On Reviewing

Joining us on the blog to answer our question to him today is writer, reviewer and critic Jai Arjun Singh. So this is half us (the first blah bit) and the second (delightful) half is Jai. Our thanks to Jai for helping us.

One of the pleasant changes in the years that we have been in children’s publishing is that there are more people reviewing children’s books. No, mainstream media has not changed too much–but then, books have so little space anyway. And I am sure so many dozens of books piling up on the desk of the (lucky!) literary editor, that it can often take months. (The one honourable exception is The Telegraph, Kolkata, which seems to review books really promptly.)

What is new is the plethora of blogs which review, and special interest groups where people interested or working in the area are writing. Saffron Tree, Hippocampus, Young India Books, Snuggle with Picture Books–all these are relatively new spaces where children’s books are regularly written about. And a veritable plethora of blogs which are actively and speedily reviewing books–and do not seem to share the mainstream newspapers’ partiality towards adult books.

And there are various Facebook groups which are talking about children’s books. Reading Racoons, Reading Tigers, Reading Caterpillars, and various other reading animals (tsk, tsk, what is it with children’s books and strange animals?) … how lovely it is to hear the chatter!

So things are looking up, really!

For all those lovely people who review (and you have no idea how authors and publishers love you!), we thought we would request the most elegant writer and reviewer Jai Arjun Singh to talk about what makes for a great book review (Jai Arjun is the Jabberwock at jaiarjun.blogspot.in)

– Read the book all the way through. Don’t jump passages or skim. This may sound like a radical idea, but it is central to good reviewing. (If time permits, read it twice – or at least reread the passages that are an important part of your argument, to ensure that you got the tone and context right.)

– Make short notes while reading; a good way to do this is to find a blank page at the end of the book and write out relevant page numbers, which you can refer to later, along with key words that will remind you why you need to refer to that page.

– The review shouldn’t merely be a plot summary followed by a few stray judgements tacked on at the very end. Even when you are writing the strictly “functional” bits of the review – that is, describing the story and the characters – you can weave in your own little observations and asides. (E.g. “The jabberwock and the platypus – whose incessant chatter is amusing at first but becomes a little tedious as the story wears on – travel to the Jaipur Literature Festival and munch on a few authors, a plot turn that may provide vicarious thrills to the reader who believes writers should only be read and not seen.”)

– Don’t try for a false measure of “objectivity” – be as honest as you can be about your own responses, while making sure to explain why you felt that way. Self-analyse if you think you should (perhaps the book didn’t work for you because a platypus ate your best friend when you were a child and you just can’t find them cute anymore?) but if you’re operating on a limited word-count don’t let navel-gazing become a substitute for discussing the book.

– Pay attention to your sentences. There is no one ideal way to write a review, but work with your strengths as a writer – whether you’re using simple, direct prose or being showy. Remember that a good review should be a good piece of writing in itself. Take it as seriously as you would take the writing of an essay or short story.

– Do seek out and read intelligent criticism in the relevant genre – not with the purpose of becoming unduly influenced by another writer’s thoughts or style, but to get a sense of what a good review can be. Good writers are nearly always good readers first.


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