Friday, May 30, 2014

Tips for Evaluating Middle Grade and YA Books

I read a lot of middle grade. I also read some contemporary YA. Today, I'm sharing some of the criteria I use when I review books at this level. Below are 8 tips for evaluating middle grade and young adult books.
  • Don't judge a book by its cover.
    This is a cliche, of course, but it's a good place to start. Book covers can and do change from edition to edition. They reflect one illustrator's interpretation of an author's work, and sometimes the current design trends in the publishing field. Though books with similar content sometimes have similar covers, there are also many situations where the cover of a book does not live up to the wonderful story it advertises. At least read a little bit about a book before you completely dismiss it. Sometimes stories with hideous covers turn out to be real gems - and if  they're lucky, they get better covers when the paperback editions come out! 
  • Look for plot holes.
    Plot is a key component in books for older readers, and especially in middle grade stories.  As you read, pay attention to the way events unfold. Is the story plotted in a logical way? Do things happen in a sequence that makes sense and slowly builds up to a satisfying conclusion? Are things tied up plausibly? Are there loose ends? Truly well-plotted stories often make you forget that you're even reading a story in the first place because everything flows so smoothly and naturally.  
  • Consider genre conventions. 
    Some genres come with their own expectations. Mystery novels generally include a series of red herrings, followed by the eventual unveiling of  the truth. Fantasy novels require world-building and an establishment of rules within that world before they can proceed to tell a believable story. Historical fiction is bound by history, and anachronisms must be avoided. When you read, consider what readers expect from the story's genre and decide whether the book meets or fails to meet those expectations.   
  • Scrutinize the setting. 
    Whether it evokes a certain mood, creates certain weather conditions, or provides a character access to certain people, places, or objects, the setting of a story often enhances its overall success. Watch for the specific details an author uses to transport readers into his or her world. Do these details make it easy to imagine the setting? Has the author provided enough information about the setting to contribute something significant to the story? Conversely, does the setting overshadow other more important aspects of the book? The importance of setting varies from story to story, but it's a point worth considering in your reviews.
  • Look beyond likability.  
    Too often I read book reviews where the reviewer's opinion is completely wrapped up in whether he or she liked the main character. The likability of a story's main character is actually not an indicator of the quality of a book. There are books with intentionally deplorable main characters. There are books with unreliable narrators, who may or may not be likable depending on the lies they tell. Some narrators (e.g. Holden Caulfield) annoy certain readers and elicit hero worship from others. It should not be a question of whether you would like to hang out with a particular character, but whether he or she is interesting to read about. Truly well-developed characters will all have some flaws, and, in moving through their stories, they will make mistakes. This journey toward overcoming these flaws and mistakes is what makes a good story. Instead of simply dismissing a book because the character doesn't appeal to your taste, think about a book's other qualities before giving it a bad review.  
  • Tune into your inner child/teen.
    Some children's books - particularly the award winners and classics  - easily appeal to adults. Others (Junie B. Jones, for example) might annoy adults and appeal much more to kids. Since kids are the intended audience for middle grade books, and teens the intended audience for young adult, it's important to look at things from those points of view. Maybe you don't love a book now, but how would you have felt about it at sixteen? Maybe your adult sensibilities make a particular plot point annoying to you now, but thinking back, it might seem like just the kind of thing you would have done yourself as a kid. When in doubt, talk with the kids in your life about how they see the books they read. Understanding where they're coming from will help you better evaluate the books published for them.  
  • Call out cliches and stereotypes. Keep an eye out for tired and overused phrases, images, and stereotypes in books. Don't hesitate to point out instances of insensitivity to particular religions, races, or backgrounds, and be mindful of trite descriptions and contrived endings. Relying on cliches is a sign of lazy writing; the best children's books avoid cliches and look at familiar things in new ways.
  • Separate your personal and professional opinions.  
    Reviewers, like librarians, should try to be as objective as possible when evaluating books. If we are doing our best to put the right book in the hands of the right reader, then our personal feelings are far less important than our overall objective opinion of a book's quality. Some parents don't allow their children to read books containing violence, or sexual content. This does not mean that a book containing those themes is inherently poorly written. It just means that book is not for that particular family. It is possible to find the content of a book objectionable, boring, or otherwise dissatisfying and still recognize that the book represents quality literature. Whatever my personal reaction to a work, my professional instinct is always to find the people who will appreciate it and recommend it to them.

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