Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tuesday Feedback: A Little Conversation about Book Reviews Starring YOU

Book reviews are VERY important to us authors. 

During last week's Friday Feedback, I got this question about book reviews -- together with the below lovely review of THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO -- from one of our campers, and I decided I was not qualified to really answer it well, especially blinded by ego as I was after reading it [grin], and that it was best to shine the question back on you.

Hi Gae and Martha,
Thanks for the inspiring post, for all the wonderful insights into the writing process, and for sharing something from one of your WIP . 
Since I don't have any stories to share, I was wondering whether it's okay for me to post a book review to get feedback on. A well written review gives me emotional chills, either in anticipation of a great story to read or in reliving the experience of reading the book.

I read a lot and share reviews online, always feeling I don't give justice to the wonderful stories I read. My reviews lack this emotional chill, they don't capture what I really want to say. I would like to get better at writing reviews and would love your feedback and ideas on where to start, how to go about it. Many thanks!
Here's the review of one of Gae's books I read just a couple of days ago.

If you are like me and find comfort in reading, in that beautiful feeling of not being alone, that some books defuse, you will love and treasure the experience of reading The Summer of Letting Go. 

Sometimes, life deals us a tough hand of cards, and we find ourselves stuck in situations, seemingly so hopeless, that we see no way out. And if on top of all, we feel entirely responsible for it, the guilt might push us into isolation, paralyze us with fear that if we confide in whoever is still near us, we would loose that person as well. 

This is the situation Francesca, "Frankie", finds herself in after the tragic loss of her little brother, the crush on her best friend's boyfriend she desperately fights against, the fear of her dad planning to leave the family... So much to deal with and no one to confide in. I felt so close to Frankie throughout the book; she felt so real, her fears so tangible, her actions so understandable. Of course, I wished she would confide in her best friend Lizzette, I was convinced that her friend wouldn't let her down - but I also knew that if in the same situation I most probably, just like Frankie, wouldn't have had the courage. 

What a beautiful book, that even though it deals with tragedy, with grief, with pain and fear, it is full of hope: "You keep on trying the best you can. And you know what? Sometimes life surprises you and rewards you for it more than you know. You never actually know what life will bring.” P. 256

First of all, Tanja, thank you for that lovely review. I hope you will put it up on Amazon and Goodreads, Barnes & Noble.com and Library Thing and anywhere else where you might see shared book reviews. 

Second of all, I disqualify myself because quite frankly, I just felt like this after I read it:

Though I will say this one thing about me and reviews: I really love it when a reviewer quotes bits of writing or excerpts they love from the story, as it gives me a tiny taste of the writing, and ultimately, for me, it is writing that will almost always pull me in.

So what say YOU? 

What makes a good review for you? 

When you're reviewing, what are you trying to do? 

How do you capture and share the essence of a story without giving the storyline away? 

And most importantly, what sways you as the reader to run out and buy the subject book being reviewed?

If you are an avid reviewer, do you have a favorite review that you've written? 

A favorite review site that you go to? 

Feel free to share either your feedback or a review that you love in the comments.

You do not have to be a #teacherswrite camper to participate, and if you're a book blogger/reviewer you are welcome to share a link to your blog in the comments. 

xox and thanks!



  1. I am an avid reviewer. And, I have reviewed TSOLG. I was reviewing for Novel Nutritious because the owner of that blog did all the work I don't find fun to do in maintaining a website. But, alas she has moved on to other projects and she has let her reviewers go, myself included. Really, it's OK. I'm excited about what's next fir her. My review for TSOLG for Novel Nutritious is here: http://ow.ly/PAGKY

    Perhaps my favorite review that I've written is for Pam Munoz-Ryan's Echo. I got a little creative in the way I reviewed it comparing the book to a symphony and it was fun. http://ow.ly/PAH7e. It was kinda cool getting some feedback for that review.

    One thing that I don't know how to deal with well is what to say when there are aspects about a book that don't work for me. As a writer, I don't expect everything I write will work for every reader. But, I'm not so good at criticism if something isn't working. I never, ever want to disappoint an author (who are truly my rock stars) or hurt feelings. So, it's something I really work on....but that's tough.

    I love this thread, Gae. And, I"m curious to see what others say.

  2. oooh, great added aspect to the conversation, Linda! Look forward to reading your Echo review and other links posted later when I get into bed! :D

  3. btw, suddenly remembered this review and decided to share it here... it stuck with me not only because it is one of my favorites, but because in the comments a few people stingingly (ow!) said that they had no interest in reading SUMMER after they had heard me speak on it at NYCTAF (did I say OW?!?! I thought I am usually charming and funny in person!) BUT that, after this review, they now wanted to... the definition of a persuasive review, eh? Also, proof again, that reviews matter! http://ratherbereadingblog.com/estelle-summer-letting-go-gae-polisner

  4. This is a great question. While I am an avid reader, I am also a very particular reader. I rarely read books that friends' suggest and I won't read a book once it becomes too "popular". I read a lot of reviews to find my books- strange that I have to read before I read something. I think the best reviews help you feel connections to the book. I don't really care about plot lines etc... What I look for is to feel for and identify with characters. So I think the best reviews include quotes and focuses on who the characters are. I like to hear that the reviewer loves the characters, not just likes them. And love doesn't always mean liking everything about them. I love how the review you shared in the link said things like "OUR Frankie". Shows how much the reader is connected to the book.

  5. Thanks for chiming in! I love how you share this:

    "I love how the review you shared in the link said things like "OUR Frankie". Shows how much the reader is connected to the book."

    So interesting!!!!!!!!

