A few of you have emailed to say that you'd like to get involved but haven't ever "officially" reviewed a book before. My response is a bit like Dr. Spock: "Trust yourself; you know more than you think you do." I'm not a reviewer, either, so I turned to the ever-wise, ever-generous Jenny Brown, who covers children's books for Shelf Awareness, a daily e-newsletter dedicated to helping the people in the book biz to buy, sell and lend books most wisely. Here are a few tips -- enjoy.
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One Critic’s Tips by Jennifer M. Brown
What goes into writing a review? Since so many of you either evaluate children’s books yourselves or rely on others’ reviews to make buying decisions, I thought you might be interested in learning about one critic’s review process. Much of my approach has been culled from the wisdom passed on to me over the years, especially by Diane Roback of Publishers Weekly, and by Trevlyn Jones and Luann Toth at School Library Journal. Ultimately, every reviewer develops his or her own approach and voice, but here are some guiding principles that I’ve found useful.
Try to give readers a sense of thumbs-up or thumbs-down in the first sentence. People may just want to know straight off whether or not you’re recommending a book (e.g., for Along with the Ride: “Sarah Dessen, in her best book to date, captures the essence of a transformational summer as Auden West prepares to go to college” http://tinyurl.com/mzdnp4). Then use the rest of the review to support your opinion.
Include only enough plot on which to hang your criticism. You do not have to give a blow by blow; these are not cliff notes, thankfully (see, for instance, this recommendation of Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse.) You also don’t need to discuss the ending unless you feel that it undermines the build-up that preceded it, leaves too much hanging, or is simply spectacular. In other words, no spoilers unless absolutely necessary.
Feel free to use quotes from the book. Quotes give readers a flavor of the book and also allow them to come to their own conclusions about the book’s style and appeal. (Quotes give a sense of how Jacqueline Kelly handled the turn-of-the-20 century themes in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.)
If this is an illustrated book, do the illustrations add something to the story or do they detract from it? Artwork can be challenging to describe. How do you give readers a sense of the illustrations if they’re not looking at the pictures? Are they light and airy (watercolors)? Dense and dark (oils or acrylics)? Do they accurately reflect the mood of the story? Try to describe what you see as specifically as you can (see Suzy Lee’s Wave).
Review the book that’s in front of you. Over the years, I’ve noticed a tendency on the part of reviewers to review what they wish the book had been. I’ll never forget debating Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren with Patricia MacLachlan: It was published at the start of the Whole Language Movement, and I argued that Kidder should have profiled one of these innovative teachers who were using trade literature in the classroom. Patty said, “But that’s not what he set out to do; he wanted to profile an average teacher struggling to get through the day.” She was right. And though I wasn’t reviewing the book, she taught me a valuable lesson. Our job is to assess whether or not the book succeeds as it stands; it is also not our job to speculate about what the author or artistintended. We cannot know what his or her intention was; we can only evaluate what exists on the page.
Proofread your work. In addition to checking for the usual spelling and grammar mistakes, watch for unintentional word repetition and, as Strunk & White would say, “Omit needless words.” Whenever possible, write the review a day or two in advance. Sometimes a little distance helps in the proofing process.
Most of all, have fun! We are lucky to work in a field that has such people in it.
Jennifer M. Brown has worked as an editor and in marketing for HarperCollins Children’s Books, where she began her career and remained for nine years. She has taught elementary school, and was the children’s reviews editor at Publishers Weekly for 10 years. She now works as children’s editor at Shelf Awareness, an e-newsletter for the book trade, and recently launched Twenty by Jenny, a children’s book resource for parents, grandparents, and others interested in children’s books.