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.