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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Reader, Know Thyself: Guest Post from Vicky Smith

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.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Thank you for this!
    Love it!

  2. Lovely, Vicky!

  3. Rosanne Parry says:

    Really helpful perspective, Vicky. Thanks!
    I have found that the books I read in larger chunks almost always seem like stronger books to me than ones that I read a few nibbles at a time. Which makes me wish I had much more reading time.

  4. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Rosanne, I hadn’t ever thought of this. I read mostly in tiny chunks, especially when I’m not into it…..

  5. Don’t discount subway reading. I find that if it’s a long subway ride I can get a lot of reading done and focus more than at home with more distractions.

  6. Sheila Welch says:

    Usually, if I read in small doses, it’s because the book, to me, has not pulled me in and I’m not totally absorbed in its world. But, like Monica, I also find some books that I read slowly to savor the writing. An example: THE BOOK THIEF.

    Vicky’s essay fits into this Mock Newbery discussion very well. I have to admit, there are some Newbery contenders (and winners/honors) that I find hard to appreciate. I admire readers who find they can dive into any book with an open mind. But personal taste does enter into the judgement of a book whether it’s being evaluated by a reviewer, a teacher, a parent, a child, or a Newbery committee member.

    Did I miss a list of the books that are going to be discussed?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Shelia, there’s no list….everything that’s eligible is fair game for posting, and Jonathan and I still searching, still reading. Around October/November we assemble and announce our shortlist.

  7. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Shelia, you say above “I admire readers who find they can dive into any book with an open mind.” So do I, and I’d hazard that those readers are few. I appreciate Vicky’s words because even though I always think I’m opening a cover with an open mind…I immediately start reacting to the text according to my own tastes, and it often takes me half the book to deliberately, repeatedly, open my mind. It goes both ways: something annoys me? I have to check myself, is it really a question of quality, or of taste; and if the latter, I have to force myself to get used to it until I stop reacting to it so much. Or, am I zooming through a book that I find exciting, but there’s a little tiny Nina shouting at me faintly from the back of the bus: “Hey, that was awkward! Ooo!–She did it again…ouch.”?? I have to train myself to slow down and heed the call. It happens with every single book I read, every time. I *do* think that it gets easier with practice, like a language, or playing music, or sport…. so those that are reviewing regularly, or reading HOURS daily for award committees, get better and quicker at it. But I don’t think there’s ever a way to turn off the self completely when reading. You just have to go make her sit in the corner.

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m playing catch up here . . .

    1. I want to add my thanks and appreciation to Vicky for her eloquent words. 🙂

    2. For me, rereading is the key to appreciating the books that are not your personal cup of tea. It gives you a chance to (a) purge yourself of all those completely natural, but un-Newberyish responses on the first reading, and (b) it allows you to read the book under different circumstances (one sitting vs. multiple sittings, for example) and with a different frame of mind (what you read just previous often colors your response to a book; real life factors–whether you are angry, stressed, relaxed, or happy–also often color our responses).

    3. If you want a reading list, then I would suggest checking (a) the last post of last season which is chock full of suggestions, (b) the goodreads poll, and (c) Jen’s starred review spreadsheet (which can be found in the comments of the last post of last season).

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Jonathan, nice point re re-reading. A trick I use on myself is to dog-ear (ARCs only!) at the top of the page when I read something I like, and at the bottom of the page when I read something I don’t like. Even sometimes before a full re-read, I’ll review those dog-ears. If I can’t find what I was marking, it goes away. If I can, but it seems un-important having finished the book, it goes away. This allows me to “react” by mutilating the book, but not pass judgment.

  9. Wow, this post/resulting thread has been a like a mini-webinar/workshop for me. Thanks for the tips and ideas, gang!


  1. […] would be short-sighted. I am reminded of Vicki Smith’s article from this year’s Heavy Medal – as a committee member, I try to avoid judging a book by my own tastes and instead, let the […]

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  3. […] her guest post “Reader Know Thyself,” at the blog “Heavy Medal,” (which I co-author with Jonathan Hunt, county schools librarian at […]

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