Monday, February 2, 2009

How not to be a great readers' adviser

If I told you I liked Harry Potter, what would you recommend to me next?

If I told you I liked The Luxe, what would you recommend to me next?

If I told you I liked Uglies, what would you recommend to me next?

Stop. Put that RA list down, and listen.

One of the things I love doing most in person but hate doing most over email is readers' advisory. Finding the right book for the right person takes time, work, and interviews. This post is a plea to my colleagues: I beg of you, when you ask for RA assistance over email, please do an RA interview first, and tell us the things that we cannot see.

It's a common thing to see RA questions on YA lit listservs, and unfortunately it's also a common thing for posters to leave off information that we desperately need to do a good RA job. Here are some examples of RA questions I've seen on listservs:

"I have a group of girls who hate to read but love Twilight. What do you recommend to them?"

"I know a ten-year-old who read and loved all the Harry Potter books. What do you recommend to them?"

"What YA books would you recommend to eleventh-graders?"

What's wrong with all these questions? They tell us practically nothing about the reader's other interests, or what interests him or her in these particular titles. As librarians, we've been trained to give good, correct answers quickly, but great RA takes time, not reflexes. Consider the first question. First, how old are these girls? Second, why do they hate to read? Have they tried reading anything else recently? Their ages are easy to see in person but impossible to see over email unless we're told. It's our reflex to say "Here are some vampire books," but maybe the girls don't care about the vampire aspect. Maybe they just want a love story. Maybe they like over-the-top prose. Maybe they want a story about a "normal" girl in a supernatural world. We don't know without a good RA interview.

With the second one, the reflex is to recommend fantasy. The problem with this is that 1) Harry Potter is a hero's journey but, as J.K. Rowling said (paraphrased), the fantasy is a secondary, even tertiary element and 2) How much of HP sunk into the reader? It could be that this ten-year-old has read, digested, and analyzed every HP plot line. In that case, more power to him. Or her. Would you be so kind as to tell us which in the email to the listserv? A good RA interview should serve as a tool to gauge the reader's strength and interests. When I hear about younger readers who just looooooooved Harry Potter, I always like to ask them about their favorite character and/or event in the story. A short conversation about the book reveals a lot to me about how this particular child or teen reads. These are conversations we can't have over email, but they're questions that are imperative to getting this reader the right book.

The third one: They're in eleventh grade. Okay. What else can you tell us about them? Are they advanced readers? Remedial? Is the class mostly boys? Girls? Is the community more liberal or more conservative? If I start recommending adult titles, will you automatically tell me that those are "too young?"

Another recent question on one of the listservs came from someone who was looking for a movie to show, but it couldn't be a certain well-known high school movie from the '80s because it was "inappropriate." (No, the movie wasn't Heathers.) Okay. That's fine. But please tell us what is appropriate in your community so we can shape our answers in a way that will best help you find a film for your classes to watch.

RA is an art, not a science. It takes practice and patience and no matter how much you know, you'll still give out the wrong answer 25 percent of the time. I could deal with this 25% failure rate a lot better, though, if suggestions we librarians made based on very little information weren't shot down because, well, we gave suggestions based on very little information. Parents who come to the library to get books for you children: Please tell us what your child has already read. Tell us about his/her interests. Don't just say, "He needs a fantasy book for his seventh-grade book report." We want to give the best answers possible while doing RA, but this can only be done if we have the best answers to our RA interviews to start with.

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