Recently a memory popped up on my Facebook timeline from my school librarian days. I’d had to mediate a heated conflict between two kindergarten boys. One of them said a book was “the best book ever” while his classmate felt it was “just a little bit OK.” These types of disagreements are not entirely unfamiliar in my current role as a reviews editor.
Book reviews from journals such as Kirkus Reviews guide individuals in deciding what to pick up next or in finding an ideal gift for a particular person. They help shape purchasing decisions by librarians and booksellers as well as aiding them in making recommendations to readers. They are akin to reviews by professional critics of theater, film, music, TV, and restaurants: They contribute to broader conversations about works created for public consumption and serve as part of a documentary record of societal shifts (both what is produced and how it is received). They also help audiences situate individual creations within a greater context. These reviews are fundamentally different in scope and purpose from personal consumer reviews or blog posts because they are not written with the goal of reflecting individual reviewers’ tastes (although no human activity is ever free from subjectivity); this distinction is precisely what gives them value.
Here are excerpts of Kirkus’ reviews of recent and forthcoming YA titles that reflect the many roles reviews can play:
Some reviews clearly indicate the ways in which books appeal to different tastes or reading needs. It is common to see a low rating of a book on Goodreads with a reader’s explanation that they just don’t like some intentional, intrinsic element of the book. This is fine from a personal preference standpoint but raises the question of evaluating the title’s quality on its own terms.
City of the Uncommon Thief by Lynne Bertrand (Dutton, Feb. 9): “The rich, dense prose is studded with lists of names, products, artifacts, even smells, constructing a mosaic world from fragments of languages, a kaleidoscopic narrative from legends and myths, which dazzles, confuses, and exhausts—until suddenly the pattern shifts and coheres into a macabre marvel of a tale. Requires extraordinary patience and attention but pays off with an immersive reading experience that will linger.”
Time Travel for Love and Profit by Sarah Lariviere (Knopf, Jan. 26): “Lariviere revels in math and science, unabashedly celebrates science fiction and romance novels, and anchors the story in a realistic, comfortably cozy coastal Californian setting. The lack of catastrophic, explosion-riddled scenes, evil overlords, or alien invasions renders this a gentle, grounded read, reminiscent of A Wrinkle in Time.”
Some reviews offer valuable information about relevant topical matters at the time the book was published, positioning the book within the setting of the contemporary publishing landscape or wider news events. This is valuable since the review may be read long after the book was published by someone unfamiliar with the controversies of the time.
Muted by Tami Charles (Scholastic, Feb. 2): “Charles, herself a former young RB artist, draws upon themes from the still-unfolding criminal investigation of R. Kelly. The powerful, smoothly flowing text will drive readers to seriously challenge the societal vulnerabilities and toxic ideologies that leave girls of color open to sexual violence and harm. Themes of friendship, family, cultural inheritance, and taking a stand are strong throughout.”
This Is How We Fly by Anna Meriano (Philomel, Dec. 15): “Melissa and Ellen join a local Quidditch team and Ellen finds herself amid a fiercely inclusive, all-gender, full-contact sport that allows her to explore different sides of her identity. The story fortunately does not avoid painful, relevant conversations about art, fandom, and problematic creators while showcasing fans who fully love yet critically engage with art.”
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.