Category: book reviewing
Last night I read through that little gem, The Elements of Style. Updated, its core nonetheless remains as sound as a ninety-year-old yogi.
In today’s children and young adult books, there is a fixation on “voice.” “Voice” is what is most often referenced when agents are asked what they look for when reading a manuscript. “A fresh voice” they say, whatever that means. Based on the books I review, “a fresh voice” is often on par with the flat, loud volume of commercials or the exaggerated drama of reality shows. It exhausts the reader with its neediness.
Here, by calming contrast, is Strunk and White’s advice in the chapter titled “An Approach to Style.”
Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.
If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background.
A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.
Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.
As I sit here writing this, I see that it is snowing. Again. I mean, come on. I feel like I’m living in Narnia. Which brings me to my topic this week: book reviews.
I work as a children’s book reviewer. I’ve heard various comments from authors when I tell them what I do. “Be nice,” says one. “Do you even read the book?” says another. “Must take you about fifteen minutes, right?” says the third.
None of these statements is true. I am not nice, since “nice” doesn’t help a person decide if they should spend their hard-earned money to buy the book; rather, I am honest. I read the book. Instead of fifteen minutes, it’s an average of nine hours, plus reading time.
I’ll use a picture book as an example, since how hard can it be to review a picture book, right?
I first read the book (which is usually in the form of an F&G, “folded and gathered”—it’s the picture book without a binding) to establish an overall, ingenuous idea of the story. Then I read it again…and again…and again… I study the typeface; is it effective, does it change, if so, why, where is it placed on the page and does that work? I look at the illustrations; their medium, their placement on the page—does that encourage the page turn, do they respect the gutter, does it balance with the type, does white space come into play? Next I look at the two together. Is the overall design of each page—illustration and text—well thought out with successful execution? Now I look at the content of the illustrations. Do they mirror the text or do they add another layer? Perhaps they even tell their own story, and does this work? Finally, trim size. What size and shape is the overall book? A story of a journey, for example, is usually most successful as a landscape format. My finished review can only be a little more than two hundred words and must follow a specific format. I must get in the plot summary, its successful or unsuccessful execution and why, and a recommendation or not.
My advice to writers who have received a review from a professional reviewer that they are unhappy with—read it very closely. Within the limitations of a word count, the reviewer is trying to tell you something. Those spots that prickle your skin with indignation—take them as critique.
By someone who cares.