Friday, May 16, 2014

Please Check Your Adult Sensibilities at the Door

Recently, I read a middle-grade novel of a very lightheaded and humorous nature. Sure, the humor was a little on the young side, but this was middle grade, after all. I thought it was fun and funny and I could see middle-grade readers enjoying it immensely. I know I did. I was disappointed, then, to read several online reviews written by adult readers dismissing the book as silly and juvenile. This highlights in my mind a rather unique challenge faced by children's books--since reviews of these books are generally written by adults, the reviews are coming from a source other than the target audience for whom the books are intended.

Given this, I wish more adult reviewers would keep in mind the audience of the book when penning their reviews. The way a 40-year-old reader reacts to a book is not necessarily going to be the same way a nine-year-old does. I'm not saying adults shouldn't leave reviews for kid lit, of course, but I can't help feel that some adult reviewers project their own standards for "high quality literature" a little too readily onto children's stories. I once read an online review for a children's book where an adult reviewer wrote a scathing review largely based on the fact that the author had the audacity to end a sentence with a preposition--more than once, mind you! Oh, the horror!!

Lol, I have a really hard time believing that this is what would stand out to eight to 12-year-old readers of the book, but hey, that's me. I also tend to cringe a bit when adult readers seem quick to dismiss certain children's books as trite and immature, or not moral or substantive enough. I personally don't have anything against moral and substantive books, but I don't think there's anything wrong with books that are just plain fun. Especially in the middle-grade realm, a book that's a lot of fun can be a very powerful tool in engaging a reluctant reader, so I think it's a shame that some adults are quick to look down on these types of stories. 

This is why I love seeing online reviews that are actually written by a kid, or written by a parent based on their child's reaction to a book rather than their own. These feel very genuine to me. They come from a member of the audience that the book was actually intended for. (Oh fudge, I just ended a sentence in a preposition. Shame on me!)

So while I feel that people are entitled to their own opinions, I guess reviewers projecting their adult sensibilities into a review for kid lit can be a bit of a pet peeve of mine. What do you think? Do you generally make an effort to review kid lit with the target audience in mind? And do you think reviewers should make an effort to do so?

mondopanno via photopin cc


  1. Great post, Dawn! This is a place where the professional reviewers (School Library Journal, Booklist) seem to do a better job than bloggers on Goodreads. They tend to keep the audience in mind more, instead of what THEY wanted out of the book.

  2. Completely agree.

    My daughter used to run her own book review blog, and it was so fun to read her reviews! Sadly, she got older, and decided she was too cool for it anymore.

  3. Yes, this. This also speaks to the notion that some books have more worth than others, which is also a lie.

  4. A lot of these reviews *do* try to imagine how a young reader would approach the material, but that generates its own set of problems--namely, that adults are not kids, and that adults frequently underestimate what kids will enjoy and understand. Kids can handle simple or complex. They can handle short or long. They're a lot more diverse, and usually a lot smarter, than reviewers give them credit for--and that means smart enough to love the serious and the silly alike.

    Harrison Demchick
    Developmental Editor, Ambitious Enterprises

  5. I agree--but it's hard to check those adult sensibilities at the door. I cringe at booger and fart jokes, but the 1st through 3rd grade set seem to love them. And I never could crack open "The Day My Butt Went Psycho," but my oldest son tought it was the best book ever when he was in 4th grade.

    1. If it helps, Michael, I don't like gross humor either, EVEN AS A KID, and I still don't now, but I get some kids do, my beef is when people automatically assume ALL KIDS (especially boys) like it.

      That's like assuming all girls like dolls. Not true. Some do and many don't.

      That said, I can understand that adults can be hyper-critical (though kids can be, too, just not necessarily how the post above describes it), and I do think for writers, there's a serious push-pull between serving our readers, ourselves, and those we have to deal with to get to them.

      Not everyone can indie publish, and middle grade still primarily lives in print, which adds to the pressure for those of us in middle grade and below.

    2. "...for writers, there's a serious push-pull between serving our readers, ourselves, and those we have to deal with to get to them."

