2012 Morris Seminar – The Alchemy of Book Evaluation

This year I got to be a part of the William Morris Seminar. The purpose is to train new people to be part of book and media evaluation committees for ALSC, the Association for Library Service to Children. This is the group that awards the Newbery, Caldecott, Geisel, Siebert, Odyssey, and other medals. The seminar was made possible from a grant by William Morris, and is an invitational seminar presented every two years. I applied each of the three times it has been offered, and this time was selected to participate.

Part of the thrill was getting to meet and talk with a group of 30 people as excited about Book Evaluation as I am. Just like me, these people got excited talking about the strengths and weaknesses of children’s books published last year.

Our speakers were people who have served on multiple committees, and who have recently chaired committees. They have lots of knowledge of the process and lots of experience with making a good discussion happen.

The first speaker of the morning was Vicky Smith talking about “The Alchemy of Book Evaluation.” I’ll give some of my notes from her talk.

She said when you’re assigned to a book evaluation committee, first, you need to evaluate yourself. Because, after all, “Text is context.”

She did say that, as a former English major, she is hyperaware of the Intentional Fallacy – the false idea that anyone can know what the author originally intended.

You should know the sort of reader you are: Fast or slow? Easily distracted or easily submerged in a book? Do you read for language, character, plot, or theme? What books did you love when you were 12 years old?

When you’re on an ALSC committee, you have to transcend the reader you are. For example, if you’re a plot-driven reader, you’re good at seeing how the plot works – but you need to overcome that.

Do you have biases? Your biases can help illuminate a book, but also blind you.

What do you know? Use your expertise without Hubris. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Beware of Hubris!

Know what you don’t know and be open to the book. Understand your context. The book you are evaluating was not written for you. You are not evaluating the book for personal pleasure reading.

Understand who the book is for. Some books are specifically gender-skewed, ability-skewed, etc. You just need to understand who it’s directed for.

Books may not be literarily spectacular, but still important.

Who is the book for? What is the book for?

Is joy and fun any less important than big deep messages?

Why are you evaluating this book? Your committee’s charge is important.

You need to get over wanting a book you can use with your kids.

Greet the book on its own terms. Think about: What does this book do, as opposed to: What doesn’t it do?

Every book deserves the most open mind possible.

What does this book do? What doesn’t it do? That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Remember that “offensive” has a million different definitions. What, in particular, do you think is offensive?

Does the book do what it does with integrity? If there are stereotypes, is that a bad thing?

Pay attention to your reactions to the book.

Don’t go into your encounter with the book looking for flaws. If you do find a flaw, you’re obligated to check. (Find an expert.)

Everybody has a different opinion of what is a fatal flaw. Why is it there? Is it really a flaw?

Book Evaluation is hugely relative. We can’t apply standards that give the same result every time.


That was the first talk we got to listen to. It made us eager to begin! We’d all read a list of books for small group discussion later.

This talk was interesting to me because it did point out to me that a Book Evaluation committee is very different than what I am trying to do on my blog. On my blog, I’m giving my own reaction to the book. But in a committee, you’re looking at a book as children’s literature. You want to observe your own reactions, but you’re trying to evaluate the underlying quality of the book for its true audience.

However, even though this isn’t what I’m trying to do on my blog, this is all very good advice for Readers’ Advisory on my job. It’s good to know a book’s strengths so I can figure out who would enjoy the book. Readers’ Advisory is also not about what I like or don’t like; it’s about finding the right book for the reader in front of you at this particular time.

Readers’ Advisory Research and Trends – ALA Annual Conference, Day Two

After the Margaret Edwards Award Luncheon, I took a shuttle back to the Convention Center and attended the program that ended up being the most helpful and practical for use on my job, “Readers’ Advisory Research and Trends Forum: What We Learn from Our Readers: A conversation with Nancy Pearl and Catherine Sheldrick Ross.”

I was late due to the slow shuttle, so I think I missed most of Catherine’s presentation, but what I did hear was excellent food for thought. I’m going to try some of these ideas.

