The Stars So Far: Yes or No?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 5th, 2011

Last year and the year before, people seemed to appreciate the ShelfTalker posts where I gathered starred reviews from Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, the Horn Book, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates). Recently, I’ve received emails asking for the 2011 Stars So Far list, and thought I would share my dilemma about the list and its purpose, and open it up to you.

I had all but decided not to repeat the project this year, in part because it is incredibly time-consuming to collect, reformat for consistency, double-check, and count all of the starred review titles. (I do have another full-time job.) But then I started receiving requests for it, and thought more deeply about my conflicted feelings about The Stars So Far. I realized that, beyond the time commitment, I have other hesitations, not least of which is the suspicion that, in providing a sort of one-stop-shopping list, I am complicit in an activity that actually contributes to the narrowing of readership to fewer and fewer titles.

As I said in one of last year’s posts, “Starred reviews are excellent guideposts, but they don’t tell the whole story. There are amazing books out there that never receive a starred review but are popular and/or critical favorites nonetheless.”

When starred reviews become a primary source for book orders, a lot of worthy books can get left in the dust. Often, these are solid “midlist” titles, the kind that make wonderful meals for kids but may not have that extra hook or flash or literary pedigree to grab the eye of a reviewer. I’ve also wondered if starred reviews influence other review publications’ stars, and even have the potential to sway award committees.

Last year, the final tally of starred reviews reached something around 500 titles. For librarians and teachers, this is already far beyond an affordable number of books to add to a collection. As a book buyer myself, I can see the temptation of using a convenient starred review list to corroborate purchasing decisions. Of course, such a list is no substitute for seeing a whole publishing season’s offerings, knowing your local customer base, hearing rep opinions, and being open to serendipity. I know that buyers aren’t using the Stars So Far list as a replacement for these other methods, but I wonder how much of an effect starred reviews do have on buying decisions. We sometimes forget that a star is awarded by a single person—the reviewer (although, in most cases, the editor of the review publication also must confirm the star). Reviewers and editors take great care assigning stars, but each starred review still comes down to taste. Because of this subjectivity, I think starred reviews might carry more perceived weight than they actually merit.

It’s hard enough for writers — especially debut and less established authors — to get their books noticed. There is something wrong with the system when even a successful, longtime author feels like a failure because he or she has never received a starred review. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard authors confess they feel this way.) I don’t think the sense of failure comes so much from typical writerly neurosis, than the recognition of a hard truth: that with all the noise around us, all the information coming at us from all directions, the thousands of books published each year, it gets harder and harder for a book to be seen and heard without a massive promotional effort or critical attention. To a certain extent, the starred review list seems to play into this problem.

I’m listening for your thoughts pro and con, as I try to decide whether or not to resurrect The Stars So Far. What say you?

49 thoughts on “The Stars So Far: Yes or No?

  1. Shannon Stanton

    We NEED you to organize this. We are thinking people. If we want to look for starred reviews, help us look. We can also look elsewhere. You have provided a great library service. You are simply organizing information that is already available. Please, please continue to help. 50,000 children’s books a year, an overwhelming avalanche…we will find other books, but a little guidance is needed.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Hi, Shannon. I’m so glad you appreciate the project. I still have the reservations and time constraints I outline above. I’m not sure who would be willing and able to take it on. It’s an enormous amount of work to create, especially on a volunteer basis in this economy. Maybe what we need is to find a Library Science program that would find this project valuable for its students. And heck, they could get some media technology credits by creating an app for it, too. (I’m only partially kidding.)

      Anyone have connections in that realm?

  2. Rachelle

    Hi Elizabeth,
    I have been so grateful for your lists-I am a “please, please continue the list” vote. I am another parent trying hard to find great books for my kids and your lists have been fabulous. Thanks for the lists so far, they have been much appreciated.

  3. Georgie

    It’s quite funny because at my library most books can not go on a recommended reading list if the book didn’t receive a starred review. Many books are bought from the starred reviews.

  4. betty tisel

    I think it would be good if more people would subscribe to the publications that do reviews; or at least visit their web sites or buy an occasional single issue of their publication! A list of all the starred reviews is like only eating dessert…. just think, we’d miss out on the green salad, and the popcorn, and the bloomin’ onions, and the steak, and the edamame, and the garlic/lemon asparagus, and the bean burritos…. Stars-only is too rich and monolithic a diet.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Betty, I think about this a LOT. In fact, I’ve wondered if the editors at the review sources I use are annoyed by the aggregation of the starred reviews. I do subscribe, and it’s expensive! But still, there are so many rich, rich reviews of books that don’t get stars but deserve the same kind of attention.