      Very well said, Taurean. Thanks!

  6. Well written. Yes!
    Cool Mom for
    The Stanley & Katrina Gang

  7. For what it's worth, I try hard to remember that when I review books on T.A.A. I always keep , but I also note, I do agree that sometimes people can get overly nitpicky, but we have a right to like or not like a book just like any other medium.

    I don't know how it is for parents or teachers (being neither) but speaking solely as a writer for a moment, it's NOT easy being in the middle, especially with our own work.

    It can be (AT BEST) a little disconcerting when you see books loved by kids doing things you couldn't hope to "get away" with, and this is not always about the brand name celebrities or authors who have seniority over us.

    Many folks, especially parents and/or teachers (totally unlike the open-minded souls in the Project Mayhem community, BTW) told me "Gabriel" would not work as a middle grade novel.

    They assumed talking animals would NEVER fly with kids after they "graduated" from picture book land.

    Now that I've sold it, and am working with a great editor who "gets" the book, I can say in all honesty that nothing she's suggested I change or rework is even CLOSE to what much of what I was told wouldn't work.

    Sometimes, there are books that the adult gatekeepers don't want their kids to read, but kids do anyway (even if they have to hide it), and authors have to persevere, especially in the days before indie publishing was a feasible option for more people.

    Even now, for those of us who can't indie publish at a pro level, which I say for clarity's sake.

    Say what you will about Captain Underpants and Walter the you-know-what dog, but they have their supports and detractors, but they both had a longer, harder road to publication than we sometimes realized or respected.

    Even post-publication, in regards to Captain Underpants, being continually banned or challenged in school libraries since debuting in the 90s.

    To be continued...

    1. Which reminds of a favorite book of mine, "Time Stops For No Mouse" by Michael Hoeye, first in the Hermux Tantamoq series (that I'm always BEGGING people to read) which now is a bit long in the tooth (as far as publishing's concerned) but still more recent than when "Charlotte's Web" was first published...

      I first read it at a time when I was hard-pressed to find a book in my genre that wasn't by a "Brand Name" author, but popular enough and recent enough to be relevant to readers now.

      Those who say "Comparison is the root of all evil" didn't have to work in publishing! (LOL)

      To be continued...

  8. Writers are always told to read what's coming out in the last few years, because readers needs and tastes can change drastically, and especially with young readers, the needs for ease of reading is paramount.

    Anyway, Michael self-published the first one back at a time when this was unheard of, especially in kidlit, this was the pre-Kindle Amazon era, folks!

    While I'm not able to do that right now, I respect those who can, whether or not it succeeds commercially because we NEED to believe in our stories even if no one else will. Sometimes we harp on "Writing the next book" so much that we don't talk enough about having the will to believe in our work enough to persevere.

    If I put away a book too soon, I'll never learn to persevere with the book that will make it, because I'm all about the next book, both sides to this matter, don't they?

    That's part of why I focus on newer or lesser known titles, because first and foremost I want people coming to my site to understand the classics aren't the last word in my genre, but also because the "classics" are simply immune from the pressures newer authors like myself and ones here on Project Mayhem feel to be modern and relevant.

    Even Beatrix Potter, one of the foremothers of my genre, had self-published before she took off commercially, and is still read and loved over a century later!

    Sometimes, our grievances with books is minor and you can look past it if you're enjoying the book overall.

    For example, I LOVE the Geronimo Stilton series, even though the use of adverbs/dialogue tags, and occasional injection of "Halt the story to learn this" historical info can be a little annoying (since these are the things I'd get "jumped on" for in my own stories), and to be fair they do relate to the story in the book you're reading, but I know for readers they're aimed at it helps guide them along.

    That said, I also believe it's OKAY to not like a book, just because you're not the target market doesn't mean you'd dislike the book any less if you were.

    After all, I love and read middle grade fiction, WELL BEFORE I started writing it, and I'm certainly not in the target market for them, so it goes both ways here.

