Children's Literature (all forms)

The Reader’s Advisory Paradox

by Steven Engelfried

A ten year old recently asked me if I knew any good new books to recommend.  I headed to the new book shelf and was pleased to see Jacqueline Woodson’s Feathers neatly displayed.  I had read this book.  I enjoyed it.  And I thought at the time that it was one that might need and deserve a little extra pushing to get it in the hands of the right readers.  So here was my chance.  The only problem was, I could hardly remember a thing about it.  It was beautifully written, I was sure about that.  Definitely thought provoking, though I couldn’t recall exactly how.  A little different from the usual school novel.  And it’s a Newbery Honor book.  But not one of those things was going to do me a bit of good while trying to convince this girl to read it.  If I had remembered a story detail or two, maybe something about the character, I might have had a chance.  A glance at the book jacket jarred my memory, and she ended up at least thinking about checking the book out, but it wasn’t my finest reader’s advisory moment. 

This has nothing to do with Feathers, which (now that I’ve reminded myself of the details) really is a great book to recommend.  It’s just that I think I read it in the same couple weeks I read half a dozen other children’s novels, four of which featured female characters, and three of which took place in school.  And since then, I’ve read another several dozen books.  And I just can’t keep track of them all. 

Reader’s advisory is one of my favorite areas of children’s librarianship, but it’s never easy, and I think I know why:  It’s the Reader’s Advisory Paradox:  To be really good at reader’s advisory, you have to read a lot of books.  But the more books you read, the harder is to keep them all straight so you can do effective reader’s advisory. 

Over the years I’ve tried many methods to keep track of my reading systematically, noting key plot elements, booktalk possibilities, genres, and all the rest.  Most of us children’s librarians are book readers and organizers, so it should be possible.  I’ve tried 3 by 5 cards at least twice (and even 4 x 6’s once), but never kept it up.  Same with Microsoft Word tables.  And Excel spreadsheets.  I got excited about LibraryThing at one point, then promptly forgot to add any titles for several months.  My wiki project lasted even shorter.  So even Web 2.0 isn’t saving me.

It goes back to that same paradox.  I don’t have time to write stuff down (or enter it onto the latest web tool), because I’m too busy reading.  And the more I read, the more books I have to write down (in whatever way my latest method requires), so I fall further behind.  In the end, though, I do think reading a lot is the most important, even if I don’t have the total recall I wish for.  I just have to accept the fact that sometimes I have to say:  “you know, I read this book, and I liked it, but I really don’t remember it so well.”  And that’s okay as long as I can also say:  “so let’s try another.”

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