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  6. Kate Blaisdell Barsotti

    I put less faith in starred reviews when a “stellar” book did not receive one. A Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer was intense and amazing, most worthy of notice, but it’s fallen through the cracks. If that novel can’t receive a starred review, I despair of my work (if it’s published) ever getting one, and wonder how many other excellent titles are passed over.

  7. Sergio R.

    I like a starred book list only when one of mine is in it! Really. In any case, I appreciate your argument against doing these lists and I agree. Maybe it would be better to have a list of books that didn’t get a starred review but that, in your opinion, should have. Of course that would be even more time consuming…

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Hahaha, Sergio. I’ve thought about doing that list many times, as a counterbalance, but for obvious reasons, that’s impossible! Or at least, would only be possible after all 2011 starred reviews are in. And by then, who remembers what did or didn’t get a star? But, seriously, I always hope to be able to highlight some of those ‘quieter’ gems in the blog.

  8. marjorie

    Hi, Elizabeth — as a parent I adore your list. I don’t read trade journals or publishers’ catalogues; I read blogs by librarians, editors and booksellers I like and trust. I use your list to see what titles I think my kids might like (and since I write about Jewish stuff for my job, to see if there are Jew-y titles I should know about). And I don’t care whether something’s gotten one star or five — I don’t think your list contributes to the star-ification of our culture. I just love the resource of seeing a whole bunch of highly regarded titles at a go. All that said, I can only imagine what a humungous effort this is for you, and I completely understand if you wanna say genug.

  9. Doret

    Over 500 titles, I say give yourself a break, no more list. I loved all your points. Whatever you decide thanks for taking the time to think this out.

  10. janette

    I promise to give you all the stars in the world if you will continue to do your list. As a list addict, I think your list is the best with surprises and info I can’t get anywhere else without a bigger paycheck.

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  12. Kate Coombs

    I’ve read all of these comments with interest, and it sounds like librarians and other book buyers take their work seriously enough to consider factors other than stars (and your list).

    Like several others who have commented above, I know I use it to see what I’ve missed as a reader and blogger. I also like having a simple “big picture” look at the many excellent books published recently. And I am curious to see whether reviewers like the same books I like. Of course, if they don’t give a book I love a bunch of stars, I’m not inclined to change my mind!

    Do parent book buyers know about the stars, or just people who are more invested in the world of books? I would rather a parent bought a starred book than a random movie/toy tie-in or a book by a celebrity author…

    That said, the list looks like a lot of work, and if you decide to give it a pass, those of us who live and breathe children’s books will obviously continue to seek out the best books we possibly can, relying on numerous sources.

    Thank you very much for the effort you’ve put in as you’ve created these lists in the past!

    One more thought: On the author side of things, knowing my babies may or may not earn stars or get zapped by reviews, I make a point of reminding myself, “A reviewer is still just one person.”

  13. Carol B. Chittenden

    The very fact of a review constitutes a star, no? There’s so much that never even receives a review, let alone a star. And as one who writes reviews and edits a group of reviews, I can tell that among the many variables are the reviewer’s attitude of the hour, breakfast satisfaction, and deadline pressure. An aggregator wiki would be a good thing, though.

    A very bright star to you, Elizabeth.

  14. Carol Edwards

    For a number of years I have compiled a list of the different review journals end of year “Best” lists and include the ALA awards lists when they are announced. I know all about the compiling and proofing time required, but I’ve done this for another reason entirely and for me it’s worht the effort.

    I want to see what are the biases of the different review sources. Are some better at spotting excellence in nonfiction? Are some really attuned to translated books or works from other countries? Are some journals more mainstream in their selections with lots of repeats from other journals, or is there a journal that always is more eccentric and highlights titles that would otherwise go unnoticed?

    I think mindless buying from any list is a foolish way to proceed for collection development, but I know that the play of the editor is strong in placing the stars. I do some reviewing, and believe me when I suggest a star for a title, it doesn’t mean that the book will get one. Knowing your journals is key, and my end of the year lists really help me see that bigger picture.

  15. Erlene

    What was your original goal? To please authors? To provide a shortcut for buyers? To help beleagured librarians, teachers, and parents sort through the huge amount of books published? Reflect on your original goal and you will have your answer.
    Personally, I loved your list — as a librarian purchasing for a K-5 school library, I used it as a review, looking for some things I might have missed and looking at stars given in a couple of publications we can’t afford to take!
    As a reader, I appreciated titles in the YA catagory to build my own summer reading list and gift purchasing ideas.
    I would miss your list!

