So, starred reviews and the Printz award. We’re going to cover this topic in at least two posts this year, so whatever I don’t address (or get dead wrong), Karyn will cover in a couple of weeks!
I’m a visual, list-making sort of person, so as I mulled over this topic this week, I found myself making a mental chart of how they relate, in terms of their functions as well as how they’re determined.
So, what do starred reviews do? What are they for? They’re very similar, after all, but not the same. Very briefly, both stars and the Printz (and here, I include both winners & honor titles) should signify & reward excellence, bringing wider attention to deserving books. I have three perspectives on stars and awards: as a reviewer (a recommender of stars for deserving books), a librarian (a purchaser and recommender of starred and award-winning titles to readers) and a reader (you know, reading them).
As a reviewer, I didn’t think much about the impact of starred reviews on award committee members before my Printz experience. I just followed the criteria of the review periodical I was writing for, and relied on my best judgment. I will say that I am stingy with stars (and, when I reviewed for VOYA, was stingy with the high rating of 5Q), but have rarely regretted either the recommending of a star or the decision not to recommend one.
As a librarian, I would often prioritize the purchase of both starred and award-winning titles, and sometimes made a point of showcasing them in displays and booktalks. When I was a high school librarian, I always had a few students who really cared about awards, especially — all kinds! Pulitzer, National Book Award, you name it, they cared about best-ness — so I would cater to them.
As both a librarian and a reader, one starred review will make me go, “interesting!” Multiple stars, meanwhile, make me sit right up and say, “oh, ho! What’s going on here?” As a reader, I think I’m at the far, obsessive end of the bell curve — after all, how many garden variety avid readers who are not also librarians pay attention to starred reviews? (I’m also one of those people who stays to the end of credit sequences at the movies and who reads all of the liner notes of her CDs, and once upon a time, tapes. But I digress.)
Now, how are they different? Well, that’s a much bigger, more complicated question, but for my money, it comes down to two things: criteria and community.
First of all, the criteria for starred reviews differ from review publication to publication. I could find three publications that commented publicly or gave counsel to reviewers on giving stars to books:
- SLJ asks its reviewers to complete a checklist for each type of book under review — fiction, nonfiction, professional reading, poetry, picture books, and reference — and under a section marked “outstanding books”, notes: “Star (*) books distinctly above average in quality, appeal and/or usefulness. If you have given the book an outstanding review and yet do not feel it should be starred, please explain. Stars are an editorial decision but we want your comments.”
- VOYA‘s Review Codes page explains their unique Q/P (quality & popularity) system of reviews and cautions reviewers to “consider carefully before assigning the 5Q rating to any title. This designation tells our readers that the book is the cream of the crop, one that is “hard to imagine . . . being better written.” 5Qs are VOYA’s Best Books. Make sure your review justifies the 5Q rating.”
- Kirkus is quite circumspect on how their stars are administered, saying simply that “A star is assigned to books of remarkable merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus.”
- I looked for, but could not find, references to the star-administering process for The Horn Book, Publisher’s Weekly, or Booklist. If any of you do find something about it, please let us know in comments!
What leaps out at me from both the above references and my own experience, is that while star criteria are certainly stringent, they are profoundly different from those for awards like Printz, where the entire point is literary merit. Even the famously tough Kirkus takes into consideration appeal to readers: “Our eye, of course, is always open for books of particular literary merit or popular appeal, and these we acclaim as they deserve.” (emphasis mine)
In any case, a star is the result of a conversation among, at most, three: the book, its reviewer & her editor.
Meanwhile, an award like the Printz is decided upon after months of discussion, both via e-mail and face to face, or “at the table” as we award folks like to say.
I often recommend stars on the basis of one reading — a careful reading, but still: one. My emotional response to the book is usually part of the calculus. I read this year’s Printz winner and honor titles at least twice, often three or four times, depending on my notes, questions from other committee members, and how hard I wanted to fight for the title. Printz winning and honoring has to do with how well a book stands up to repeated close readings by nine people — NINE — and based on totally different criteria. A star is one person’s opinion, supported by her review and affirmed by her editor.
Certainly, on the RealCommittee, we looked at and for starred titles, but when it came time to vote, we didn’t consider those stars. At all.