Publishers seek young readers as book critics of teen literature

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 9:13 PM

Lily Cantor is quick with her opinions about the latest books. Ask her about "Fire Will Fall," a post-9/11 novel about a terrorist plot in a suburb, and she dismisses it: Too slow. But what about "Wither," a dystopian tale featuring a virus and a kidnapped girl?

"That one was so, so, so, so good," she said. "I read it three times."

It's heady when you're 12 and your opinions matter in the larger world of books.

The seventh-grader and more than 70 other young readers at the Montgomery County library in downtown Bethesda are a little-known sounding board for publishers of teen fiction, poring over advance copies of books and dutifully typing up their ratings and impressions.

"Hard to read and even harder to finish," Erica Roberts, 15, of Potomac wrote in perhaps her most stinging critique. She rated "Invincible Summer" as a 1 out of a possible 5, which means in perfectly blunt terms: How did it get published?

Such opinions don't influence whether a book goes to print, but they give publishers an important glimpse inside the minds of teen readers. Sometimes they also help build buzz about a new book.

"We love to hear what kids think of our books, and this is a great way to see what they're reacting to," said Suzanne Murphy, vice president and publisher at Disney Book Group, one of two dozen publishing houses that send advance copies to the young Bethesda readers.

The Bethesda group is one of 16 across the nation that belong to a galley review program started by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.

The teen critiques come at a boom time in the young-adult market, said Murphy, whose Disney group owns the Hyperion imprint and publishes authors including Rick Riordan, Ally Carter and Melissa de la Cruz. At times, she said, she reads the reviews and thinks, "Oh, you're right." The feedback is important, she said, because "they are really at eye level."

Kavya Rallabhandi, 14, of Ellicott City read an advance copy of "The Hunger Games" and found it amazing. "I told all of my friends about it," she said.

When the book became a huge hit, "I felt happy to have contributed to its fame," Kavya said. "You kind of feel like you're helping the author succeed."

Locally, the review program, begun in 2007, is called Bethesda Teen Reads. Kathie Weinberg, teen services librarian in Bethesda, said that when she submitted an application to launch the group, she thought: "What a wonderful opportunity for kids to see brand-new books before they are published."

Students ages 12 to 18, with parental consent, may join. Reviewers come to the library to peruse two bookcases reserved for scores of advance copies that usually arrive several months before publication.

Many days, Weinberg sees teens sitting on the floor near the bookcases, paging through possibilities to review.

The students choose as many as they can fit into lives busy with school, homework, sports and clubs.

The teens e-mail Weinberg their reviews, and she sends them along. Every month, she also uses the reviews to come up with her group's nominations for best teen books of the year, a teen-generated list organized by the library services association. Teens throughout the country vote every year, and winners are announced in October.

Jadie Stillwell, 12, said that she kept hearing from a friend about new books that she could not find in stores.

Then, she learned about the program, which gave her not only advance access to new titles but also a few community-service hours required for school.

Opinions are not a problem for Jadie, either. "I have high standards," she said. For her, it means a lot to know "editors will read it and maybe change something in a book."

Some teen reviewers say they imagine editors at desks in New York reading their critiques. Some say they imagine authors thinking about what they have to say.

"The kids in this area are incredibly articulate," Weinberg said. "Some kids' reviews look like a masters' thesis."

Still, the dream that motivates some reviewers is the possibility of an even wider audience: Perhaps one day, their words will grace a book's cover or inside pages, as part of a promotional blurb, or be posted on a publisher's Web site

Weinberg said publishers have called to praise the writing and enthusiasm of the teen reviewers. They also pay close attention to what teens say about book covers - whether they appeal to them or seem mismatched to the story.

One cover, for example, featured a white girl in a story about an African American girl. Teen reviewers objected, as had librarians and others.

"They are very forthcoming in their concerns," Weinberg said. "They are very sophisticated consumers, and they also are very willing to say, 'This book needs work,' or 'This book needs an editor.' "

Every once in a while, Weinberg arranges for an author to meet the group. Last month, through a contact at Politics and Prose Bookstore & Coffeehouse, she landed a visit by sportswriter John Feinstein.

One day in mid-December, 14 girls and five boys from the group gathered to share opinions. Many agreed that teen books can be dark.

There are main characters who were abandoned as children, abused by parents or die in car accidents.

There is historical fiction about the French Revolution; the Johnstown, Pa., flood; and Anne Frank's world in hiding.

"I used to try to find the happier books," Lily Cantor said. "It was a challenge."

Lily, who attends Westland Middle School in Bethesda, said her love of reading has intensified since she became a reviewer. She said she has read "a lot of cool authors."

Plus, reviewing has a certain cachet, she points out.

Some girls show off designer clothes, Lily said. She shows off books. "I get to flaunt the books to my friends," she said.

One day, she walked into a bookstore and spotted "Jane," a modernized version of "Jane Eyre." Lily had read it before the wider public probably knew it was coming, she said, which was "just sort of awesome."

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