There is a place for loving books in my personal life and there are many titles that I have strong emotional attachments to. This includes childhood favorites as well as recently published books that spark a deep response in me.
I imagine the same is true of most of us in the field of children’s and young adult literature. We believe in the power of books to shape and to transform and to move young readers because we have experienced it, often from the time we ourselves were children. We are passionate about books in general, and specific books in particular. And the books that have shaped or transformed or touched us individually, even in small ways, are the ones we tend to feel most passionate about.
When it comes to favorite books from childhood, I think it is easier for many people to understand that holding them dear is a matter of personal opinion rather than professional judgment. As a result, it’s often (but not always) easier for us to also hear cultural criticism of those beloved titles. We can love the book personally while accepting the criticism professionally. (Allie wrote recently about being able to hold these two things simultaneously.)
When it comes to new books, however, I think the line between personal opinion and professional judgment too often gets blurred or disappears altogether. Maybe this is part of the reason why exchanges on social media are simultaneously impassioned and entrenched: it's hard to separate the personal from the professional. And sometimes, it's hard to separate egos too--at least that's how it seems when people respond to critiques, especially cultural critiques, of books in which they are clearly emotionally invested with either passionate defense or passionate disregard, the end result of which is the same: dismissal of the concern as ultimately irrelevant. Discussions around books at this time of year when awards are on everyone’s minds can become particularly passionate and particularly entrenched.
The work I do as a professional evaluating books for children and teens is absolutely informed in part by my personal response to the books I read. And I read a lot of things that don’t move me at all. I read others that leave me feeling ambivalent, even as I see a place for them in a library collection. As a result, when something does impact me strongly (positively or negatively), you can bet I take notice. And when the impact of what I’ve read is to feel pleasure, even excitement, of course I hope others will feel the same.
I know I’m not alone in this.
But there is a problem when that personal response becomes a deeply invested emotional attachment that gets in the way of our professionalism.
When a book deeply moves us in some way it’s understandable that we become emotionally invested. Maybe it’s something that delights, perhaps even sparking a sense of joy; maybe it makes us feel hopeful; maybe we are saddened by what we read, but that sadness nourishes a sense of empathy. Maybe we find its literary elements astonishingly complex or lyrical; it’s visual elements striking or brilliant, and our excitement at its accomplishment makes us want others to feel the same.
Our emotional investment can make us eloquent in our praise. It can also fuel an infectious enthusiasm. (One of the things I love most about the work I do is being able to share my enthusiasm for specific books with others.)
But that emotional investment, in a book, or in an author or illustrator, can also make us unable to hear criticism that is essential to evaluating the same book with our professional rather than personal lens. And professionalism demands that we do just that: seek out and seriously consider informed perspectives when it comes to accurate and authentic representation of race, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and other aspects of identity reflected (or absent) in a book we are evaluating when its content is outside our own experience. Instead, we too often take it personally. Egos get bruised. And that has to stop. It has to stop if we are ever going to move into truly constructive conversations. And it has to stop because this business of being a librarian, reviewer and critic is not about us.
The late Ruth Gordon, librarian, writer, editor, brilliant and blunt commentator and critic, used to challenge people who said they “love” a book. She made me stop and think about how we use this word in our work.
I have come to the conclusion that saying we love a book is a place we may start. It isn’t the place any of us should end in our work as professionals.