about on an ongoing basis. Worth talking about more than we do. In these cases, the presenters gave cogent summaries of the arguments at hand, but were very receptive to commentary from attendees.
One theme that seemed to keep popping up again and again was the idea of the "negative review." Do we review books that we cannot recommend?
Several presenters and attendees do not. Writing reviews is time-consuming. Hell, reading a book is time-consuming - and if after 20 pages you do not care for a book, or you think it is crap (two different things), perhaps the most efficient use of your time is to put that thing down. Or throw it it across the room, as Miss Parker once advised.
Space on one's blog is also a resource to be managed wisely, as is your reader's attention. On my own profile I say, "Nobody comes over here to read about mediocre books."
But many KidLitCon attendees were librarians with collection management responsibilities, and they argued that they rely on reviews that include critical comments. The KidLitOSphere becomes one big deafening cheerleading convention without them, and one cannot assume that if one can't find any reviews of a book, it means that everybody's read it and declined to write a review in order to avoid saying anything not nice.
It is interesting to me that the term "negative review" was rejected outright. People were much more comfortable saying "critical review." But I have to say that I think "negative review" is a valid term. All of my reviews, and all of the reviews that I bother to read - are critical. Any review that applies evaluation beyond a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down is a critical review. Even the reviews written by people who will not post reviews of books they can't recommend are by definition "critical reviews" - those writers have subjected those books to critical evaluation, and they post reviews of the books that pass.
The reviews that those people don't write - those are negative reviews. Reviews that conclude that a book is poorly written, nonsensically plotted, populated by paper-thin characters, mistaken in its conclusions, shabbily illustrated, or just boring - those are negative reviews. Reviews that scream, "THIS BOOK SUCKS!!!," are negative to be sure, but they are not, I think, reviews. They are graffitti.
And I'm right up there with everyone who prefers not to write negative reviews, by the way. They're hard to write. You absolutely have to back up every critical statement you make. Those of us who review for SLJ and for VOYA have to write them all the time - those publications don't ask me which books I want to review, they just send me stuff, and if that stuff is terrible, it's my responsibility to recommend to other librarians that they not spend their money on it.
On Pink Me, I get to be much more selective. I write a negative review only when I truly feel I have something to add, something that people choosing books for children might want to think about. I also am more likely to write a review of a flawed teen book than a picture book or a middle grade book with problems. This is because teens go looking for reviews online when they are considering which books to read next, and there are so many YA blogs out there that contain little or no critical content.
Lots of voracious teen readers need nothing more than a cheerleading "OMG LOOVED THIS BOOK!!!" but it can't hurt to demonstrate for those readers some of the metrics by which to evaluate a book.
And lastly, there's Goodreads. I give at least a star rating on Goodreads for every book I read, whether it's for grownups or for kids, whether I review it on Pink Me or not. I am also far, far more likely to post a capsule review pointing out the shortcomings of a book on Goodreads. Although Goodreads users see a feed of what their friends are reading and posting about, and although I can go to John Schu's bookshelf (for example) to check in on what Mr. Schu is reading, the most common way to see reviews on Goodreads is aggregated by title.
And as we all know from shopping for toasters on Amazon or cell phones on cnet, this is one of the most efficient ways to access evaluative data - you can compare and contrast positive and negative reviews, disregard the outliers, and quickly make a decision. I think it's much more likely that actual young readers encounter reviews this way, rather than following our blogs. Which is not to say that we should quit our blogs and start posting our reviews only to Goodreads. Shit, no. Not until Goodreads starts paying, anyway. Which would be a... cough* HA HA HA HAHAA...
Wouldn't it be great, by the way, if we could not be compared, in a very concrete, one-to-one way, with, like, NJbadboy43 on cnet, whose review of his new Droid Bionic consists of the word "YEEEAH!!"? After all, NJbadboy43 is an unpaid reviewer, too.
We operate in a tiny, tiny, inbred world. Publishers and authors court us (to varying degrees), and we feel quite privileged when they do, unwilling to bite the hand with a bad review. Will they stop sending us free books? When my book proposal lands on an editor's desk, is she going to bin it because I trashed her last year's title? Will an author throw a fit at me? Believe me, it happens.
I say, RISK IT. A responsibly-written negative review is worth its weight in gold. Hopefully, we are all acting like grownups here, and that nice marketing rep or editor who sends you ARCs of her company's fall releases will respect your positive reviews more if she sees that you don't love everything. I know for a fact the Cybils committee will. Hopefully, the author will accept your criticism without too many tears, and - if you're really lucky - with a thoughtful response (see Julianna Baggott's response to my review of Pure).
Just keep it professional Even though we are all amateurs - I mean in like, qualifying-for-the-Olympics terms. I am open to endorsement deals, by the way. I will play for an exhibition team in the off-season.
Relieved to be finished our presentation, Mary Ann and I are ready for our Wheaties box.