If there is one thing being an author has taught me it’s that each reader brings something different to a story. It’s not something I as an author can control. No amount of editing, rewriting, and polishing on my part will ever change this. That is why one reviewer will praise a book as “the best thing since sliced bread” and another person will review the exact same book as “a morbid mess of a plot that even a zombie uprising couldn’t breathe life into”. So which reviewer is right?
They both are.
Each of these people read the same words and the same story—but they did not have the same experience. Isn’t that what we love so much about books? Every story shares with us a new world that we get to interact with on a deeply personal level.
For example: A friend of mine who read Forbidden Sea later told me that she had a really hard time making it through the story. After questioning her a little further, I discovered that she had a member of her family who was uncomfortably like the character of Auntie Minnah. Every time Auntie Minnah appeared in the story, my friend felt like throwing the book across the room. This had nothing to do with whether or not my book was well written or not—and everything to do with how my friend’s personal life experiences made her perceive a story. On the other hand, I also visited with a book club of middle grade girls who told me Adrianne’s complicated relationship with Auntie Minnah was their favorite part of the book. That is why reviewing books can be such a ticklish thing.
As a librarian I am often called upon to match up the right book with the right reader. Fifteen years of on-the-job experience has taught me that often the perfect book for a certain reader is one I didn’t like. Take sports books for example—not my favorite genre—but then, I’m not a preteen boy (or girl for that matter) whose whole world revolves around basketball. For some kids these books speak to them and get their heart pumping. These are the books that make them want to be readers. Just because sports books don’t do anything for me, doesn’t mean that sports books don’t have any value. It just means I was not the right audience.
One of my coworkers once noticed a boy just sitting at a table sobbing his little heart out as he read his book. The librarian asked him if he was all right. He explained through his tears that one of his favorite characters from the series he was reading had just died. Touched by this boy’s devotion to his fictional friend, my coworker gently asked what book he was reading. She was amazed to discover that the book that had managed to move this boy to tears was one of the books in the Bionicles TV show series. One of his robot friends had died and he was beside himself with grief.
Laugh all you want.
The Bionicles story and its characters had become real to that boy. They gave him a new experience, one that had emotionally bound him to the characters he came to love so much! Who is to say that his experience reading Bionicles was any less profound for him than mine was while reading To Kill a Mocking Bird for the first time? Who am I to deny him the beauty of that experience just because Bionicles seems a little silly and predictable to me?
Understanding this has helped me not to take the bad reviews of my book to heart quite so much. All books get bad reviews from time to time. That’s because the world is full of different kinds of people with lots of different tastes. This is a good thing. That’s something I now try to remember when writing my own reviews of other authors’ books. For example, I recently read a book that wasn’t really my cup of tea. The whole time I was reading it, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the kids I knew at the library who would just LOVE to get their hands on that particular book. Even though it wasn't my favorite, I always give that book a rave review when trying to hand sell it to a young reader—because I know they will like it, even if I didn’t. Isn’t that what is most important?
I think so too.