On Critiquing

Over the past few years I’ve logged over thirty reviews for CBCA’s Reading Time. I take the role of reviewer seriously – maybe too seriously 😉 – and always aim to be thorough and fair. This means identifying a book’s weaknesses in addition to its strengths. Readers have told me they appreciate my candour, but I sometimes worry that I’m a lone (grumpy) voice in review-land.

That’s because of the hundreds of children’s book reviews I’ve read in recent years, the overwhelming majority seem to be quite favourable. Even a less than enthusiastic review seldom draws attention to the book’s shortcomings. I find this odd because, simply put, not every book on the shelves is as fabulous as their reviews often imply. 

What’s the purpose of a book review anyway? A considered book review isn’t someone simply rehashing the plot or saying whether they liked the book. A review is a critique. That’s different than ‘criticising’ or identifying negative aspects to draw attention to faults. A critique is the reviewer’s honest assessment of the book – their informed opinion, presented constructively and respectfully, after considering and evaluating the work’s strengths and weaknesses. This requires not only critical thinking but also critical reading. Most people read socially, and in many cases superficially. Critical reading is a form of active reading – of interacting with the text, asking questions and evaluating as part of the reading experience. 

Although many schools have moved towards units of inquiry in recent years, the foundation of rote learning remains, leaving limited opportunity for students to develop and maintain critical reading and writing skills. Study guides are the mainstay for English and Lit classes – I’ve yet to meet a high school student who has laboured over the assigned text. No one writes letters anymore and, for business purposes, it’s becoming even more difficult to telephone a company. More and more, enquiries and complaints are being resolved online, often through a chat function, usually powered by a bot. For young people, the majority of writing is tackled via social media – short and sweet text messages, grammar and punctuation optional. I don’t see the situation improving any time soon.

Although reviews shouldn’t dwell unnecessarily on the negative, they shouldn’t simply be good news vehicles. Years ago when my kids were in primary school, the principal, noting a sea of sad faces at the swimming carnival awards presentation, spontaneously announced that everyone would be getting a ribbon because “you’re all winners!” The students who had just smashed their PBs or a school record seemed bewildered. This well-meaning approach trampled over merit in the name of inclusivity, with no one ‘winning.’ Likewise, if reviews become synonymous with ‘what I liked about the book,’ and conveniently omit any perceived shortcomings, the value of truly exceptional titles is diluted in the rising tide of praise. 

One reviewer told me she never included negative comments because she didn’t want her reviews to adversely affect an author’s sales figures. Another told me if she didn’t like the book she simply didn’t review it. I can appreciate the good will driving these choices but self-censorship, or presenting only half the equation, does a disservice to readers. And it doesn’t do any favours to authors who value constructive, considered reviews for honest feedback.