Don’t Read That Book!
Posted by lpearle on 21 September 2011
Those that know me know that I can be critical when reviewing books – one friend said I was more critical than most of the other reviewers she knew. That’s ok, because my policy for reviewing is to help people choose what to read next, always with the understanding that their tastes and mine might not mesh. I’ve blogged before about Reader’s Advisory and censorship, but recently I’ve been thinking about how to do RA best if you don’t like the book.
Here’s an example: I didn’t like Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Didn’t hate it, but didn’t like it. Why? Because it felt like something I’d read before – having grown up in a survivor community, every year of Sunday School was based around the mantra Never Again!!!! This book, although set in Stalinist Russia, reads like many other survivor novels/memoirs (if you exchanged the Russian guards for Nazi guards, and flipped all Stalin references for Hitler one, it’d be virtually the same). Now, I confessed to feeling churlish about those feelings, but I still stand by them: this book didn’t give me any insight into Stalinist Russia. Unlike, for instance, Leaving Glorytown, which wove the universal suffering of all those under dictatorships with a real sense of what happened under Castro. I felt as though I’d learned something from this book, unlike Septeys’ book (and I am well aware that’s a minority opinion).
Then there are the books that I didn’t like that became hugely popular, but I didn’t see it. Frankie Landau-Banks, I’m looking at you! Some people have described her as a “feminist”, I saw her as an annoying girl who had no agenda other than a fit of pique at her boyfriend’s priorities and the top-secret society he belongs to. De gustibus and all that…
That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t buy those books for my library collection, or try to sell them to students. Like The Wednesday Wars, which I thought was “meh” but tried, really, really tried to sell it to my middle school students and while many took it, after a few pages they returned it. Sometimes when I’m not sure, I’ll give some of my superstar readers the ARC and ask for their opinions. Of course, that can backfire, as when a student left me a Post-It saying “Do NOT buy this book! It’s horrible and disturbing and awful. It includes cutting and religious themes and ” (then she added another Post-It, but you get the gist). She was talking about Drought, and months later she was reminding me not to buy it. Sorry, but if it gets that strong a reaction, one that makes you think and remember the plot months later, that’s something I <i>should</I> buy, right?
When students come ask about a book that I really didn’t like, I try to be as positive as I can about it. I’ll invite them to prove me wrong, to convince me that this was an amazing book (I won’t say “eww”, I’ll say “it wasn’t really my taste” or something like that). Sometimes they take me up on the challenge and we have a great conversation about the book, and sometimes they don’t, which is ok. My goal isn’t to convince them not to read the book, but sometimes it’s hard to be enthusiastic.
So, how do you sell a book you didn’t like?