  16. Bridget Heos

    This reminds me of my friend’s mom, who seeks out the two-and-a-half-star movies in the paper for her “to-see” list. Four-star movies are not her thing. People like what they like. Thank goodness librarians choose books based on what their libraries’ kids like–not just stars!

  17. barbara markowitz

    elizabeth,

    many of my author’s, even the award winning STARRED ones, are 200% against the starred compilation list.

    whew, you must be relieved.

    now you can spend your time doing what you and josie do well, spend the time passionately selling books.

    barbara

  18. Dianne White

    Elizabeth – as wonderful and *convenient*as the “Stars So Far” list is, I agree, with your reluctance to continue. The time issue is certainly reason enough to stop. But, more importantly, I appreciate your discussion about the rationale for NOT posting based on the ease with which some tend to assume that such lists are the end-all-be-all.

    I agree with Kate Messner who said – “As a teacher, I like seeing the starred reviews just to make sure I’m not missing something that everyone else thinks is amazing. But…”

    As a teacher myself, I too, like to see these lists … in case I’ve missed something. But honestly… I follow enough blogs that I don’t think there’s often something with a star or two that slips through unawares. And in that case, odds are, I’ll hear about it sooner or later, right??

    My vote? Give yourself a break. :-) No “All Stars” list.

  19. Sherryl

    I totally understand your hesitation. For every book you include in the Stars list, there are other good ones that miss out. It’s so hard for books to get a mention, and it’s subjective, as you say. Every time I see a blog post where someone lists their favorites, the comments section is full of other suggestions!
    In Australia, the CBCA awards shortlists create the same problem – everyone immediately buys what’s on the shortlist, and dozens of other great books almost “disappear”. Wish there was a solution to this – maybe a Wiki that everyone can contribute to is one answer?

  20. Hannah Ehrlich

    Speaking from the publisher side of things, starred reviews have always felt to me like a good equalizer. We’re a small independent publisher (Lee & Low Books) and don’t have the budgets that a huge publisher might, but stars are one way that our books can get attention and buzz based on merit alone. That’s true of awards, too, but those come out much later- stars allow great books (subjectively, of course) to get attention right out of the gate regardless of how many marketing dollars are behind them.

    Of course it’s not a foolproof system – I’ve seen books I wasn’t crazy about line up the stars, and conversely seen books I loved come out empty-handed. And any time things are grouped this way (stars vs. no stars, awards vs. no awards, etc), there are worthy books that will be left behind. But I still think stars do more good than harm – especially if supplemented by other great recommendations. Maybe if the Stars So Far continues, you could also ask people to weigh in on their favorite overlooked books?

    Whatever you decide, thanks for all the thought and time you’ve put into this, Elizabeth!

  21. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

    It has occurred to me that a wiki could be created that would serve as an aggregator for reviews. But I’m not sure what would be in it for review publications to participate. Any thoughts on this, Roger? Editors?

    1. Stacy Whitman

      I think someone ought to put together a Rotten Tomatoes of book reviews, actually, only with a more positive spin than finding the “rotten” ones the way you might look for movies. An aggregator of stars is a start, but a place where one could go to get a run-down of the first lines of traditional and blog reviews, with links to all of them. It makes me wonder if RT does this kind of thing automatically or if it’s done by hand by employees.

      At any rate, I liked what Hannah had to say above, and agree that it’s a good resource if you continue to do it.

  22. Kate Messner

    Oh, what a question… As a teacher, I like seeing the starred reviews just to make sure I’m not missing something that everyone else thinks is amazing. But…

    As an author, I definitely feel like a bit of a plain-bellied Sneetch sometimes when I see a starred review list and my latest book isn’t there. And I agree that lots of perfectly fine books end up star-less. My debut novel won the E.B. White Read Aloud Award – but no stars. And if I’m remembering right, Cindy Lord’s RULES was without starred reviews and then won a Newbery Honor, and it’s one of my favorite books in the whole world. So mixed feelings here. I’m interested to hear what others think, though!

  23. Cathie Sue Andersen

    I can do without it. But, I also have ready access to all those review journals and more. I would consider the lsit a useful tool but not the final word.

