The Reckoning: Kids’ Book Reviewing in NZ

David Hill explains the pain required to gain in the wild world of book reviewing, and offers his reckons about how we could do it better – and why we should.

This cat is unimpressed.

I had an email a while back, disapproving of a review I’d written.

The author of the book I’d expressed reservations about pointed out that s/he was a writer (a self-published one, actually), whereas I was merely a parody of one. How true. S/He went on to note that I produced ‘stale… boring… flimsy twaddle’. Still true.

It’s a funny old life being a book reviewer. I’ve been told I’m just jealous. Gosh. I’ve been threatened. So have my testicles. I’ve been called ‘a louse in the locks of literature’, which is a straight steal from Tennyson. I informed the complainant of this, and received an even more scathing assessment of my personal and moral hygiene by return e-post. Then there are the unsettling occasions when authors actually thank me for a review.

Why do I do it? Well, I get paid. I read books I might not normally choose to, which can bring unexpected felicities.

And I review because it’s good for me as a writer. A parody of a writer, sorry. Reviewing makes me read analytically, almost forensically, paying attention to other practitioners’ styles, skills, substance. Yes, I can still enjoy it while I do this.

Reviewing makes me read analytically, almost forensically, paying attention to other practitioners’ styles, skills, substance.

I review children’s and YA books sometimes. I heard an author friend say once that we shouldn’t be critiquing our peers in print. I understand what they meant; the perils of cliques, agendas, envy, score-settling.

But I reckon that as writers, we can bring special insights to reviewing. We know what’s involved – well, I hope to know what’s involved, some day. We’ve been there; tried to do that.

And before your fingers hit the keyboard – of course teachers, bookshop owners, parents, librarians, readers, fighters of the good fight for kids’ books everywhere can make grand reviewers, too.

If David grows his hair out, perhaps he too can sit on his stoop and threaten anyone who disturbs him while reading (Pixabay)

There are excellent things in New Zealand children’s/YA book reviewing. The growth in online reviewing is an obvious one. There’s this website; Trevor Agnew’s terrific assessments in Magpies and elsewhere; New Zealand Books, where you can read 1,750 word essays on the genre; Ann Packer’s roundup in The Listener, though I wish they’d give her more space, more often. I’ll also add this website, and the intermittent assemblies in the NZ Herald, plus some other city papers. And have I mentioned this website?

I so much want to mention two glowing lights we’ve lost recently. Devoted Barbara Murison, a presence at every kids’ book occasion, always looking as if she’d stepped straight from a Karori drawing room, when she’d just as likely stepped almost straight from a muddy Tararua track. Her Round the Bookshops assessed and promoted New Zealand work year after year.

I can’t honour John McIntyre enough. That brave, wonderful guy, built like a Mafia enforcer, with his concrete-mixer voice. He loved Bruce Springsteen, but I can forgive him for that. He also loved good kids’ books, and read them in thousands. He could go straight to any shelf in the warm, welcoming Children’s Bookshop at Kilbirnie, run by him and the lovely Ruth, and pick the perfect title for any customer. His reviews on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon were a Who’s Who and What’s What of the genre. They were pithy, perceptive, pungent; made authors feel it was worth keeping going. Thanks a billion, John mate, and I hope they’re playing Bruce the Boss in Booksellers’ Heaven.

[John’s reviews on RNZ] were pithy, perceptive, pungent, made authors feel it was worth keeping going.

There are less-good things in our kids’ book reviewing. Why do editors almost automatically give 800 words to reviews of a first adult novel, while Mandy Hager, Joy Cowley, Jack Lasenby, Leonie Agnew et al are lucky to get a quarter of that in a group notice? Hell, some of these people are global names.

Why do some editors seem to assume that anyone can toss off a children’s/YA book review? Anyone can, of course. But a good review? That’s a different can of words.

And why do so few of our Lifestyle (emetic word) magazines review or even mention kids’ books? Seems to me that if you don’t help your kids to read, and read well, then they don’t have much of a lifestyle, in spite of their feature pillowcases, bed canopies, and reindeer-hide throws.

It’s a problem elsewhere, too. At any rate, author friends in Australia, the UK, Slovenia (true!) report how children’s/YA books there are often passed over in reviewing. They also report a few degrees of progress as a result of pointing out to Review Editors that books for kids frequently sell in larger numbers than books for big people. Publishers there have offered copies free to school libraries if they put a decent-sized review online. Good ideas, even if it damages my teeth to admit that about Australia.

I’m aware that publishers work hard to get reviews; anyone who’s lucky enough to have a good publicist and see the list of 15… 20… 25 places to which they send requests or complimentary copies will know that. And of course there are the publishers’ own online or in-shop blurbs.

Reviews are essential in keeping books before the public, making sure they remain part of our cultural conversation.

We need to keep reviewing all possible ways of reviewing. (Memo: must work on that sentence.) Reviews are essential in keeping books before the public, making sure they remain part of our cultural conversation. They imply that the books themselves are significant, merit a considered evaluation. They help maintain the status of the printed and online word.

Reviews, even unfavourable ones that bring calls for instant emasculation, can bring a sales boost as well. They’re an aid to busy librarians, teachers, readers, parents, bookshops. They reflect and affect tastes and values. Reviews have helped make risk-taking works for children – think Ted Dawe, Bernard Beckett, Paula Boock, Maurice Gee – more acceptable to the public.

If John Milton (he’d probably be writing graphic novels these days) was right, and a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, then book reviews can offer a small transfusion. Thanks again to The Sapling and others for being such blood banks.

Editors’ note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children’s literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They’re not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings – join in the discussion over on Facebook. 

David Hill

David Hill is a prolific and highly regarded New Zealand writer, playwright, poet, columnist and critic. Best known for his highly popular and award-winning body of work for young people, ranging from picture books to teenage fiction, his novels have been published all around the world and translated into several languages, and his short stories and plays for young people have been broadcast here and overseas. He reviews books on Radio NZ, and across a wide range of print media.