Having students help review books means they feel greater responsibility for the titles and for the impact their words have on the books. Recently my students responded to a series of books negatively. Then they reminded me that they read my blog so if I didn’t share their responses, they’d know.
To what did they comment? The cover of Compass Point’s new series "Green Generation." They emphatically told me these were the ugliest covers they’d ever seen. My students made comments like "Don’t they want to SELL any of these books?"
When I suggested that the covers might be artistic, they said to me, "Anyone who thinks that’s artistic doesn’t know what kids like!"
My students needed these books. They were doing research on environmental concerns, especially Alternative Energy. They needed the material inside. At the beginning of our class I displayed many titles for students to use in their research. Out of all of them, this book Alternative Energy Beyond Fossil Fuels was left on the table. I suggested to several groups that they use this title but they wrinkled their noses and actually shuddered.
Several of the boys who review for me regularly slipped up to say "Nobody wants to touch that old book when they have these others." I showed them the copyright was 2010, but they wouldn’t believe it.
I was ready for the next group to walk in. I had chapters flagged with Post-it flags and hid the cover of the book while I read the Table of Contents. Ooo, Biomass energy. That particular group was excited to have a whole chapter for their research. But then I set the book on the table with the cover up. They immediately drew back and said, "no, thanks." I forced them to read the information and take notes, but you would have thought from looking at them that they were eating stink tofu. (If you’ve never smelled it, you are fortunate!)
For the third group of 7th graders to come in, I was prepared. I had actually anchored the book to the table so they couldn’t see the cover. The students eagerly poured over the contents, taking notes, and discussing the information. As one of the girls was recording her citations, she closed the book and drew back startled. "Ms Chen," she said, "this book’s insides don’t match the outsides."
Therein lies the problem. The inside of this series is very well-written with "good science" and an appealing narrative. The cover of the book is a different story. For all of you piously saying, "Don’t judge a book by it’s cover" I say Phooey! If I can’t get kids to touch the book because of the cover, why should I buy it?
Aha! Readers, right now you are probably thinking to yourself that you won’t buy this series, but if you did that, you’d miss a great set of books appropriate to middle school level research. The dilemma. Buy a book with a great review or let the students’ reaction sway you. My students have decided to design their own covers on paper and put them over these covers so someone will use them.
For those of you who think I’m being harsh, I will be completely open with you. This month the CCBC Cooperative Children’s Books Center is discussing "reviewing" and I’m paying close attention. Someone mentioned how some reviewers and journals appear to like being negative, harsh, and destructive. That’s not who I am. So, I went to the local book rep during a recent collection development fair and looked for this series. Finally I found it hidden in the back. The rep confessed that the series wasn’t selling as well as it should and that sometimes he didn’t even put it out.
Armed with this information and determined to do good, I set out for the AASL conference in Charlotte and went directly to the source – Capstone Press and their Compass Point rep’s. I openly shared this information and told them I was going to be blogging negatively about their cover. I even met the designer and apologized for what I was preparing to do. I passed along the students suggestion that they be allowed to comment on the next series before they published any more. The poor designer said he’d be happy to send us the pdf’s of the covers. What my students will say and how they react is a mystery but publishers say they are interested. Let’s see.
During one of the AASL sessions, I passed a note to Terry Young who was the science advisor for this series letting him know that I would be saying unkind things about the cover. Terry, whom I greatly respect for all things science, and I chatted on the phone this past week about the series. Terry reminded me that as a science advisor he only dealt with the inside, the content, the vital science information in the book. He didn’t see the covers until they were published.
The inside of this series is well-written for a 6-7th reading level and will appeal to grades 5-12. The short chapters and 64 pages total make this book unintimidating. The photographs are appropriate. The columns of text are positioned so well you can teach chunking words while reading.
There’s even a page in here that I can use with the guidance counselors when we research careers. It begins "Be Paid to Make a Difference. By the time you’re looking for a job, there will be lots more in the renewable energy industry than there are today." It goes on to match skills like creativity, working with your hands, talking to people, etc. with possible careers.
Terry Young shared with me the review from the Nov 09 issue of Science Books & Films published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Rau, Dana Meachen. AlternativeEnergy: Beyond Fossil Fuels. (Illus.from the Green Generation Series.)
Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2010. 64pp. $31.99. 2009008778. ISBN 9780756542474. Glossary; Index; C.I.P.
This great little book introduces the topics of fossil fuel usage, the limited nature of fossil fuels, and alternative energy options. It is particularly praiseworthy for its refreshingly objective, but still enthusiastic, presentations on solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and biomass energy. The best feature of the book is the last chapter, which presents practical energy savings that readers can realistically put into practice. Interesting, well written, and appropriately illustrated, the book is entertaining enough for general reading, but factual enough for use as a science text. Without question, this is the best young readers’ book on the subject that I have seen. —Michele Bremer, Bremer &Associates, Monument, CO
Now that’s a positive review. the "best young readers’ book on the subject" that the reviewer had ever seen. If only I can convince my students to handle these books. What would you do?