    After all, we are selecting for our communitites and what may be 4 stars there may not be 4 stars where I live. But, kudos for the effort. I know all about compiling, formatting etc…

  24. WK

    As someone who has received starred reviews — and someone who occasionally gives them out — I say bravo, Elizabeth. Starred reviews are given far too much credence in kids’ lit and lists like this (as fun as they are to look at) do no real service to authors or readers. Instead, they contribute to a narrowing groupthink. Mostly what they do is help the journals sell ads. Which, as Roger so adroitly commented, is executed by publishers in the most backwards and counterproductive of fashions.

  25. Erica Perl

    I’m torn on this one. And that’s probably because I sit on both sides of this issue (writing books, starred and unstarred) and selecting books in my position with First Book. I try really hard not to be swayed by stars – even though I love, love, love receiving them – because of just what Ellen, and you, said: they don’t tell the whole story. And, while Roger makes a good point re: the simultaneous nature of many trade reviews, there’s definitely a ripple effect in other places (sales, placement, etc.) that comes from stars… which is great when a book deserves them, and not so great when it doesn’t.

    Erica
    erica@ericaperl.com
    Follow me @ericaperl

  26. Hannah

    I love your Stars So Far posts! I completely understand your concerns and I know this must be so much work for you, but I’ve found the lists to be valuable. They’ve introduced me to many wonderful books that I don’t think I would have discovered otherwise. I think it is always useful to be aware of well-reviewed books, and I never ever use your lists (or starred reviews) as the sole basis for purchasing books for my library’s collection.

  27. Heather Lyon

    Hi Elizabeth,
    Count me as one of the people who likes and uses the list. For me, it’s one resource of many, and I tend to use it for noticing worthy books I’ve overlooked. But I admit using it as a shortcut at times. I buy for a general book store (not just kids), and I have many other responsibilities, too, so some winnowing is necessary. I don’t think of it as “mindless” but rather mindful of the limits of my time and ability to consider every option.
    Thank you for what you do. If you don’t have time to compile the list, we’ll manage.

  28. Betty

    I appreciate you list and really like it. As a person who reads a lot of children’s and YA books, the starred list really allows some “clean up.” Here are some titles you might want to look at and may have missed in all the piles. As a former librarian, however, I would never order a book on the basis of just stars. It had to fit in the library, the readers, and the curriculum. It must be a massive project to undertake. I love that you’ve done it, but appreciate why you might not.

  29. Alison

    Here’s another voice for the list (and a volunteer to help if necessary.) As a YA buyer I find the starred reviews really helpful to tell me about those great YA books that aren’t in the series that are really popular (I don’t need starred reviews to buy Pretty Little Liars, for instance.)

  30. Michelle

    I hate to ask for something that is so time-consuming for you, but it is appreciated! The list is one more thing that allows me to become aware of books I might not have heard of that I want to find out more about. I promise that I don’t mindlessly buy books for my elementary school library!

  31. Jennifer

    I was wondering about this list. I completely agree with everything Roger and Nancy Jo said. As a committee member on an ALA selection list (Best Fiction for Young Adults), I want to read widely, but I also want to keep an eye out for starred titles. On that account, the list was supremely helpful. Especially working in a library where an issue of Booklist may be M.I.A. for a month or two before reappearing in a strange place.

    I think with all the aggregators widely available for other media (especially RottenTomatoes), it’s interesting that there’s still no place to find many professional opinions on books. I’m so used to having everything all in one place for me that it’s a little startling, or perhaps refreshingly old-fashioned, to do this work from scratch.

    To hold a book in hand without any preconceptions is a marvelous experience. Thanks for bringing me closer to that!

  32. Brenda Ferber

    Speaking as an author, if I had a book out this year, and it received any starred reviews, I’d love to have that news shouted from the rooftops. Most people buy books based on author recognition and/or personal recommendations, and starred reviews help with both those angles.

  33. Ellen Wittlinger

    As an author who has gotten a star or two over the years (but certainly not consistently) I DREAD seeing lists of starred books. I understand it’s helpful to people who don’t have time to read all the reviews themselves, but it is devastating to the sales (and the confidence) of midlist authors. Roger’s comment about why publishers put their marketing dollars behind the books that have already gotten a lot of attention is one that resonates with me all too clearly. I vote no.

  34. Susan

    I, too, had been waiting for your ‘stars so far’ update but figured it was taking too much time to compile. I really do appreciate all your efforts to do this. And I totally agree with Nancy Jo’s comments above–I love it, but don’t live or die by it. Thanks for asking for feedback, and I do hope you’ll bring it back….

  35. Margaret Miles

    Elizabeth –

    I agree with Nancy Jo. No conscientious librarian is going to make a collection decision based solely on whether a title received a starred review or not.

