I have a MG review that’s scheduled to go up tomorrow (for Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee) and I really loved the book. Not only is it adorable and well-written, it highlights a middle grade girl who discovers that she has a crush on another girl (after having a crush on a boy), which is a topic that middle graders need to see. And let me tell you, this book was so hard for me to rate!
Here’s the issue that plagues me: I am (obviously) not a middle grader. So sometimes I’ll find “issues” with a book that probably wouldn’t be issues at all if I were an actual middle grade reader.
For instance, in this particular book, there was a focus on the romance in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There was discussion about whether or not Romeo was actually in love with Juliet, and the main character defended the instalove in the book. Now, you all know how I feel about instalove. A take on R&J that insists that the characters did fall in actual love after one short conversation makes me raise my eyebrows more than just a little bit. But in the context of the book, it made sense. These are middle graders. Of course they want to believe in instalove. Especially since the main character was trying to process her own new crush—it made sense that she was supportive of R&J’s deep love for each other in the play. And then there was the ending, which gave us almost nothing in terms of actual, real-life romantic interaction between the two love interests. How unsatisfying! But, once again, this is a middle grade book. The author is already pushing boundaries by including a same-sex crush, so what was I expecting here?
But then I get to the rating stage. How in the heck do I rate this little gem of a book? It was cute. Adorable even. Normally this would be a 4-star book for me because I really, really enjoyed it but there were a few things that made me less excited. But the issues I had with it made lot of sense within the middle grade context. And the book is really sort of groundbreaking. So, do I give it 4.5 stars? 5? How in the heck do I rate this thing?
This has occasionally happened with YA as well (though not quite as often). As a mom reading YA, I’m sometimes not crazy about the portrayal of casual sex, partying, and kids generally behaving badly in YA books. I’m especially sensitive to drug use. But I’m a mom!
In some ways, I don’t feel like my opinions about these behaviors has changed much since I was a teen (for instance, my issues with drug use and partying are based mostly on lessons I learned from someone close to me whose life was ruined by them—and unfortunately I had to learn that lesson at a relatively young age). But I was a teen a long time ago and my own kids, admittedly, are relatively sheltered since we homeschool and go to a Christian co-op—maybe my perspective on the teen world is just completely outdated and skewed. If that’s the case, how should that affect my reviews and especially my ratings?
Now, the review part I find easier—after all, I can just SAY in the review that I’m not particularly fond of one aspect of a book, but that I suspect it might actually be just fine for the target YA audience. I think that’s a valid thing to say. But the rating is where I get hung up. Is it fair for me to rate a book lower because I’m not crazy about something that might be perfectly acceptable to a YA (or MG) reader? But how do I truly determine this? I can think of myself as a young adult and imagine how I would have felt then, but that’s certainly not a perfect system. I can guess at a young adult’s thoughts and feelings and change my rating accordingly, but that feels inauthentic too.
I’ve come up with a few possible solutions to this issue:
- Read and review adult books instead of YA or MG. I’ve considered this—just staying out of YA (and MG) reviewing, so I’m not “tainting” the ratings—but the fact is that I’ve found over the years that I enjoy YA books more than I do adult books. In fact, now that I think about it, I have the exact same issue with rating adult books as I do with the teen books I find problematic—I often end up rating them lower because they’re just not “my kind of books.” So that wouldn’t solve the problem at all (I actually think I’d end up rating more books lower).
- Have my kids review books with me. This is actually a solution I would LOVE to implement. I think it would be awesome if my 13- and almost-15-year-olds would read many of the YA and MG books along with me (they do this sometimes anyway) and then write reviews. The only problem is that I can’t get them to do this! They both see writing a review as “homework” of sorts and neither of them are eager to jump into blogging with me. I’m actually considering resorting to bribery (paying them a small amount per review—I know, that’s sort of crazy, but…). Even if I do that, though, this would probably only work for backlist books because trying to get them to read books on a deadline again makes it feel like work (though if there was money involved…).
- Bump my ratings for YA and MG slightly if it seems appropriate based on MG or YA content. I already kind of said why this seems like it might not work very well. It’s hard to figure out how and when to do this. Plus, it feels sort of arbitrary.
- Rate the way I rate now and just deal with it. And this is pretty much the winner.
I guess the conclusion that I’ve come to is that I have to rate books as myself, knowing that my own life experiences and biases are going to come into play. When I explicitly know that has happened, I’ll mention it in the review, but I won’t up a rating just because I suspect that other people might be fine with the issues I see. After all, ratings are subjective no matter what. Something I love in a book might make someone else crazy and vice-versa, regardless of the age bracket.
And I guess I have to come to terms with the fact that sometimes I’m just going to be conflicted about the rating that I assign to a book. (I mean, really, this isn’t the only case where that’s true.) This is the life of a book blogger. There is no perfect answer most of the time, so we do our best and we move on.
But I’m still really conflicted about tomorrow’s MG review…
Do you have trouble rating books that are meant for readers outside of your age bracket? How do you deal with it? I want to know!!
One more little note: I just ran across this post from Sierra Elmore about making the book blogging community more inclusive for teen YA bloggers and it made me even more paranoid. (Or maybe conflicted? No, let’s face it, I get paranoid.) I hope that I always treat my teen readers the same as I treat the adults around here, but feel free to call me out if I ever make you feel “less” or if you think my opinions on a book don’t accurately represent a teen viewpoint!
This post has been linked to the Book Blog Discussion Challenge.