The Thing About Stars

The question of stars and book reviews is a complicated one. Especially here in the United States where there seems to be something in our national character that makes it hard for us to know how to acknowledge excellence. On the one hand we do recognize those who are heroes and great (especially in sports) while on the other hand find it difficult in our day to day lives to tag something or someone as being “better” or even “best.” Possibly because by doing so there is an implication that the rest not so labeled are somehow lacking. I think we do want everything to be like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon where “…all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

As a teacher, I definitely do. I hate giving grades — having to bluntly determine how and why one child rates highly and another doesn’t. My personal philosophy is learning for learning’s sake and I encourage my students to want to do their best for themselves not for me, their parents, or anyone else. I truly do think they are all above average in one way or another! Fortunately, my school doesn’t require me to give grades for 4th graders and so in my prose reports to parents I can focus on my students’ strengths and weaknesses and how they can be supported without having to reduce it all down to a single letter.

That said, book reviews (and the related stars) to my mind are a completely different thing. The intended audience is not the creator of the book (or for that matter their parents:), but those who might read it. Of course this is a hard thing as even though they aren’t the audience, for the creators those reviews and stars (or lack of them) are very much like receiving grades or the sort of progress reports I write for my students. But again, writers are not the intended audience for these, readers are.

As for stars there are two sorts, the professional ones that journals like Kirkus and School Library Journal give out to books they’ve decided are of exceptional merit and then those given out at sites like goodreads.  Recently Elizabeth Bluemle, a bookseller and blogger, tallied up recent professional ones over at her Shelftalker blog, pointing out that “Starred reviews are excellent guideposts, but they don’t tell the whole story, of course. There are amazing books out there that never receive a starred review but are popular and/or critical favorites nonetheless.” What starred reviews do though is give us a sense of wide professional admiration for particular books.  That is, there is something meaningful about such a range of journals and professional and knowledgeable critics separately deciding a particular book is so good, so above the norm that it deserves a special nod, a star.

While I don’t know how they are selected at other journals I do know a little of the process at Horn Book where I’m an occasional reviewer and can say that it is a decision carefully and thoughtfully done by a whole lot of professional reviewers there. And so knowing that I do pay attention to starred books. Not that I always agree with them. Occasionally books that didn’t work for me get multiple stars and I put that down to taste. That is, there are certain types of books many love that I don’t. And they get their stars for good reason. That I don’t care for these books is due to me and not to their quality.

And what about personal stars, those that I dole out on goodreads for example? Recently my friend Teri Lesesne gave her feelings about these and I do agree with her that there are so many books and readers out there and that what may work for one reader may not for another. I espouse that as well and see to it that I have a huge range of books in my classroom for that very reason. But I part ways with Teri when it comes to goodread stars for I have a lot of “friends” there whose opinions on books I value highly and so the stars they give mean something to me. At times they affirm my own feeling for a book, often they make me want to read a book I might otherwise overlooked or ignored, and occasionally they cause me to return to a book for another look. I love knowing of someone else’s passionate pleasure for a particular book and so I find these personal stars incredibly helpful.

Because of this I give them out myself. Not for every book. I only star those that stand out for some reason, usually because I found them particularly good, occasionally because I found them particularly weak. Sometimes I do actual reviews here and/or on goodreads (if a book stands out somehow and pretty much always if I’m marking it as not so great), but often I just want to indicate that I liked a book without having to write anything.  The stars, I find, are great for that.

Stars. Reviews. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the reality is they exist.  It is how we consider them that matters.

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10 responses to “The Thing About Stars

  1. As a writer, I wish I could always be treated as kindly as you treat your lucky fourth graders–with prose comments on my strengths and weaknesses, rather than stars. :)

    In academia, we don’t use stars, but rather a rigorous system of peer review, so that whatever is printed is already five-star work by almost all accounts (thus, why it is so hard to get yourself some tenure!).

    But publishing has no such system. I think stars are necessary simply because of the sheer number of books that are published every day! We need stars to quickly sort out what we will read, whether we select based on who recommends it–Kirkus, Horn Book, Amazon, our Goodreads friends–or simply its appearance in a major bookstore, which is a sort of “star” unto itself. Academia’s rigor has many drawbacks–that is, not everything gets printed that deserves to, or that may be of interest to some one–but the publishing climate has drawbacks to: namely, the fact that we must ask the question, how are we ever going to keep up?

    (I have to say the blogsphere has been a big help here. Without great children’s lit. bloggers like yourself, who consider not only the object but also the audience, I don’t know what we’d do.)

    Best,
    Jewell

    • Actually peer review sounds a bit like what I do with my 4th graders. That is, I keep working with them on a piece of writing until it is at least at a reasonable level, that is what I would expect for 4th graders. So there is actually no way to fail. I actually have been an adjunct instructor in various graduate schools and did somehow manage to give grades. Seems easier for adults than kids.

      Glad that you, an author, can see value to stars and all!

  2. Like you, I consider a star an indication that some people I respect thought highly of a book. That’s enough for me to sit up and take notice, even if I end up disagreeing.

    One thing I find interesting on Amazon is the way you can view the star spread. It says a lot about a book if the reviewers all gave it either five stars or one star, or if all of the reviews hover between two and three stars. Consensus, or the lack thereof, is fascinating.

    And I’m also nosy, so I like to see what my friends think. ;) I love Goodreads for that.

    • I have to admit I don’t pay much attention to Amazon reviews, but do look at them occasionally as another window into what people are responding to in a particular book. I have looked at that star spread though, also on goodreads. And I’m with you about wanting to know what my friends think!

  3. You’ve probably already seen these, Monica, and they’re only tangentially related, but over at Someday My Printz Will Come there are two posts about starred YA reviews from the six major journals and how they relate to Printz awards. The first one is here, and it shows that award winners don’t necessarily reap a lot of stars; and the second one (which shows how well each journal’s stars “predict” the Printz) is here. In my view, the lack of predictability of the Printz using starred reviews is probably directly related to the taste issue you bring up, combined with the almost magical dynamic of coming to a consensus in a committee made up of those different tastes. The fascinating cases are always those books, like Chime last year, that receive multiple stars (six stars is “wide professional appreciation” if I’ve ever seen it) but don’t win even an honor.
    It’s all fascinating stuff!

    • Elizabeth, I did see these and agree, fascinating stuff. My bean counter friend, Jonathan Hunt, has long been intrigued by this as well, related sometimes to the Printz (on adbooks) and, more recently, over at Heavy Metal for the Newbery. I do think the main fly in the ointment is the committee dynamic. Having served on a few, one being the Newbery, I can say you just never know how a group will engage.

  4. Pingback: To Star Or Not To Star « A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

  5. Pingback: The Starring Debate « Fairrosa Cyber Library: Bulletin Board

  6. Lucky you, getting to do prose reports instead of grades! I just left public school teaching after 6 years and grades were one major reason why.

  7. As a former teacher and principal and now a writer, I really relate to this post. I think the stars ARE useful, as long as people tell you what they are for, as you have done. Just like grades, I suppose. 5 stars out of 5 stars might mean the book is fun to read or has great sentences or a great plot, or all three of them…you just have to know the reviewer…same with grades and teachers, really.

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