deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
2016-12-23 10:02 pm

The Memory Book, by Avery. Fiction, realism, The Fault in Our Stars, and glorification of suffering

Four days ago, I read the Kirkus review of Lara Avery's The Memory Book after seeing it linked on the Kirkus Best YA of 2016 list. I promptly placed a library hold.

One day ago, my hold came in at the library and I read this novel from the point of view of a teenager diagnosed with Neimann-Pick type C, a rare lysosomal storage disease which causes physical and cognitive degenerative symptoms.

Two years and two days ago, my sister died of Late Onset Tay-Sachs disease, a rare, adolescent-onset lysosomal storage disease which causes physical and cognitive degenerative symptoms.

So. That happened.


Some spoilers behind cut, warned for. )

In conclusion: Fuck Tay-Sachs. And Neimann-Pick, and Gaucher, and this whole shitty family, and all the rest of the rare diseases.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
2015-06-28 03:32 pm

Diversity in Reviewing

One hugely important outgrowths of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has been the understanding the diversity in books requires diversity in authors and illustrators, in the publishing industry, and yes, among reviewers. Malinda Lo compiled her four-part Tumblr essay into "Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews" (February 18, 2015), and Jason Lee of Lee & Low Books assembled "The Diversity Baseline Survey" for publishing houses and review journals. A few months ago, School Library Journal released their numbers for race (though oddly not disability or sexuality and gender identity) with Kathy Ishizuka's "Survey Reveals Demographic of SLJ Reviewers (April 27, 2015). Now my editor, Vicky Smith, has released the numbers for Kirkus Reviews.

I know Vicky was working on diversifying the KR review pool for a while before Malinda made her much needed call, which might be part of why KR's numbers, pathetic though they may be as representative of the industry, are less bad than one might expect. I will say that Vicky has never shut me down or edited me out when I've critiqued a text on social justice grounds: race or gender, queerness or disability, fatphobia or class. She asks me to provide page references and source quotations, and occasionally asks me if changes she's learned will appear in the final version of the book (rather than the advanced review copy) will change my assessment. The only person who second-guesses my race or gender analysis is me; years after a review I will sometimes wonder if I've been too harsh (oy, that one book still haunts me) or if I didn't shine enough of a spotlight on something that needed the right attention.

If you want to know why it's legit for a trade reviewer to comment on ideological grounds, ask and I'll make that post. There's a long answer, but the short version is readers want to know. In the case of children's and YA books, teachers and librarians especially want to know.

Anyway, here are a couple of pieces by Vicky:From the latter:
We asked our 110 reviewers to answer four questions: What race do you identify as? What gender? What sexual orientation? Do you have a disability? In just three days, I received 79 responses, and I can't say I'm terribly surprised by the overall results. We are mostly white: 77 percent. We are mostly straight: 76 percent. We are mostly able-bodied and -minded: 81 percent. And—only in children's books, folks—we are overwhelmingly female: 86 percent.


I'm in some of those groups and not others (white, cis, female; queer, disabled). And I fully support the goal to continue diversifying KR, reviewing, and the entire field.
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
2015-03-17 12:42 am

Kirkus, my darling, my life and my bride

Let me talk briefly about one of the many reasons I love Kirkus Reviews and my editor.

I've reviewed for many journals over the years, but Kirkus is the only one I've stuck with. Kirkus is also one of the only two major review journals with anonymous reviews. Kirkus claims to have an editorial voice, which is why the unsigned reviews, but while the Children's and YA Editor, Vicky Smith regularly grooms my words, she almost never modifies the thurst of the content without discussing it with me first. Sometimes she asks me for a clarification, a polish, or -- if I've crossed the line from the necessary honesty of which Kirkus reviewers are proud, to the brutality of which we're sometimes accused -- textual support to justify a surfeit of negativity. Sometimes she gives me context I didn't have (such as a publisher's indication they've changed some wording) and asks me to rewrite. Maybe once or twice in my years at Kirkus, at most, she's simply disagreed with me and rewritten in that light.

