Once a week I devote this column to Y.A. literature with a focus on the growing trend of grownups reading the category. Today there's a twist on that theme, but like reading Y.A., it's as pertinent to adults as it is to kids. There's something new happening in the book business: Kids are getting into the world of book reviews, offering up commentary and criticism on the Y.A. and children's books that were, after all, intended for them.
Beloved bookstore McNally Jackson, located in New York's SoHo neighborhood, has a Kids Tumblr upon which there are currently four book reviews from young readers. Among the books reviewed are Son, Lois Lowry's upcoming fourth book in The Giver quartet, as well as Chris Colfer's The Land of Stories and Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy. There are also reviews in the works from more than a dozen kids ranging in age from 8 to 19 years old—upcoming titles include Defiance by C.J. Redwine, The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech, and Don't Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon.
Sarah Gerard, who runs the children's section at McNally Jackson, spoke to The Atlantic Wire about the program, an idea she'd heard of some other bookstores implementing. To help get more teens to engage in the store, she reached out to local schools and to kids who frequent the store, and posted her call for young book reviewers on the McNally Jackson Tumblr and on Twitter. After three weeks, Gerard has a list of 18 young readers who have been assigned galleys and deadlines for their reviews (they have until the books' actual release dates to turn in their write-ups).
Gerard, who's also an author, is functioning as an editor as well as a kind of book mentor in this pursuit. She says, "I don't criticize what they're saying or say it's wrong. Even if they don't like the book, I tell them, just make sure you support what you're thinking." The value of this program is multi-faceted. For one, "Kids are much better at selling books to other kids," she says: "They know what they like, it's more about making it theirs, and they get to choose what they want to read. I think it's important for kids to talk about books, these books are for them, and the things kids are saying aren't necessarily appearing in print."
Kate Milford, a Y.A. and middle-grade author who works part-time at McNally Jackson as well, told us of the program, "I only wish I'd thought of the idea first. It's brilliant. For one thing, although nominally these books are being written for kids and teens, they're shaped and guided at all stages by adult readers trying to guess at how they'll be received by adults and what adults will take from them, whether those adults are the sales and marketing team, the reps, the buyers, or the teachers and librarians. I don't think anyone forgets what the target audience is, it's just that it never gets to that audience if, for instance, a marketing team can't figure out how a sales rep is going to talk about it to a buyer.... Adults make their best guesses, but ultimately they're a bunch of grownups trying to get back into teen brains, which are, of course, like the brains of some other species. Publishers would do well to find a way to get some smart teens on call."
Gerard points out as well that the timing of the program coincides nicely with the summer—parents, this is a way to keep kids reading over vacation! And there's that social media/Internet aspect as well, which "legitimizes the [young critics'] work," says Gerard. "People are reblogging them...we're bringing up the next generation of readers and writers. I'm really proud of them, I think they're really great." Milford adds, "I know from having used young beta-readers for my own work that their insights are stunning and their understanding of text comes from (often times) a completely different place than even the most sympathetically-minded older reader. Having teens read and comment on text is remarkably eye-opening, both as a writer and as someone who needs to know how best to tell other young readers why a particular book could be just what they're looking for."
But don't take it from the grownups' perspective alone. We got to ask a few of the kid reviewers—Rachel Phelps, 16, and Noah and Luisa Pellettieri, who are 11 and 8, respectively, what they had to say about it. (Noah and Luisa's mom, Amy, weighs in as well.)
How did you hear about McNally's program? Is this the first book you've reviewed, other than in school reports?
Rachel: I heard about the program through Twitter. I follow several publishing companies, and one of them retweeted one of McNally's tweets that said they needed teen book reviewers. I've done a couple book reviews for fun that I've posted on my personal blog, but this is the first review I've ever done for someone. I decided to participate in the reviews because I love reading, and I love writing about what I'm reading, so this was a perfect opportunity!
Amy: One day when we were in the bookshop we started a conversation with one of the bookstore workers and she told us about the book reviewing program. Noah and Luisa had never written a book review before, but since they love to write, and are such amazing readers, we thought we would give it a try! Plus, there is the added benefit of getting a free book!
How did you write your review? Any particular process?
Rachel: I keep the book next to me so I can refer to it if I need to. McNally sent a guideline for writing the reviews, so that really helps. I just think about what stuck out to me, and write about it.
Luisa and Noah: The bookstore gave us a handout about how to write a review and we kind of followed it.
Noah: Me and Luisa both tried really hard to make a good review and we tried to think about the audience as much as possible. I think we did the reviews right because I was satisfied with the way I wrote mine and I read Luisa's and it was great, too.
