Today we debut a new feature that we hope to make a regular series: teen opinions. Our first post is by guest blogger, Jess deCourcy Hinds:
What does the term “teen appeal” really mean? What is that elusive quality that draws a teenager to a book?
This question may be the Holy Grail that a young adult librarian will ponder for a lifetime, and one blog entry won’t even come close to defining it. However, I thought I might make more progress illuminating this question if I removed my reviewer’s hat and put on my journalist’s hat to interview teens about their impressions of newly published books.
This time, the teens who were most willing to participate in my study all happened to be boys in 9th and 10th grade. Although they aren’t diverse in gender, these ten readers are diverse in ethnicity and reading taste, and I highly value their literary opinion.
So here’s what that they said:
“I loved Vaclav and Lena…” (Dial Press) a story about Russian immigrant children who fall in love, “…but I didn’t think I would.”
The verdict: high teen appeal—even for boys—but librarians need to push it.
The cover art is deceptive: the eloquent third-person narration follows the male character, Vaclav, most closely for more than half of the book, but the cover is pink! One student said he thought the book was a “classic like Jane Austen” based on the vintage-style cover. But the actual writing style felt “new,” and he liked it. I thought he’d like it because he liked Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and How they Met and Other Stories by David Levithan. Indeed, when he opened the first page and read about the magic act by “Vaclav the Magnificent,” he said, “This brings me right in!” He read the entire book overnight and said it made him cry (and he likes to cry, he said).
“Robopocalypse (Doubleday) is a well-written book about the ‘near-future.”
The verdict: discerning science fiction readers gave it a thumbs up.
The boys said the concept of the book—that technology will turn against us—was one that they saw a lot, but never tired of. This particular apocalyptical story seemed “more intelligent” than most, but one teen thought that you had to be familiar with other apocalyptical stories to get this one. Another student—the computer programming guru of the student body—said he appreciated the authenticity in the technological language. One student said this book might appeal to students already well-versed in the genre, such as fans of Tim Bowler’s Frozen Fire. One boy said he would be uncomfortable reading the book on the subway because of the red glaring eyes of the robot on the cover. Another student thought the red eyes looked “cool” and wanted to be seen reading this book on the subway or in public.
This science fiction novel about technological bugs, or “solar-powered, metal-eating machines” will likely find its audience—especially among experienced sci-fi readers. An insightful, voracious sci-fi reader said, “It doesn’t always work when books jump right into the action without introducing characters and actions fully.” The readers I polled respected 7th Sigma because it didn’t use any flashy devices to catch readers’ attention.
“I would pick up Silver Sparrow because I like books with colors in the title, like ‘Silver.’ It just sounds interesting.”
The verdict: librarians will not need to push this book— the raw, emotional first page will appeal instantly to introspective readers.
Tayari Jones’ gorgeously-written Southern novel is about two sisters who share a father who is a bigamist, and tries to keep one family from knowing about the other. Even a student who said he tended to dislike realistic fiction found the drama and lyricism of Tayari’s writing mesmerizing. He particularly liked the sentence in the first paragraph, “Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when [a wedding gift] was a blade.” Lovers of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison will adore Tayari Jones.
We librarians spend hours reviewing books and trying to imagine teen reactions. Often we think we can guess what students will think, but after speaking to them, we’ll find ourselves delightfully unsettled to realize how very wrong we are.
–Jess deCourcy Hinds is the library director of Bard High School Early College Queens and a freelance writer. Her essays, stories and reviews have appeared in Newsweek, Ms., Reuters.com, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, School Library Journal and literary journals.