All of which is far more than she need do, because I am a writer-for-hire both legally and artistically, and while I craft reviews of which I'm proud, my job is to create reviews in the Kirkus editorial voice.

Years ago, I reviewed for another source which did have the reviewers sign the reviews. Each of those reviews was signed with my name. And every one of those reviews was edited extensively. Those edits were comprehensive in word, tone, and thrust, sometimes completely changing my judgement and analysis. As one point I wrote to the journal asking for more feedback about what they wanted me to be writing in the first place, explaining that I felt uncomfortable having my name on "work which has been so greatly modified from my original as to be scarcely recognizable," which was putting it mildly. They misunderstood, explaining they were grateful to get the sense of the reviewers' opinions, even on reviews they just then rewrote.

I began to get very uncomfortable when I realized how often they were mellowing out my negative reviews (or flat out making them positive), which happened most frequently when I complained about racial stereotypes in books. Tonight, I happened across one such review from many years ago. It was one of the only reviews I ever wrote where they kept the word "stereotype," though they made the assessment of the book much more positive than I did. I assume they kept the word because I provided textual support: six quotations, including awful representation of Native Americans, East Asians, and indigenous South Americans. One of those quotations was a massive othering of the protagonist of color starting from the book's opening pages, while several others were repulsive depictions of a non-Western country's everyday elements as being nasty, superstious, and like unto gothic horror.

Eventually I realized that I was simply unwilling to have my name on the reviews as they were rewritten. Honestly, there was a part of my brain that said "if Debbie Reese critiques something said under my name, am I willing to stand behind it?" [1]

So here's why I love Kirkus:
  • If I can provide textual support for an assessment, my editor has my back.
  • Vicky has never once suggested I'm too sensitive to representation issues in fiction; she's only asked me for textual support.
  • If the judgement is changed in a review, she usually tells me why and I trust her decisions.
  • She's asked me for a second opinion when she wanted a confirmation on a review that mentions a group I'm a part of, and I assume she does it with reviews I write as well, which adds to my confidence.
  • My name's not on the reviews anyway, woohoo


In short, Kirkus++.




[1] I second-guess my reviews all the time. I still regret reviews in which I was, in retrospect, overly concerned with a social justice analysis which was inappropriate for the length of the review and the depth of the problem. I also regret reviews in which I let deeply problematic elements of a book slide. It's a perennial balancing act. To anyone who thinks reviewers shouldn't address social justice concerns in their reviews, I obviously think you're profoundly mistaken, and I can write about that later if anyone wants, but that's another story for another post.

I also second-guess my reviews for other reasons. Was I too kind to a bland waste of paper? Was I overly influenced by an author's fame? Did I conflate my taste with quality (in either direction)? Did I ignore the value a book would serve to its readers despite all its problems? Do I need to stop reviewing when I'm battling migraine aura? That's why I recommend trusting more than one professional review source, especially if you're buying on a budget for a collection (eg librarians, teachers). Personally I recommend Kirkus and PW, but YMMV.

[back]
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
2013-12-23 12:54 am

Little sparks of happiness

Kirkus Reviews reviewers are anonymous, and I like it that way. For one thing, it means that we speak with an editorial voice; when the incomparable Vicky Smith changes my reviews (always for the better), it means she's doing so with the voice of the publication.

Famously, our reviews are anonymous because they give the reviewers (in the very small world where so many publishers, authors, editors, agents, reviewers, and librarians know each other, smaller now in the days of the Internet) the freedom to be frank. Some, whose opinions I do not share, think that we are infamously cruel. The Kirkus folks I know certainly don't think of ourselves this way. Rather, we know that our reviews are being read by people with limited budgets and limited time, not just readers but librarians and teachers with small selection budgets, and we are determined to give those Kirkus Reviews readers all the tools they need to make the right purchasing choices. And yes, sometimes this means we write reviews authors don't like. The children's book review world has a partially true reputation of operating under the "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" rubric. This is most apparent with journals such as The Horn Book Magazine, which dedicates almost every one of its limited pages to books it thinks excels. While this serves one purpose for potential customers of reviews, Kirkus Reviews serves a different one, and I'm glad they both exist.