Luisa: I just kind of write, I don't think about it too much. But I did want to try to be friendly.
Why did you pick the book you did? Did reviewing it make you feel differently about it than you expected?
Rachel: I picked Belles because I'm a huge fan of Jen Calonita, and I figured that if it was anything like her other books, I'd love it. Reviewing it helped me to understand the characters better and really allowed me to dig in deeper.
Luisa: I picked the book I reviewed [Chris Colfer's] because I like reading fairytales. I read the books and looked at the back of the books to see if it would be interesting to me. Writing the review didn't really make me think differently about the book.
Noah: I picked my book because I love the author who wrote my book [Rebecca Stead]. That's really one of my favorite ways to pick out books to read even at the library. Reviewing didn't make me feel any different about the book, but if it counts it did make me think differently about writing reviews. I expected it to be very easy but I ended up discovering that it is so much harder and more complex process than I thought it to be.
Luisa: I thought reviewing books was easier than I thought. I thought I would forget what I read about the book, and I wouldn't be able to do it, and I would only be able to write a sentence on it. But than I noticed that if you just categorize the parts of the books into a few groups, you could make them into something. And turn those sentences into a paragraph.... And if you can't do that, than you can go back to the book and read the section to understand it.
What do you think a review by a teen or kid can do that a review by adults can't do?
Rachel: When something is written by adults, for kids/teens, it almost feels... forced, I guess you could say. I'm not knocking reviews written by adults, but it's always easier to take someone's word for it when the targeted demographic is the one reviewing.
Luisa: You can make the review more creative and kid friendly.
Noah: A kid knows the audience they are speaking to better than any adult can. When I was trying to write my book review, I was just trying to think about what an average kid reading my book review would think. Would it be too boring? It definitely made my review a lot more exciting. But grownups just can't do that, I guess.
What are your favorite books of all time? What about so far this year?
Rachel: Oh, gosh... the Harry Potter series is definitely up there. So are A Wrinkle in Time, the Percy Jackson series, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, and Smile by Raina Telgemeier. Some of my favorite books that I've read this year are The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and Looking for Alaska by John Green.
Luisa: Gosh, that is hard. I do have a favorite author. Avi. I love Avi. He just writes his books with such a creative feeling to them and he makes you want to savor them and read them again and again. I also like Shel Siverstein.
Noah: I have a few. I like Avi like Luisa. I also like Daniel Pinkwater and Sherlock Holmes. I've read lots of his books. I like the Artemis Fowl series. It's hard to say what my favorite book is. Though I do love The Mysterious Benedict Society. The first book was the best of them all. I like them all for different reasons. I like Daniel Pinkwater for his silliness and weirdness. Yet, I like Sherlock Holmes books for their seriousness and extremely complex cases. I love Artemis Fowl because it just makes me want to keep reading more.
Do you have a favorite genre? If so, what and why?
Rachel: My favorite genre is probably fantasy. I love fairy tales, dystopian societies, and worlds that are just unlike our own. It's great to open a book and be swept away somewhere completely unknown. Realistic fiction is a close second.
Luisa: I like fairytales because they have fantasy but if written well the characters will have real feelings. And though they are not there with you, you feel as if you are going on a journey with them.
Noah: My favorite genre might be mysteries. This will sound dumb, but my favorite part is the big reveal at the end. You almost think, how could I have been so stupid and not figured it out? All the clues come into place, and I love that feeling.
What do you think when you hear about adults reading Y.A. or kids books?
Rachel: I think it's great that adults are reading Y.A. and children's books! My mom is an elementary school teacher, and she always says that you're never too old for a good book. Just because a book is targeted toward teens or kids shouldn't hinder you from reading it.
Noah: I think it's a great idea. I think that some books just have no age limit and that everyone can pick up something from them. I think grownups do it all the time whether they realize it or not. I don't know how many times I have seen kids and grownups reading the Harry Potter series right next to each other.
Luisa: I think grownups should read kids books because it kind of reminds them of what it was like when they were a kid. It is just fun for everyone. Sometimes no matter how much you read a book, it is always exciting and fun. Sometimes it can get boring. But sometimes when you pick up a book after having put it down for a long time, it's just as fun as if you had just started reading it.
Amy: I think it's great that No and Lu get the chance to review books. Seeing your words put into print is pretty cool. The author of Lu's book even reposted her review on his blog. She was so excited, she brought the review to school to share. Isn't that what you want? Seeing kids get excited about writing? Oh, and Noah and Luisa wrote the reviews all by themselves. They hope to be book reviewers for McNally for a long, long, long time!
With book and McNally interior photos from Sarah Gerard.