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Turning Points: Putting Book Reviews in Perspective by Kate Messner

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Kate Messner tells how she came to gain perspective on bad reviews…

Book reviews aren’t personal. They are people’s opinions about books. And people are allowed to have opinions that differ from ours. People are allowed to hate books that we love. In fact, they are allowed to hate books that we wrote and poured our souls into. Which…makes those book reviews feel…well…personal. Even when they’re not.

Figuring this out, and putting negative reviews into healthy perspective, was a turning point for me as a writer one morning in 2007.

Spitfire

I woke up very, very early, poured myself a cup of coffee, and skipped down to my computer. One of the area newspapers was publishing one of the very first reviews of my very first book, Spitfire, a Revolutionary War novel published by a small regional press. The features editor had emailed me earlier that week to let me know it was running, and she asked for a jpeg of the cover and a nice, high resolution author photo that they could run along with the review. “Wow!” I thought. “They must have loved it.”

Only they didn’t.

When I found the review early that morning, my heart sank all the way down to my feet. It wasn’t just critical; it was scathing.

The review started with two or three paragraphs of fairly detailed plot summary. The next paragraph began, “As literature, this book is lacking,” and went on to blast everything from the characterization to plot to punctuation. Or at least it felt that way.

I cried.

And then I wrote a teary email to a more experienced writer-friend, who responded in two minutes, “Oh, honey… I am so sorry. I’m up and not busy. Call me.” I dialed her number after she’d had a chance to read the review, and she reminded me that this was, indeed, just one person’s opinion, that she’d loved my book, and that perhaps many people wouldn’t read beyond those wordy plot summary paragraphs anyway. The person who wrote the review, she noticed, was someone who had also written kids’ books, and her books were quite different from mine. Probably, my friend said, she just has a different idea of what a children’s book ought to be.

I hung up feeling thankful to my friend but still twisty and small enough inside to Google the name of the book reviewer. Who was this person who had ruined my day? She was indeed a fellow writer, though I hadn’t read any of her books. A couple were out of print, a fact which I am ashamed to admit made me happy for a few seconds. Until I clicked on a different link with her name attached.

It was an online magazine article she’d written about her decades-long battle with depression. It was one of the bravest, most beautiful things I’d ever read. She described one of her children’s birthdays, when she couldn’t get the cake to turn out the way she wanted, and despite her child reassuring her that it was fine, threw it to the kitchen floor in tears in front of her. The piece was stunning, and it made my heart ache. And all of a sudden, that review mattered a whole lot less.

People read books through all kinds of lenses, I realized. And though the reviewer’s article on depression had nothing to do with her thoughts on my book, it reminded me that each reviewer is just a person. Just one. That’s all. A person like me, who reads books and loves them or doesn’t, a person who loves their kids like I love mine, and who probably lets the rice burn in the bottom of the pan sometimes.

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.

I was reminded of this again when I got a really lovely package of letters from a teacher whose classroom I’d visited to talk about The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. Most were about how much they’d enjoyed the book. And then there was Patrick:

I am sorry, but I didn’t really like your new book, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. I like books with a lot of action, and I felt there wasn’t enough in The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. I think you could make it more exciting by adding sectionals and have Gianna win by a centimeter or something like that. It’s just not my type of book. But if it was, I would have thought it was a great one.

Merry Christmas,

~Patrick

I have kept this letter on my desk ever since, and when I get a review that’s not glowing, I simply imagine that School Library Journal or Kirkus reviewer adding one more line, in Patrick’s voice.

I’m sorry. It’s just not my type of book. But if it was, I would have thought it was a great one.

Eye of the Storm

p.s. I’m thankful to Patrick for another reason. His letter got me thinking about writing a thriller. And this spring, I’ll have not one but two Patrick-style books in stores. My futuristic weather thriller, Eye of the Storm, releases from Walker-Bloomsbury March 13th and on June 1st, Patrick will be able to read Capture the Flag, the first in my new mystery series with Scholastic. Both feature action, mystery, and fast-paced chase scenes written especially with the Patricks of the world in mind.

Capture the Flag

—Kate Messner


Kate Messner is the award-winning author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming books for children and teens, including E.B. White Read Aloud Award winner THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. (Walker-Bloomsbury), the popular MARTY MCGUIRE series with Scholastic, OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW, an ALSC and NY Times Notable Children’s Book of 2011, and the forthcoming EYE OF THE STORM. A former middle school English teacher, Kate is a frequent conference presenter and loves visiting classrooms and libraries in person and via Skype to talk about reading and writing with kids.

Learn more at her website: www.katemessner.com.

Follow @KateMessner on Twitter.


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Series images by Robert Roxby.

9 thoughts on “Turning Points: Putting Book Reviews in Perspective by Kate Messner

  1. Reviews are tricky – they generally aren’t intended as personal from the person writing but are almost always taken personally by the author. We like to say it’s just an opinion, but boy is that tricky!

    Great post!

  2. Beautiful post, Kate. I imagine it is hard not to take reviews personally (just like it’s difficult not to take rejections that way, too). My first book isn’t out yet, but now I will remember your advice when it is and I get scathing reviews. Thanks for preparing me with a thoughtful reminder that every reviewer is just one person.

    I love Patrick’s line, thanks for sharing!

  3. Ouch. Bad reviews are one thing, harsh reviews are another. Frankly, I think the worse the review, the worse it looks on the reviewer’s character, not the author. Thank goodness for little children like Patrick. I loved Gianna but am happy to see you branch out into action stories for those Patricks (and active Samantha’s) out there.

  4. That is why the mantra of the Bistro Book Club is “no two readers ever read the same book.” Everything we read is filtered by our experiences, mood, and so much more. I write lots of reviews but, because I do them to help people find the books they will love, and because there are too many great books to waste time on books I don’t like, I only finish reading books and review them if I see something in them that will make them important to some readers.

  5. Thanks for the inspiration, Kate and Nova! As usual, Kate, your posts make me want to cry, in a good way.

    I had a similar experience from the flip side of the coin once, when I took a course on review writing. I wrote a scathing review of a book that our teacher had gotten for us in galley form (never, of course, thinking that my review would see the light of day), and lo and behold – the author showed up as a “guest” on our last day of class. Having read every single review.

    A few things I learned from that class: it is much easier to write a negative review than a positive one. It’s so much easier to make fun of something than articulate what it did well. And worst of all, it’s soooo easy to forget about the person who worked his/her ass off writing that book.

    p.s. The book I panned? It ended up getting multiple starred reviews and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

  6. Oh I love that
    “It’s just not my type of book. But if it was, I would have thought it was a great one.”
    And big ups to you for finding that gem of a sentence in a rejection letter, even if it is from a kid, which is actually you audience so perhaps it means more in one way.
    Because, let’s face it, Patrick likes books with action, this wasn’t one so he was never gonna like it, but he respected you for your work – what a sweet boy :)

  7. I’m also waiting for my first book to come out and I’m eating up every post I can find that teaches me how to put/keep things like this in perspective. Thanks so much for yours — and Patrick’s! I’m glad it led me to this blog!

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