Anyway, when I first started reviewing for Kirkus Reviews, I would occasionally go seek out the social media presence of authors about whose books I had been ... not as kind as the authors probably would have wanted me to be. I'm not quite sure what experience I was seeking out. It wasn't schadenfreude or gloating, because I had nothing against these authors and certainly no desire to cause them pain or financial harm. I suppose it was a desire to see my mark in the world in some small way. I've long since stopped doing that; the point of our reviews is not a relationship with the author, but a qualitative description of the book in hopes that we might help find the right reader for the right book. In general I have thoroughly mixed feelings about the now-thoroughly shattered wall between readers and authors, and especially between authors and book bloggers. I apologize for thinking aloud in reader response terms, but I feel like the transaction between reader and story is fundamentally changed when the reader is constantly aware of the author.

But I do confess I still have one small social media bit of spying that I sometimes do. Occasionally, long after I have reviewed a book -- and not when I have something else by the same author in my pool -- I will go look at the blog of an author whose work I starred or otherwise kvelled about. If the author doesn't mention Kirkus Reviews, I am perfectly happy. And if they mention the review in a way that shows they are thinking about the effect on sales, that doesn't really affect me one way or the other. But sometimes I go to an author's blog and their response to a review I wrote is some variant of "They liked my baby! Those famously picky people liked my baby!" or "Wow, this one sentence in the review shows that what they loved about my book is what I love about my book!" And then I think, you know, Author, my goal was not to make you happy. In fact my goal was to take the ways in which you had given me joy (by writing the book), and convince as many people as possible to share the experience. But the fact, Author, that I gave you such joy -- it rebounds back onto me. ♥ Floating hearts and kittens for everyone. ♥
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
2013-08-12 11:34 am

Writing homework for you, my loyal readers

Last fall, when I taught with [personal profile] astern, it wasn't until after we had started the semester that we realized what the ideal opening assignment ought to be. Now that we are taking a teaching hiatus, we have to give the assignment to you. This assignment will not be graded on a curve, so do your best work! We expect you to abide by the Honor Code*, which in this case means you may work together.

Your assignment:

Pick a book. In the spirit of the class we are not currently teaching, I suggest a speculative fiction work for children or young adults, but pick any book you are interested in talking about.

Now pick three types of writing off the following list. You must pick option 9, but the other two can be any you choose.

  1. A personal blog post reacting to your reading experience.
  2. A professional blog post about the text.
  3. The political response: a reading of the text on purely ideological grounds.
  4. A Goodreads or Amazon style review of the book.
  5. A professional (e.g. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly) style review. If you pick this option, read several examples, and pay attention to such things as house style, word count, ratio of summary/analysis/judgment, etc.
  6. Librarian book talk write up.
  7. Editorial analysis, from the point of view of a publisher or agent working with the manuscript.
  8. Critical scholarly discussion of the sort you would post in an educational forum discussing the text for a class.
  9. Formal critical scholarly analysis of any element of the text, as with a formal paper.


Write at least 500 words in each of your three styles (unless you are choosing to write a professional review, in which case use the word count appropriate for the house style you are choosing). Pay attention to what is different. Besides obvious changes (such as casual versus professional language), what differs? What different choices did you have to make? Did more or fewer words make things easier?

One of our goals with this hypothetical assignment was to show how, while each of these styles of writing is valuable and important -- we certainly don't think, say, personal blog posts of squee aren't valuable -- they are all wildly different. In fact, we hope some of you will choose to write both personal and professional blog posts, or both Goodreads and professional reviews, just to focus on the more subtle (but vital) differences between these types of writing.

Current students are so incredibly proficient at writing about reading, because what with blogs etc., they do so much of it. And yet at the same time, they are proficient in some very specific kinds of writing about reading (primarily personal blogs and Goodreads-style reviews, with some amount of professional blogs), and the process of showing people the requirements of the different kinds of writing is different than it used to be. Without devaluing existing proficiencies, we hope to show that high quality reactive blog post, for example, is not the same thing as scholarly forum discussion.

