Rationale of a Review
How do we go about creating a review? What are the questions we ask ourselves and try to answer on behalf of our readers?
Every book is different but the essential question we're trying to answer is: how will its young reader have grown as a result of reading this book? Every book is a chance for its reader to grow, to mature, in one way or another. Certainly, a book also has a value for sheer entertainment. But books which stop there are a cheap form of art. And cheaper still are books which entertain only by appealing to the basest elements within us: the vulgar, the grotesque, the voyeuristic.
Fortunately, few books do stop there, and fewer still stoop there. Nonetheless there is a broad spectrum of qualities found in books of all ages. People may complain that modern books are cheap and superficial; but there have been plenty of cheap and superficial books in the past, and there are plenty of worthwhile ones being published nowadays.
Again: how will the reader have grown after reading this book? In broad terms there are four categories of growth which a book offers.
Vocabulary & Style
Unusual words or an unusual use of words. Unusual not simply because bizarre or plucked from the remote corners of a dictionary, or simply invented. (Although such approaches have their place as, for example, in The Phantom Tollbooth or the works of Carroll or Lear). Unusual because they go beyond the set of words and phrases which a youngster will hear around them every day.
Why is this important? Because a balance is needed. By and large, the forms of language any person uses day to day are limited to the need for concise communication, usually within a peer group. For a youngster nowadays that may well mean terse textese or l33t-speak; at the very least, simple phrases and words. One doesn't expect television programmes, Youtube clips, song lyrics or radio DJs to provide anything extra. Books can provide that additional breadth which allows a mature person to articulate with greater clarity, force and wit.
In the one corner you have Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens. These writers made full use of the vocabulary and style of their times, and in some cases even extended it. Certainly, the prose they use would be out of place today on most occasions. But it forms a clear part of the history of the English language as written. In another corner you have Ray Bradbury, dripping with sensual descriptions, or -- in a quite different way -- Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events which picks words out deliberately for explanation and wry humour. And, of course, most authors choose their words with deliberation to achieve the effect they want.
Books which are action- or dialogue-driven, especially when the dialogue in question is that of youngsters, tend to score low in this category.
Books transport you from your conventional milieu and place you in an alien setting. The more thorough and thought-through that setting, the more you gain from the book. A setting here can refer to a simple geographical location, or to a cultural environment, to an entirely alien conceptual basis, or to an historical period. In each case, the young reader learns something about other milieux.
Journey to the River Sea, for example, takes you to the Amazon River at a time of Western wealth in that area while Back Home takes you to the period of readjustment after the close of the Second World War. A Wrinkle in Time explores several worlds, including one where the people do not understand light. Coram Boy explores the issues of unwanted children in the 17th Century. And so on.
A book whose setting is identical to the young reader's own setting will probably make it easier for the reader to identify with the story, but misses a chance to help that reader grow. Of course, this is an author's choice. (And a reader's).
People & Characters
It is possible to have a book, a story even, without people -- humans or human-like characters -- of any sort. But it would represent a terrific feat of literary craftsmanship to have made it work. Most books have human protagonists (or at least human-like protagonists, such as the Tales of the Willows series). At the very least this is because readers can engage with the characters, can sympathise with the choices they make, the situations they're in, the difficulties they face.
There are, in broad terms, two types of characters you'll meet in stories: the unchanging, possibly caricatured, characters; and those characters which undergo a change, the so-called character arc. To give examples from The Harry Potter Series, Mr and Mrs Dursley represent the former, while their son Dudley (just about) represents the latter. Both types of character have their points of interest, but you look to the changing characters for examples of growth and of improvement. Even if a character's arc is such that he or she is worse off at the end than at the beginning, it is still an opportunity for the reader to learn something about human nature.
Of course, in the example above, while Dudley does just about manage to change in his final paragraph of literary existence, neither his previous nor his new behaviour are especially interesting: only the fact of the change. More interesting characters have some depth and variety to start with. And the most interesting are those who seem to have a life away from their author's pen, those you imagine taking decisions independently, outside the scope of the story you're reading.
Good literature abounds with such characters since we are human and we identify far more readily with human or human-like figures than we do with interesting geographical or historical settings. A reader will gain an insight into different types of people and how they act, react and interact in different situations. Examples here might include Gideon, the eponymous Cutpurse or, a little strangely, the gunner from Stone Heart.
The personalities and facets of adolescents can be a rich source of characterisation for writers as they tend to be mercurial, unpredictable, or at least interestingly ugly or sordid. This can too easily, though, become a cheap solution, offering no real insight for a youngster into a world which which he or she is already familiar.
Situations and Moral Decisions
This is the category which is the differentiator for reviews at goodtoread.org. The literary qualities of most books for young readers are covered by numerous websites. But there is a danger that a book which ticks all the boxes of character development, descriptive settings and general style will fall short when it comes to the question of the choices the characters make.
Such choices might be explicit, typically in what we term an "Issue" book where the whole plot turns on, say, an unwanted pregnancy or a terminally-ill relative. Other choices are implicit and even have already been made in the background by the time the reader reaches the story. This might be because the cultural setting of the story assumes an unspoken moral basis which the characters move in without challenging and which the reader is expected to accord with.
There is a certain corner of the English-speaking books-for-teens market which enjoys the idea of corrupting youth. The premise is that idealistic, well-intentioned young people need to face up to the sordid realities of life enjoyed by their peers. This will highlight their naivete and will show them what they're missing. It's a rare book written nowadays which dares to allow a teenager to make a morally good choice even in private, and a very rare one which allows them to do so while influencing others.
Saturday 2nd January 2010