Gladys Hunt on Starred Reviews

Editor’s Note: “Starred reviews” are a guideline for librarians figuring how to spend the budget for the children’s section. (We take particular notice of them too, when figuring how to budget our reviewing time!) Are they always a good indicator?

How Are Books Chosen for the Library?

Originally published on the Tumblon website September 9, 2009

If about ten thousand books are printed each year for children and young adults, how in all the world of reading does a librarian or a committee choose which books to buy for their shelves? Or book buyers for stores find a way to choose?

I’ve wondered about that myself in the past. First of all, you must know that there are professional journals that review new books. One such is The Horn Book Magazine. This journal is published six times a year and each issue has approximately 65-75 reviews done by different people—which means that less than 500 books out of the ten thousand are reviewed. Another is The Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books, which give shorter reviews, but still leaves “plenty of wiggle room on the value of the books reviewed.” Others are Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly.

Each of those journals use starred reviews to indicate books they recommend or deem unusual or different in approach. You could imagine that anyone who spends hours reading new books gets almost anesthetized to characters and plots, but still these are professional readers and generally know their stuff. After all, they do this for a living. A starred review indicates “outstanding,” yet they never tell you how it is outstanding. When they hit something with a theme or a plot line or characters that are out of the ordinary, they may hit the * button if it is any good at all. At least I’ve come to that conclusion by noticing the starred reviews and have sometimes wondered why that book is better than one by an author whom I know writes outstanding fiction or non-fiction, and whose books are not starred. Hmm. All this by way of saying that this is no easy task. Lively debates take place with other reviewers before the journal goes to press to make certain that one person’s recommendation isn’t going head-over-heels on a whim. Each journal should be able to defend its stars.

How many librarians have time to read even all the book reviews, to say nothing of all the other newly published books? Some method for choosing must be used. A survey of librarians indicated that if they find the same book starred in more than one journal, then they figure that is one worth reading and perhaps buying. Except that one woman, who has been a librarian for thirteen years, said that she takes starred reviews with caution because she has had to weed out non-circulating items over the years. She found that starred review books can become shelf-sitters.

But, according to a HarperCollins editor, starred reviews are the books the publisher is apt to advertise which makes the book-buyer think it is a winner. Librarians are most apt to buy the starred reviews, and so are the bookstores. This means that much of what is labeled “good” or “outstanding” depends on the taste of the reviewer—and his or her worldview. Do their “stars” fit your galaxy? That’s a good question to ask. And what of the thousands of other titles not reviewed anywhere?

Picture books are less of a problem because of the simplicity of their charm. Yet I became enamored with a starred review of a beautifully illustrated book that involved a horse lost in the winter just before Christmas Eve. Looking at it was a pleasure, reading its text was so disappointing I wondered why the editor didn’t send it back for revisions. Not a single sentence was memorable. The word choices were colorless. Maybe the reviewer had a weakness for horses! It had possibilities, but this isn’t a book that begs for re-reading.

The more complex the story is, the more the world-view of the reviewer comes into play. Generally speaking, all of the books chosen for one of these journals stand a good chance of being well-written by all the usual standards of characterization, dialog or plot development. Some reviewers will opt for the off-beat story, something different that has never been tried before, while others are looking for what the story will do in the readers’ lives. Reviewers are people with their own “hot spots” about books.

So what is the solution? Remember that some of those starred become favorites. The readers, the buyers, decide. If a child has no guidance and simply picks up whatever is there, he will waste a lot of time reading what may be mediocre and will not last. Parents have to make some decisions about what makes a good book, and help their children see exactly what this means. And all this takes some thinking. And thinking will take more than one blog to explore.

© Gladys M. Hunt 2008-10, reissued in 2022 with minor adjustments with permission of the Executor of the Literary Estate of Gladys M. Hunt (4194 Hilton SE, Lowell, MI 49331). Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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