Nancy Pearl talked about four “doorways” into books:

1. Story
2. Character
3. Setting
4. Language

She said that each book has each of these elements, and we tend to think that the books we love have four equal doorways. But as you think about the book in more depth, you can see it’s a sort of pie chart, with a book’s appeal divided between these four elements, with different strengths in different elements.

These doorways transcend genre. She said that a reader who reads for character will enjoy a book of any genre that has strong character development.

I liked her fundamental question she asks when doing Readers’ Advisory: “Tell me about a book you liked.” Even if she has read the book the customer mentions, she asks, “Tell me what you liked about it,” because what the reader enjoyed about the book may be totally different from what she enjoyed about it.

I liked her description of “Desk Paralysis,” where a reader asks a question, and you suddenly forget every book you’ve ever read. She gave some tips for finding books with appeal from the four major doorways.

Books with Story the strongest element tend to be the most popular. Dan Brown and John Grisham fill the bill, but so do authors in many different genres. In fact, she said the chances are that if you go in the fiction shelves of your library, spin around and point, you will probably be pointing to a book with story as the major doorway. They are the most common.

Some authors whose books have Character as the major doorway are Russell Banks, Anne Tyler, and John Irving. They have three-dimensional characters. One quick way to find these books is that the title of the book is often the name of the major character. You can do a display of these books with the heading “People You Ought to Know.”

You’ll find books where Setting is the major doorway in many genres. One where it’s particularly common is fantasy, where the authors build another world. People say about these books that the setting is a character itself. You can do a display of these books with the heading “Places You Ought to Visit.” You can have a nice mix of genres with that heading, with both imaginary and real places.

Readers who read for the Language are the only ones who self-identify, saying things like, “I only read books with good writing.” Some authors whose books are language-driven are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Faulkener, and Marianne Robinson.

She reminded us that Readers’ Advisory is a relationship, a conversation. Even if they don’t like the book you showed them, they should be interested in discussing it further with you. It gives the reader a reason to come back to the library.

After this, the moderator gave them some questions, and I have two more pages of notes from their interesting and helpful answers.

Asked about their earliest reading memory, Catherine mentioned reading at bedtime, and Nancy said it wasn’t her earliest, but a book that really formed the way she thought about the world was Space Cadet, by Robert Heinlein.

Catherine: In stressful times, people go back to their old favorites.

Nancy: As you grow, your response to the book changes. The reader is the collaborator with the writer.

Think of Readers’ Advisory as a Professional activity.

Listen to the reader.

What does this reader want to read at this moment in their life?

First rule: It’s not about me.

We’re the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in someone else’s life.

Don’t assume you like a book for the same reason someone else does. That’s where the question comes in handy, “Tell me about that book.”

Think of conversations as ongoing dialogue.

The question, “Tell me about a book you liked,” gets you into one of the four doorways. From the reader’s response, you can find out which doorway appeals to them right now.

We also need to make people aware that we do readers’ advisory.

Give the message that all reading is important. Never treat any reading (such as romance) as beneath other reading.

When roaming, ask, “Are you finding what you need?” and Listen to the answer.

Staff should talk about books.

Think about adding to your e-mail signature: What I’m reading:

The role of the library has three equal parts:
1. Information
2. Reading for Pleasure
3. Programming and Outreach

Reading for Pleasure is just as important. It does make a difference in people’s lives.

Don’t hold back books on Readers’ Advisory (like Genreflecting) only for Reference. Let them circulate.

Goal: Get the reader to come back and talk to us, even if the Readers’ Advisor got it wrong.

When this program finished, I had lots to think about. I am going to start thinking about the books I read in terms of the four major doorways. Which is the strongest for that book? I think I will try making some lists and see if that helps prompt me for Readers’ Advisory. It was an interesting and thought-provoking session about one of my favorite parts of being a librarian.

After that, I went to a meeting of the ALSC Notable Books Committee meeting, had dinner with my roommates and attended the excellent movie “Library of the Early Mind.” I’ll blog about those tomorrow.