We’ve been rolling out discussion on a lot of titles that seem to be meeting with ambivalence, which may be turning you to a second read. Before you crack open that title you didn’t really like again…we thought you might like to hear from Vicky Smith, Children’s and Teen editor of Kirkus Reviews, on how to approach reading with both the ideal reader, and yourself as reader, in mind.
I once had the great pleasure of serving on an award committee with a man we informally named “nicest committee member ever.” It wasn’t that he was unfailingly polite or solicitous of the feelings of others that won him that moniker—though he was—it was that he had the habit of preceding his remarks about books with variations on, “I really feel like I failed this book as a reader. You see, I’m just not a [insert genre/narrative type here] reader.” Then he’d go on to deliver a piercingly incisive analysis of the book that was just as generous with praise as it was with criticism. It became clear to me that when he read a book, he took his consciousness of himself as a reader into each engagement.
Now, we all bring ourselves as readers to the books that we open, but how conscious are we as we do it? It’s an awareness I have worked hard to cultivate over the past several years, and I believe it’s just as important as critical and content know-how in arriving at a fair evaluation of a book.
Take a few minutes. Since we are thinking about Newbery contenders here, think of your three favorite texts from childhood. Now think about what they have in common. It could be genre: high fantasy or mystery? It could be narrative delivery: first-person retrospective or third-person omniscient? It could be pacing: racketing adventure or languorous description? These early predilections can become the foundation for the reader you become as an adult. Notice any similarities between your early reading and what you gravitate toward now?
Now think about the type of books you’d rather go to the dentist’s office than read. Are you, as a friend of mine is, “allergic to talking animals”? Do you see a map of a fantasy kingdom and shut the book right away? Do you notice that the narrator is relating the story in the present tense and begin to gag? Do you see long paragraphs and begin to glaze over?
When you’re just reading for yourself, you can indulge your likes and dislikes all you want, but you can’t when you’re reading for Newbery. By definition, when you’re reading for Newbery you’re not reading for yourself, you are reading for some child or children between birth and 14 years of age.
Say you are one of those readers who begin to sneeze whenever you sense an animal about to talk. Too bad: You’re probably still going to have to read The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt. First, give the book a fighting chance. Try to read it under optimal circumstances: on your couch, curled up with your dog, with a cup of tea, after you’ve done the laundry…you get my drift. Forget all of the talking-animal books you’ve hated over the years; you’re not reading them, you’re reading this one.
And start to read. Put all of your usual critical smarts to work. Look at characterization, plot construction, pacing, dialogue, voice, etc. But also let the book teach you how to read it. Instead of scoffing at the impossibility when Bingo and J’miah start to talk, ask yourself, “Is this what an East Texas bayou raccoon would say, if an East Texas bayou raccoon could talk?” I know this is what my allergic friend would do.
And if you start to find yourself, a confirmed hater of talking animals, rooting for those raccoons as they defend their beloved swamp, notice it. It just might be telling you it’s one of the most distinguished books of the year.
By the same token, let’s say you can’t stand the deliberate layering of clues and red herrings in a mystery. Too bad: You’re probably still going to have to read The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore. Again, don’t stack the deck against the book by trying to read it on the subway or in 20-minute chunks over lunch.
Again, bring your critical acumen to bear even as you let the book do its work. Watch how Blakemore puts her plot together; pay attention to the many different narrative viewpoints. Instead of growing impatient at the pace of the mystery’s unfolding, let it carry you along; become a player in its game.
And if you start to find yourself flipping the pages to find out just what is going on in that crazy old house, notice it. It just might be telling you it’s one of the most distinguished books of the year.
Whatever your angle, approach each book you open with the willingness to be surprised. It’s way more fun to read a book you are ready to love than to read one you’ve decided you can’t. It will make your run-up to the decision-making a joy instead of a chore. And it will ensure that no one will believe you if you try to tell them that you really failed this book as a reader.
—Vicky Smith, Children’s & Teen Editor at Kirkus Reviews, tries hard to practice what she preaches.