Last night’s #kidlitchat (or: who is this book FOR?)

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.

But.

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.

My First Review (sort of)

This may be a violation of protocol, but my kid has reviewed my book. Or, more specifically, my kid used my book – or at least an advanced copy of my book – for her required Reader’s Response journal. The way the Reader’s Response Journal works is that each child is expected to read for 15-20 minutes every day, and then write one or two sentences in response to any from a list of questions.

(Actually, this is my favorite so far of all of the teacher-created we-want-the-kids-to-read-every-day-and-show-that-they’re-reading strategies. In past years, the kids had to keep logs showing how many pages they read each day and for how long. I can see how that would be useful for the children who are reluctant readers (setting goals, showing progress, etc.) but for those of us who have voracious readers, it sucks. If you have a kid who reads all the time, at different times of the day, it’s actually a HUGE pain in the butt to keep a record of it.)

But, I digress.

My eight-year-old decided to use my book for her reading.

“Are you even allowed to use your mother’s book?” I asked.

Cordelia shrugged. “Why not? It’s not mentioned in the rules.”

She had a point. Still, I persisted. “But it’s not even official. It’s not a real book yet.”

“It’s a real book if the reviewer says it’s a real book. I’m the reviewer. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” and she went off to read.

So here are some of the questions and her responses. (Warning: Possible spoilers. Also, possible cuteness.)
In response to the question: Why did you choose this book? Cordelia wrote: “I chose this book because my mom wrote it. Also because the cover is cool. But mostly because my mom wrote it.”

In response to the question: Who is your favorite character? Cordelia wrote: “My favorite character is Wendy because she is so tough and determined. I am also tough and determined. That is why I like Wendy.”

In response to the question: What are your predictions? Cordelia wrote: “I predict that Mr. Avery will stop being so bad and will turn good. Or, he will turn badder.”

In response to the question: What surprised you? Cordelia wrote: “It surprised me that Wendy was sitting in a chair, and that it was a chair and a hand AT THE SAME TIME!!!”

In response to the question: What was a funny part of the book? Cordelia wrote: “I thought it was funny that Clayton has tests that prove he really does get less smarter every year.”

In response to the question: What do you find interesting in this book? Cordelia wrote: “I find it interesting that the voices in the dark think it’s interesting that humans can bleed. What else would they do?”

Another prediction: “I predict that Jack and Anders will save Wendy from the bad lady. Or, that the bad lady will win. Or that Wendy won’t need to be saved and will save Jack and Anders instead. I can’t really tell yet.”

That’s my girl! Even-handed, open-minded and beautifully literal. And honestly, I might be done reading reviews. I hope to get some, obviously, but I think it would be better for me if I pretend that they’re written in a language I don’t know, or that they’re about a book I’ve never heard of. Because I can see myself obsessing. I’m an obsessor.

Cordelia! Thank you for your kind attention to my story! I think you might have a future in book reviewing.