    But I think because we're not in the target audience, we think our not liking it is irrelevant, but if books are meant to be enjoyed by everyone, than they also have to right to not be enjoyable for some readers, however old or young we are.

    I'm not saying it's okay to needlessly tear the book, and its author apart, for the heck of it. I'm just saying to respect the nuances regarding liking or not liking a book. Not all readers of any age are the same.

    Two readers could like the same book but for different reasons.

    It's OKAY for me to not like a book, and still recognize and respect the readers who do, whether you're in or out of the target readership.

    While many during a Twitter chat I took part in a few months ago strongly felt "The Hunger Games" was inappropriate for readers under 13, I KNOW there are kids under 13 reading it, whether parents/teachers like it or not, and I think we need to at least allow the reverse for adults reading middle grade. Whether we're authors, educators, or parents.

    Or any combo thereof!

    I've met a LOT of kidlit writers who have a serious snob factor regarding YA/Adult fiction and always say things like "Kidlit gets to the point" and "Adult books menander" for the same sentiments some adults have with
    middle grade fiction, either in general, or certain books.

    But the line between INTENTIONAL (perceived) "sloppiness" in the writing and actual "Takes the reader out of the story, however old or young they are" isn't as clear as we'd like it to be sometimes.

  9. I adore and respect funny middle-grade books for middle-grade readers, but I often don't find them funny myself. But I wouldn't review them based on my grown-up sense of humor...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Good point, Kell, and I certainly wouldn't give a book an unfair review just because it does something I may not enjoy or do myself as a writer, but this is a two-way street here.

      That said, I review books I can get behind, and when I do mention things I don't like, they're minor.

      For example, when I reviewed the first Geronimo Stilton, the only nitpick I had overall was the use of adverbs/dialogue tags, and that simply comes from the writer in me who's been conditioned to dig deeper as far as raw craft's concerned, but it was enough to make me not devour the books.

      Some books in the series used gross humor, but I can tolerate it because it's not often, and it's not the ONLY type of humor the series uses, that's key for me as a reader.

      It's about seeing the book in front of you.

      Every book I review is on its merits, some reviewers like to compare a book against others to make negative or positive points on the book being reviewed, that's not my review style.

      For the very reasons you bring up, Kell! ☺

      That said, I'm just making the broad point that we can simply not like a book, or certain aspects to a book, but still respect the authors who wrote them.

      I'm just saying that writers are readers, too, and we can not like a book without demonizing it or its author.

      What I take issue with is not being "Allowed" to not like a book, just because it's not aimed directly at me, and I think we let our respect of authors get in the way of devaluing our personal opinions.

      That's why I mentioned the challenges Walter the you-know-what dog and Captain Underpants had and still have to get published and (in respect to Captain Underpants) stay published given the series detractors.

      But I review books in genres I know well.

      While I read and love some romance novels, I wouldn't review them because I'm not as up on it like I am fantasy in general, and animal fantasy in particular.

      Like you, I respect authors who can do things I can't, or don't want to do, but we can still just not like it ourselves. That doesn't mean we don't respect the author or readers who do. Period.

      Maybe your sense of humor's changed so much that's a concern, but not everyone makes that big a leap in their changing likes and dislikes!

      It's not like all kids abruptly go from toilet humor to erotically charged comedy the minute they turn 13+ (LOL!)

      I'm not disagreeing with you, Kell, I just feel this is more nuanced than it might seem on the surface. As a wise writer once told me, and I still struggle to learn-

      "You can express the negative without being negative."

      Besides, the best reviews, be they positive or negative, are HONEST.

      Reviews need to be honest. Sometimes that means sharing what you don't like. You just don't have to be a jerk about it.

      Sometimes I fear when I don't mention things I didn't like, it will be seen as one of those "Fake" reviews, and I think writers need to be willing to be more transparent in what we don't like.

      Why should only agents or editors have that power?
      I'm speaking broadly about book reviews in general.

      While (to me) books are not products the way toothpaste and makeup are, they are products, and if a table was not as advertised, we'd say so, why should books be immune from expressing shortcomings as the reviewer sees them?