Over the next couple of days, we will be producing examples of each of these kinds of writing for a single book, and we will post our own examples as well as our own analysis of the differences in the writing style. Let us know here if you have tried this exercise yourself and would like us to link here to your results (whether that happens now or sometime in the future).


* Why yes, we are both bi-co, why do you ask? [Back]
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
2010-10-18 10:20 pm

crimes against humanity

Personally, I've always felt that Kirkus Reviews' reputation for being mean is undeserved. On the other hand, I have to say that I absolutely adore our willingness to tell it like it is. Although in this case, no reviewer commentary was necessary, clearly.
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
2010-03-17 03:08 pm
Entry tags:

review journals: it's what's for dinner

Not quite five weeks ago, Kirkus was sold. Two weeks ago, Library Journal and School Library Journal were sold. Now VOYA has been sold.

I can't tell if I am exhausted by the volatility of this industry or relieved all of these journals keep finding buyers. Both, I suppose.
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
2010-02-11 08:59 am
Entry tags:

It's official: I'm a Pacers fan

Kirkus has been bought by Herb Simon, owner of the Indiana Pacers, developer of the Mall of America, and co-owner of an independent bookstore. Based on the news story at that second link, it looks like this isn't the first time Herb Simon has used his money to help rescue a struggling book-based business.

A successful capitalist who cares about books. I can see a future in that.

In other words, OM NOM NOM NOM BRAINS REVIEWS.
deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
2010-01-05 11:43 pm
Entry tags:

rising from the dead like a young adult zombie novel

Guys, guys! Usually I like to respond to every comment, but so many of you commented on my last post with variants of "yAt!", "\o/", and for those who believe in actual words, "hip hip, huzzah!" that I can only respond to all of you that I am still grinning like an idiot over here. Also, the occasion has prompted the second ever icon I have made for this account. After all, this is a professional blog, so it's not all about making silly icons, right?

Except [livejournal.com profile] cqs made a comment, and then [livejournal.com profile] bigbrotherreads made me a matching icon, and I just couldn't resist.

Really I should wait until there is actual news, so I am not hexing things in advance of them telling us "by the way, your pay has been cut to this shiny new nickel, and from now on we can only write positive reviews," but somehow I doubt our fearless leaders would have sold our souls for such business.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
2010-01-05 09:28 am
Entry tags:

Kirkus Redux

We are back!

I have no more details than that. But my face hurts from smiling.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
2009-12-10 05:02 pm
Entry tags:

We weren't grouchy. We were necessary.

I've reviewed children's and YA books for KLIATT, Jewish Book World, Horn Book Guide, and Horn Book Magazine, and I'm not speaking hyperbolically when I say none of them compared to my seven years with Kirkus. At Kirkus I've had two editors who were mentors, helping me become a better critic and prose crafter. Kirkus's so-called grouchiness is really a committment to fairness -- not fairness to the book, but fairness to our audience, which is to say, the teachers and librarians who need to spend their limited collections budgets wisely, and the children and teens they serve.

In seven years, I gave stars to 25 books, and I'm sure I completely panned far fewer. I had my editors demand more substance to back up negative statements, and once had a book taken from me and given to another reviewer because my editor felt I was insufficiently appreciative of the audience that would like it. At Kirkus, every review was written with the tiny collections budget in mind, with the idea that, if a book has a potential audience, the Kirkus reader wants to know about it.

Yes, we are often negative in Kirkus. That's because we have that tiny collections budget in mind. We're not worried about the feelings of the author but about the budget of the teacher or the librarian. We want brutal honesty, both positive and negative, in the service of that audience.

For business reasons beyond my ken, Kirkus was priced out of the affordability range of our prime audience. Now the children's and YA literature world has lost an invaluable resource. Just as politics bloggers provide a valuable new service but don't replace investigative journalists, book bloggers will not make up for the loss of Kirkus. They don't fill the same niche.

Good luck, PW, SLJ, and VOYA. Keep the flag flying.

Kirkus Reviews: 1933-2009