Wanted: Young readers to build book buzz

Lily Cantor, 12, reads the back cover of the novel "Annexed" at the Bethesda library as part of a national program that nominates best reads for youth and gives publishers teen feedback.
Lily Cantor, 12, reads the back cover of the novel "Annexed" at the Bethesda library as part of a national program that nominates best reads for youth and gives publishers teen feedback. (Katherine Frey)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010

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."


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