  6. Wendy Watts ScalfaroJuly 14, 2015 at 7:48 AM

    When I reviewed for School Library Journal, I had to tell a bit of the plot and whether the protagonist succeeded at obtaining what he or she sought. I then usually made a recommendation whether a school library should buy the book. When I review on my blog or Goodreads and Amazon, I tell a little about the plot, but not the resolution. The audience is different, and I know I wouldn't want to know the outcome of a book before I've read it. I also try to quote from the text whenever possible. I describe the MC's most obvious characteristics, what their drive is, what their roadblock is, and what their strengths are for getting around that roadblock. Here's one for an example: https://wscalfaro.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/review-of-the-categorical-universe-of-candice-phee-by-barry-jonsberg/

    I can also interject my feelings about the book, saying things like "I loved it" or something along those lines.

    What turns me off from a book review is when the reviewer lambastes the author and the book. I move on and read other reviews before deciding whether to read. I mostly rely on the opinions of my friends (real and virtual) to decide on books. I will read reviews on Goodreads, but honestly, by the time I get to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, I've already made the decision to purchase the book, so I don't often read the reviews there.

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Wendy! I open the school year with a summer reading day for my high school students. For the past several years they tend to have too much or too little to say about their books, and often, what they do have to say is a moment by moment summary of the story. I really like your idea to incorporate, "the MC's most obvious characteristics, what their drive is, what their roadblock is, and what their strengths are for getting around that roadblock." I am looking for something to make their booktalks more thoughtful and not so regurgitated. Thanks!

  8. I agree with Andrea, that you share great thoughts, Wendy, and also love how you've now shared something that will resonate in another classroom!

  9. I enjoyed this review, Tanja--I think you capture the heart of the book and provide enough to give a reader a sense of whether it's a book they might enjoy. I especially appreciate excerpts that give a sense of the style and your inclusion of the parts of the story that most resonated with you. In other reviews, I find it helpful to know if the reviewer has students or children who also read and enjoyed the book (and why). Over time, I've come to look to Twitter for recommendations, and there are reviewers and authors whose recommendations I generally like. For example, if Linda Sue Park recommends a book, I'm going to pick it up immediately. With regards to a less than glowing review, I respect it far more if it explains specifically why the book didn't resonate, rather than a review that lumps a book in a category the reviewer generally detests (e.g., books with a plucky southern heroine). And I hope we all can agree that no one has any business reviewing a book they haven't read.

  10. Dear Jane, thank you for your kind words and helpful feedback. I don't always include quotes from the books in my reviews even though I usually highlight lots, especially in the books I love. So that will be a good starting point for me in working on my reviews, adding quotes more regularly.
    Just like you I have favorite reviewers I follow on Twitter. When they recommend a book, I know it's a winner (for example Donalyn Miller aka the Book Whisperer and Debbie Alvarez aka the Styling Librarian).
    I struggle reviewing books I didn't enjoy that much even more than those I love and usually rather not review or just leave a sentence - so far at least.
    Thanks again for your feedback.

  11. Hi Wendy, I order a lot of books for our primary school library through Titlewave and my first stop in deciding on whether to buy a book is by reading the SLJ review. I have found them so helpful over the years, usually felt that I got what I expected in a book. Thanks for sharing what is expected of a reviewer writing for SLJ. You are bringing up a really important point. With reviews, like with all writing, we need to keep the audience in mind. I struggle with this as I want to share my reviews with my students but also with parents, fellow librarians etc. I think if I go to my reviews on Goodreads and have a closer look, I bounce back and forth between the different audiences. Haven't figured out how to solve that problem though.
    When it comes to negative book reviews, they don't necessarily turn me off the book, I rather go looking for another review. While I appreciate honest reviews, I don't like those that are full of negativity.

  12. Yes, I am looking for the same in a review, I want to know the reviewer loved the characters, that a special bond between the characters and the reader was established, because that's what I love in a book and always look for :)

  13. Hi Linda, I loved your reviews of TSOLG and Echo - both books I loved as much as you did. It also gave me ideas on how I can structure my reviews - thanks!
    It's really tricky how to go about criticism, how to remain honest in a review without being negative and hurting an author's feelings. I have so far mostly shied away from it - but would like to find a way that works for everyone involved.

  14. Wendy Watts ScalfaroJuly 14, 2015 at 4:25 PM


    One way you could solve the audience problem is to go ahead and write a general review, and then give specific recommendations. For example, here's the last paragraph of my review of The Summer of Letting Go.

    Polisner has crafted a story that gently enfolds the reader in it’s arms, and then reveals a character’s heart that is so broken that we feel the pain ourselves. As with her freshman novel THE PULL OF GRAVITY, Polisner creates authentic, fleshed-out characters whom we love from the very first page. Even secondary characters get a chance to shine.

    Frankie and Frankie will stay with you for a long time.

    I could add after "Even secondary characters get a chance to shine... Many teens will identify with Francesca's fight to be heard, and adults will see how one teen suffers unnecessarily. Recommended for middle and high school libraries."

    Or something along those lines.

    I hope this helps.

  15. Wendy Watts ScalfaroJuly 14, 2015 at 4:34 PM

    I'm happy to hear that this is helpful to you. You could also have students make recommendations for their books. One way to do this is to ask them to have a friend in mind for the receommendation. For example, they might say they recommend The Living by Matt de la Pena to friends who have read and loved The Hunger Games. This way they're thinking of how their reviews may impact someone else.

  16. Thanks for the additional advice, Wendy. I like the idea of using different paragraphs for different audiences and will try it out with the next review I write. Many thanks! Tanja

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