For those of you who are not twitter-obsessed, kidlit-obsessed, or just generally obsessive (me? obsessive? oh, yes.), you may not know about the weekly chats on Twitter in which the practitioners of children’s literature (as well as the readers of said literature, and the teachers and the agents and the reviewers and the aspirants of children’s literature) all get together and chat on certain topics. It’s called #kidlitchat, and I participate when deadlines and bedtimes and dishes allow. It’s typically lively, full of interesting people, and often useful. Last night’s topic: reviews.
And it got me thinking.
Do kids care about reviews? Does a review impact a kid’s relationship with a given book? And if the reviews are terrible, or great, or nonexistent – and the kids *still* dig the book regardless, do the reviews matter?
Now, I am green enough in this business that I don’t really know. I can only make guesses. I do know that I never met a kid who read reviews. Most of the kids I know don’t care if some grown-up liked the book, but care quite a bit if their friends liked the book. (In my case, though, with the kids I hang out with regularly, they do want to know if I liked the book – but that’s because they know that, secretly, and in my deepest of hearts, I am, and always will be, a fourth grade boy. Or, as one neighbor kid said: “You’re a non-grownup-grownup.” And then I was happy forever.)
Here’s my take on it: I’ve been lucky so far with THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK. The reviews, on the whole, have been quite positive – and sometimes glowing – and I am grateful for them. However, I will say this: getting good reviews for one book while one is working on another book (for me anyway) can be silencing. After getting three good reviews in a row on JACK, I had ceased work on VIOLET, the next book. Like completely. I was completely frozen, and terrified of screwing up. In fact, it took getting some bad reviews on Goodreads to get VIOLET going again. (And to those four people who gave it a two-star review, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Honestly. I need to know what I need to do to be better.)
Now, I know that my grown-up readers (both regular readers, and readers who write reviews) are part of my audience too, (heck, I love children’s literature just as much – or maybe even more – than the next guy) but they are not my intended audience. My intended audience is a thirteen year old kid. Or a ten year old kid. What matters to me, what really matters, is what the kids think.
When I was writing JACK, the only people who knew about it – the only people who engaged with the story at all – were my students in my work as a fiction instructor in the schools. Whenever I taught a residency, I would read to the children from my works-in-progress, and as I pushed through the narrative, I found myself leaning towards things that I knew these kids would like. Because I had seen them like it, you see. I had pulled them along with me on whatever ride we were on, and I was able to notice what they noticed and love what they loved. And my eyes were tuned with kid-eyes.
But reviews are different. Reviews are not written by kids – they are written by grown-ups. And grown-ups think as grown-ups and they feel as grown-ups see with grown-up eyes, which is to say differently. And this is not to say that grown-ups suck and that kids are awesome (though I certainly did say that when I was a kid), but that the book the kid reads is not the book that a grown-up reads. The pages are the same, and the words are the same but the book and the experience of reading it are entirely different.
I get it that reviews matter – I do. I write for an audience that typically does not have control of its purse strings. It’s important that the book I write can be read by and understood by its grown-up audience.
There is nothing better – nothing in the world – than standing in front of a group of kids, reading them a story, and listening to them gasp. Listening to them sigh. Listening to them giggle and snort. There is nothing better than finishing a passage and having thirty hands shoot up, all asking the question, “What happens next?” And having them slump on their desks when I refuse to tell them. (Because I am a meanie.)
I’ll appreciate every good review I ever get, and I will do my best not to let them make me feel silenced, or afraid to tell my story lest I start spontaneously sucking (which, let me tell you, happens like a million times a day), but I don’t ever want to forget who I am writing for: my kids, your kids, the kids down the road. Smart kids, struggling kids, lonely kids and connected kids. Kids in general.
Do reviews matter? Of course they do. But we still need to train ourselves not to think about them. And we need to turn off the constant critical noise machine and get back to work.
Or I do, anyway.