      All the said, of course if I have nothing to object about the book, I'll review it as such, but there are some books we read where something may not be "wrong" but we personally don't care for it.

      I hope I don't sound mad, Kell, I'm just sharing my personal opinion, the as you did above.

    3. EDIT: "For example, when I reviewed the first Geronimo Stilton, the only nitpick I had overall was the use of adverbs/dialogue tags, and that simply comes from the writer in me who's been conditioned to dig deeper as far as raw craft's concerned, but it was NOT enough to make me not devour the books."

  10. Yes! Kid reviews are my favorite as well. I find that as much as I love MG books, when I've gone back and read some of the books I LOVED as a kid, I find plenty to find fault with as an adult. I think it's nearly impossible to reclaim a kid's mindset to approaching a book, something to keep in mind when reviewing. And, my favorite negative reader review so far for my MG fantasies: "Should be directed at children. Too unbelievable." !!!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Marissa, I'm glad you voiced what I feel regarding not being able to fully grasp the kid we once were, but I also know that while I'm NOT overly fond of the phrase "Some things never change" because I feel it gives us an excuse to not better ourselves, if only subconsciously, you can still love things when you were a child even stronger as an adult.

      It may manifest differently, but that love's still there!

      I can't be the child I was. But I still love a lot of what I did from that time.

      I'd always been fascinated by food, but I didn't start teaching myself to cook until I was 12, and while I put my dreams of being a chef behind me, I still LOVE food and cooking and buy cookbooks any chance I get.

      As far as that "Too unbelievable to read/enjoy" thing it drives me CRAZY. Both as an author and a reader myself, now and when I was a child, and that was a HARD mindset to deal with when I struggled to find beta-readers who loved what I wrote, and understood I do it with respect, and still having fun.

      Just because I write about toymaking rats and rascally beavers with southern accents, doesn't mean it's 100% cartoony, and I say this as someone who LOVES cartoons but still loves weaving in whatever "Real Life" factoids about the animals I write about that serve the character and story.

      I know many authors, especially in middle grade, feel they're stuck where their kid self left off. In some ways I do as well, but I there are things about me now I didn't have then that I'm GLAD to have, and I couldn't have attained them when I was younger.

      I may primarily read middle grade (and recently have been bitten by the picture book bug, even though I can't write them well yet...) but unlike most authors I know, I still NEED books about people my age, which is frankly beyond MG and YA.

      There are annoying things about being a preschooler or a grade school aged kid, and certainly annoying things about being a teen, yet we champion the good aspects alongside the challenges.

      By contrast, why can't there be GOOD things about being a grown-up? Not just the staying up late and eating whatever you want stuff. For some people, life became freer as an adult.

      Often I feel some authors, perhaps inadvertently feel they have loathe being in their own adult skin. I say this to authors OLDER than 25, not the readers we write to, who are still growing.

      Those of who didn't have those "Tom Sawyer" adventures outside the context of books and other media because you grrew up in a "Car-relient" 90s world like me, or in the post-9/11 paranoia parent era, life becomes freer when you're older for better or worse, your milage will vary.

      For me, that adds to it in a way it might not have had my own childhood been freer. If I sound mad, I don't mean to, it's pure envy on my part.

      I get that is different, but I HAVE to believe I can still have it now, and it MATTERS now, no less than it would if I were still a child myself.

      Sometimes I feel we as authors and the North American culture at large put so much emphasis on early childhood and adolescent experiences that any after the late 20s doesn't matter.

      I know no one says that but it's what I feel/fear sometimes.

      Can't I still have fun moments of transcendence and possibility just because I'm closer to 30 rather than 16, or 6?

      I know I'm veering WAY off-topic here, but I strongly feel this is a question we as authors deserve to ask each other and ourselves.

      Finally I think people who say that (regardless of their age) are folks who love the real and factual more than the fantastical.
      I respect the factual, but for some us, we LOVE the fantastical.

      It makes some of the "Cold Hard Facts" easier to live with. Sometimes, even APPRECIATE them more!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!