    I’d like to add that the aspect of the Stars So Far list that I’ve appreciated the most are the one- and two-star sections. This is precisely because, as you point out, each individual starred review is a somewhat personal and idiosyncratic choice, either on the part of the individual reviewer or the editorial staff of the publication.

    The five or six star books are pretty much no-brainers for book selection purposes, and in many instances those titles have been on an order list for our library before most of the reviews ever came out. But the titles that pick up one or two stars often represent quirky, interesting, and original facets of that “solid midlist” which librarians and independent booksellers want to locate and celebrate.

    While I know that compiling the list must take a lot of your time, it saved a bit of mine and gave our public library a richer collection by directing my attention to some of those lesser-magnitude stars.

    Many thanks for the previous lists, whatever you may decide to do this year.

  36. ML

    I understand your reluctance to post the list, but as a children’s book enthusiast — who is buying and consuming these books for one person, not a library, school, or bookstore — I love having the list. It makes me aware of books that I might have missed. If there’s a consensus forming around a book, as a reader I would like to know so I can read and form my own opinion. And the list of stars is more comprehensive and methodical than simply trying to sift through the social media “buzz” or going by anecdotal recommendations.

  37. Malinda Lo

    From my perspective as an author, I’m kinda glad you aren’t doing the starred lists this year. They’re fun to look through, but stars seem so random! A book can get a starred review from one publication and a pan from another. Who’s right? It’s all personal preference in the end.

  38. Jim Randolph

    Good books my students like that didn’t get any stars (as far as I know):

    Extra Credit – Clements
    The Strange Case of Origami Yoda – Angleberger
    The Lost Boy – Butler
    Among the Hidden – Haddix
    Big Nate – Peirce
    All the Lovely Bad Ones – Hahn
    Case of the Mistaken Identity – Barnett
    Dying to Meet You – Klise
    Amulet – Kibuishi

    Just to name a few. And there are some books that get stars and win awards that I just can’t think of a kid I’d hand the book to. No, using only stars would be ridiculous. You need to know your collection and your community and think about what the teachers want, what the students want AND what’s good.

    It’s all about balance, Grasshopper.

  39. Roger Sutton

    Elizabeth, I’m with you on just about all of this, except I don’t think a star from one source has much if any effect on a star from another. Our deadlines are too similar. What really drives me nuts is the way many publishers determine their ad buys based on which books got the most stars–it’s as if they are letting reviewers lead them by the nose. If a book gets a starred review in five places, say, why do you spend your print ad dollars trumpeting that news in the same five places? Why aren’t you advertising the books that YOU think need the attention?

    But there’s plenty of star-shame to go around. I would start with the librarians who don’t even read non-starred reviews, or who only buy starred books. While of course I love to hear “if it’s good enough to be starred by the Horn Book, it belongs in my library,” I don’t think I would be so happy to be a patron of an institution whose selection methods were so mindless.

    1. Monika Schröder

      Elizabeth,

      As and author and librarian I would like to encourage you to quit the list. Librarians have had time to read journals over the year and collect books with stars if they find them worth their money. We all know that the reviews are subjective and I actually appreciate the fact that one book can have five VERY different reviews. While it slows me down in my decision making it also forces me to read more than one review (and eventually look at the book myself). I also have seen too many star-studded books that kids in my library don’t read.

      As an author I agree with Roger as I always wonder why publishers throw their money behind a book that already has buzz around it. I am aware that it is much harder to market a book that has no stars but doesn’t the publisher hire publicists and marketing experts who are supposed to know how to find a market for a book? Buying an ad doesn’t take a lot of creativity. Also, when they bought the ms the publisher obviously thought it had merit. If they don’t help it along once the reviews turn out to be mediocre, what does that say about their own judgement and their loyalty to their authors.

      Monika

  40. Nancy Jo Lambert

    Hi Elizabeth,

    As a librarian, I love to see the “what’s hot” stuff, but I always buy and build for my collection not based solely on “what’s hot” but by reading the full range of reviews and buying for my kids, my readers.

    Sometimes, I find that I buy a dinosaur book just because the dinosaur cubbir is completely picked over all the time, even if it got a less than stellar review, simply because I need dinosaur books!

    So, I think that a good librarian looks at lists like this to stay informed, but buys for the collection based on needs of the patrons, not just “what’s hot.”

    Go forth. Provide the list and know that the good librarian loves it, but doesn’t live or die by it!

    Follow me on Twitter @lambertn

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