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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The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

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Series images by Robert Roxby.