Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Of Book Talks and Book Reviews

I'm a book talker, not a book reviewer.

I love talking to kids about books.  That moment when you know you've hooked a kid - when you know that the only thing the child in front of you can think about is READING the book that you've been selling - THAT moment is one of my favorite parts of being a librarian.  And I'm not one to brag, but I've experienced a lot of those moments.  I am, to be brash, one heck of a book talker.

But a book reviewer?  Not so much.

That's not say I haven't tried.  Back in the day, I created my fair share of online review spaces for my students.  I even tried my hand at a podcast for kids in which I tried to digitally capture the magic of a great book talk.  But it was no good.  Turns out, for me, the child is an equally important part of the equation when it comes to sharing my love of a book.  I need to ask them questions, gauge their reactions and figure out what's special about them before I can share what's special about the book.  In short, the process is as much, if not more, about them as it is about me.

Which is why I'm still a little surprised by the fact that I wanted to write a book review for Nerdy Book Club, (a site dedicated to all things reading, that taps into the talent of librarians and teachers from all around the world and that is run by some really cool people).  In fact, when I first saw the tweet asking for submissions, I dismissed it.  But then something stirred inside me.  I knew I had something meaningful to contribute.  What's more, I knew exactly what book I wanted to review and exactly what I wanted to say about it.

Bam.  One book review done.

When it was finally published, though, I did not pay much attention.  It was a busy week for me and the limited time I had to spend online was dedicated to work.  However, recently, I did get to look back at it and found, from the comments, that most people did not feel the same way I did about the book.  And that's fine.  I know what the book meant to me and to my students.  Still, I can't help but think that if I'd only had the chance to TALK to those readers about The Red Pyramid they too would be sold - just like so many of my students who, (through this books) for the first time, saw themselves represented in the fantasy genre - but I digress.

That's not to say I regret writing the review.  Not at all.  In fact, I'm super glad I did it.  I love Nerdy Book Club and it was a thrill to be among the voices there.  In fact, the whole experience has caused me to reflect on how schools put books in the hands of kids.

As a school librarian I was often asked to help teachers select books for their students.  Unfortunately, many of those conversations began with "I need a book on the ___ reading level and that we have at least ___ copies of."

Don't get me wrong, I understand what drives these requests.  I was an overworked classroom teacher once myself.  However, if we believe that reading is the foundational skill for all subject areas and if we believe that kids who love reading, read more and are therefore better readers and if we believe that books have the potential to change a child's understanding of themselves and of the world then, clearly, reading level and number of copies are NOT the best starting points for deciding which books to put in our students' hands.

Which brings me back to book reviews vs. book talks.

Original CC Image by Library Girl!
I've often heard it said that baking is a science (requiring careful attention to details) while cooking is an art (leaving room for experimentation). (You can guess which one I'm better at).  I feel the same way about book reviews and book talks.  Book reviews are science - the best reviews tell us a little about the book, list some strengths and weaknesses and, in some case, even provide a quantitative measure: two thumbs down or 4/5 stars! Book talks, on the other hand, are art - the best talks are a dialogue between the teacher and the student: Some involve costumes, others puppets some laughter, some tears and others just a whispered conversation behind the biographies. Put another way, a book review is a look under the hood, while a book talk is how it feels to be behind the wheel.

Like I said, I'm better at the book talk - but I know both are vital.

Right now, librarians all over the country are ripping off AR labels and replacing them with Lexile ones. And I worry that a change in label won't change the canned curriculum.  On the other hand, I know an opportunity when I see one. Call me an optimist, but I hope that as we shift to new standards, we push to shift the ways in which we select, or help kids select their own, reading materials.  I hope we'll use the science of the book review and the art of the book talk to help match our young readers with just the right book.  And I hope we'll be courageous in fighting for programs that cultivate readers instead of just quantify reading.

Bottom line, our kids deserve to be matched with books that we know are appropriate and that we hope they'll love.  They deserve to be part of the conversation that goes into selecting their reading material.  And they deserve to have teachers who want them to love reading because they know that reading can change their lives.

Anything else just isn't good enough.