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The Literary Litmus Test

Yesterday’s guest, Deb Hockenberry, is known for her book reviews as much as anything else. As an avid reader Deb can satisfy two needs simultaneously; reading for pleasure and marketing research, and writing for profit/not.

This practice brings up a serious question. What does it take to be a good reviewer of books in general and children’s books in particular?

Children’s books have certain traits in common: a) cover, b) hook, c) characterization, d) plot, e) beginning, middle, and end, f) settings, g) target audience, and h) category and genre. Looks scary right from the outset. Many people, including some writers in other categories, simply don’t see children’s books that way.

Yet, for all intents and purposes, they need the same type of review as those books read by adults. For adult books share those traits. Perhaps that’s why many book reviewers stick to one genre, category, or target age.

Think about it. Who does a better job of really seeing how effectively a book is put together? Is it the person who’s always read that type of book and so has experience to draw on and expectations to fulfill; or is it the person who’s never read that type of book before?

I don’t read Horror books, therefore, I wouldn’t know what to look for in gauging effectiveness and satisfaction in such an offering, whether for MG/YA or adult readers. Give me High Fantasy/SF and you get a completely different response. I’d be drooling, saying, “Lead me to it, please.”

I spent my YA years sucking down the SF greats and early fantasy books. I have the experience of reading it, of trying to write it and do it well, and of knowing age groups for which the manuscript is suitable. Yep, that’s my niche.

At the same time, I can do books on spirituality, new age, paranormal, philosophy, religion, etc. and still feel comfortable. You might be better at biographies, histories, or mainstream political thrillers. Each of us has our specialties and our banes.

Learning to recognize those areas we, as individual writers, should never judge is a major step in recognizing where we belong in our own careers and aspirations. That is something most of us struggle with each day. We may ask, “Should I branch out or remain where I am?”

If you or I really want to learn where we’re most comfortable writing, we might take the literary litmus test of doing a few book reviews for our own benefit. Explore those new areas of interest through reading and then write as good a review as possible of said book. Let the reviews stand for a few days or a couple of weeks. Go back and read them. If you’re not fired up about reading that book, you’ve missed something valuable the first time through.

Reviewers, in my understanding, generally only take the time to read a book through quickly once before doing the review. That means one shot at it to get it right and have it lure in the reader. The hook must be so strong that the reader believes everything you say about what those covers contain. The rest of the review must support the hook, whetting the appetite and forcing the reader to wait in anticipation for the final recommendation.

That recommendation has to be strong enough to leave the reader with the need to go out and get that book. The adverse recommendation must be equally strong, or the reader won’t believe it either and leave feeling somehow cheated.

This is the conflict for reviewers, whether known or latent. They must walk the tightrope of good vs. inadequate review; promotion vs. condemnation; truth vs. subjective reality.

Subjective reality comes into play every time a person reads anything. The reviewer must do whatever it takes to remove her/himself from the review equation so that only those creative points of good writing are taken into account. Hence, the reason a good reviewer commands respect from the writing community. They provide a service to the industry at large and the reading public in general. Many sales ledgers owe much to the reviewer.

You asking yourself, now, “So what does this have to do with children’s vs. adults books?”

It has everything to do with it. Parents are depending on reviews more and more frequently to provide them with insight into which books are perfect for little Johnny or Jane. Serious dollars are at stake for writer and publisher, as well as the buyer.

It the reviewer doesn’t truly understand what a good picture books requires, she/he cannot properly review it. The same can be said for any of the books geared for children since target ages are very specific in children’s literature with strict requirements regarding word lengths, word lists, subject matter, types of characters involved, etc. on down the line.

Children’s writers know this. They know that those who’ve never written for children don’t necessarily have the proper skill sets to do accurate reviews of these books. Picture books are especially difficult.

There you have it. Whether new to the game or experienced with 10 books on the stands, your career depends on reviews sooner or later. Writers like Deb Hockenberry, who dedicate so much of their time to reviewing books in their specialty, deserve the highest respect for their efforts. After all, for each book read and reviewed, that’s that much time taken out of their creative writing day.

Take a few moments to write the kind of review you hope to get on your next book. Now, write the book to fit the review. Just saying…

Monday my guest will be Linda Bryan Sabin, writer, teacher, entrepreneur. Hope to see you here.

Until later, have a great weekend. A bientot,





Categories: Writing and Poetry
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