A few months ago I began reviewing children’s books for an online magazine based out of one of the local universities. Due to my almost pathological inability to say “No”, I got into this when a work-mate of mine asked if I could “take it over” from him. He was moving on to another position and felt that it didn’t really suit his new job description. He told me that he knew I was a good writer and would make a wonderful contribution to this publication etc, etc. Well, flattery does get you quite far as it turns out, and it was only after I had said “Yes” to him that I realized that in his new job as a system-wide book selector he was probably even more suited to being a book reviewer than in his former position, a lowly stooge librarian like me. I think he was just tired of doing it and was looking for an excuse to get out. Offering up me as a sacrificial lamb to the editors made his exit more palatable to them and left me feeling a bit like a chump. I haven’t called him out on this little bit of deception yet, but I am slowly plotting my revenge…
In any case, even though you don’t get paid for your reviews, you get to keep the books. I offered to review “Picture Books for Toddlers”. You can pick an age group range, and since my daughter had just turned two I thought that maybe this would be a nice opportunity to see some new books as they came out. Also, I knew it wouldn’t take any time at all to read them! Take that, former work-mate! My revenge had begun.
As much as I try to sound “put upon”, I actually was looking forward to the challenge. And as I demonstrated here I really know nothing about working with children so I thought reviewing children’s books would be an interesting challenge.
The editor, Dave, contacted me through email and sent me some information about length, format, and other expectations, and told me I’d be doing about four books a year. The books would be mailed out to my home and I’d email Dave my review. It would appear on the magazine’s webpage shortly thereafter. This proved to be a great under-estimation, as after about two weeks I received an email from Dave asking how my review was coming along. I took this as a sign that he was expecting something from me and so I put the finishing touches on the first book and sent it off. About a week later the second book arrived in the mail! Apparently “once a month” was a little closer to reality. I didn’t mind, really. It was actually kind of fun and I found reviewing short picture books was actually harder than it looked. Some books were quite good, and others were sort of lame, but I didn’t think it was really my place to write a bad review. I realized this online magazine was a forum to showcase new children’s books and to put a positive spin on them, and my job wasn’t to act as Simon Cowell and bash them left and right. I was happy to turn a blind eye to some of their shortcomings and accentuate their assets.
That is, until I was mailed ‘Twas the night before a Canadian Christmas’.
Up to this point, I had reviewed about four or five books. We are to say “Highly Recommended”, “Recommended” or “Not Recommended”. We are also supposed to assign stars (from zero to four) at the end of each review. Until then, I hadn’t given out a “Not Recommended” review. Most of them were “Recommended” and I think I gave out one “Highly Recommended”.
“Twas the night before a Canadian Christmas” takes the classic poem that everyone knows and changes the words so that it is filled with Canadian references and stereotypes. I’ll give you the briefest of tastes. Instead of “On Dasher, on Dancer…” it reads “Now Gretzky! Now Trudeau! Now, Shania and Loonie! On, Bob! And on, Doug! On Suzuki and Toonie”. It’s not horrible the first time through, but at this point I was tired of giving free passes to sub par books. This pandering, unimaginative drivel with its “cut and paste” boring lazy-ass illustrations had to be called out. I wrote a review and I said exactly how I felt. The final straw for me was when I found out the same author has done the exact same thing with “Jingle Bells” and “The 12 Days of Christmas”. Never mind that the McKenzie Brothers on SCTV did this schtick 30 years ago and did it better. Boring and unimaginative. If you’re interested you can read my review at http://umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/vol18/no16/thenightbeforeacanadianchristmas.html
I was asked to tone down my original review because it was deemed “too snarky” by the editors. In my original review I said that the illustrations were on par with the flight safety manual instructions you find in the seat pocket in front of you. I had to take that line out.
I’ve always admired Kirkus reviews. They were the only book reviewing company that would actually write negative reviews. Most reviewing services, if they don’t like something, will just choose not to review it. A positive Kirkus review really meant something, and if you happened to be lucky enough to get a Kirkus Star, well then you were gold. Even when I was a kid I would look on the back of books I’d borrow from the library to see if it had a blurb from Kirkus. Kirkus said what it meant. I know, I’m weird. Maybe I was trying to honour the tradition of Kirkus here a little bit.
My Grandpa used to say (and I’m sure this wasn’t original to him) that the problem with democracy is that every idiot gets a vote. I feel the same way with book publishing these days. The recent trend of “self-publishing” means that literally anyone can plunk down a few hundred dollars and get anything published. I know there are some great benefits to this new reality, and many authors will go the self-publishing route first to get noticed and then may get picked up by a publisher later. Amazon ebooks have revolutionized content delivery, but as this article points out, one of the biggest hurdles to self publishing is the lack of a good professional editor. (One could say the same thing about these blog posts! Heyo!)
So anyway, my modified toned-down review was published. I gave it my first “Not Recommended” rating and one star because I wasn’t sure if I could give a book no stars. The editors seemed fine with my new review but warned me that usually with negative reviews we’ll get comments, especially from the author if it is a self-published book. Within a few days, the negative comments began to roll in and were forwarded to me. Here are just a sampling from the many responses we received.
Not only was it wrong – the illustrations are expressive and I can’t see how that can be argued with. I can’t see how you can be offended by the lyrics – I would like to know what you found offensive.
I have to say I found the review of The Night Before a Canadian Christmas to be a terrible portrayal of the story and I am surprised that CM would publish such a poory (sic) written review. I actually felt offended reading this rant being one of the Canadians this book appealed to.
I have to say I was quite shocked by the comments made by the reviewer and felt it was more of an attack than a review.
This next snippet was my favourite. It actually came from the author’s wife.
Over the past 2 months Troy, Jennifer and the staff of Polyglot Publishing have spoken with over 100,000 people and have not received any negative feedback.
Really. You talked to over 100,000 people and have not received any negative feedback? You can’t get four people in a room to decide on a restaurant and you’re telling us that you previewed your book to over 100,000 people and you didn’t receive a single bit of constructive criticism? Huh. Well it’s about time someone did.
I’m still getting negative comments. One came in just the other day.
I totally agree that people are entitled to their opinions and if you disagree with something you see or read you should be able to respond. It’s just that I was genuinely surprised that so many people seemed to actually enjoy this book, or that people actually visted this site at all. I did have the foresight at least to get a few people around work to also read the book to see if I was being overly unfair. I know it is a small sample, but the three or four people who read it felt the same way about it as I did.
My initial reaction was “Screw this. I don’t need this hassle. I quit.” But then I got all Irish and stubborn and thought that maybe a little constructive negativity is just what is needed here. In my opinion, the book is truly awful, and if I can alert people out there who are looking for quality children’s books to buy for libraries or as gifts then I feel like I have a bit of a duty or obligation to steer people in the right direction. Also, this review is just one person’s opinion, isn’t it? My opinion. If you’ve received over 100,000 positive reviews, why so much hate for a single negative one? It don’t get it.
So I didn’t quit. (Can you even quit from a job where you don’t get paid?) At least I don’t think I have. I haven’t received any new books to review in the mail for a while. Maybe that’s telling me something. All I can promise is that from here on in if I’m given your book to review, I’ll review it. If I like it, I’ll Kirkus Star it, if you get my meaning.
And if I hate it: you’ll know.