April 4, 2014

“Goodreads for kids” to spawn terrifying legions of underage book reviewers


This kid already has the critical squint down.

This kid already has the critical squint down.

This is the day the embattled field of book criticism has long feared… the day it’ll be taken over by swarms of opinionated amateurs with an international platform and no need for a paycheck. Kids, we’re talking about.

BiblioNasium, the book-focused social network for children, has added a new feature in response to user demand. Children will now be able to post reviews, in addition to the site’s other features, which, like Goodreads, include the ability to create a virtual bookshelf, get free stuff, and compare your reading accomplishments to those of friends. (And unlike Goodreads, parents and teachers can also track a child’s reading progress through a book, and by reading level. Unlike Goodreads, as far as we know.)

Quoted in an article for Publishing Perspectives on the update, Marjan Ghara, founder of BiblioNasium, said that:

In adding the functionality of open book reviews, we are engaging children on a new level, giving them a new voice and a structure to think more creatively about what they are reading and recommending.

This is true. They’re also opening up the floodgates. No longer confined to the humble lined pages of the book report, the playground recommendation, or even the underground bedroom-video review networks (sample quote: “The first thing that I liked about this book was that it’s really bendable”—I love this kid), allowing children to write online book reviews may change the lower reaches of Amazon, Goodreads, and LibraryThing forever. No longer will an author will suffer through an one-star, misspelled, and completely off-topic review spearing their laboriously composed debut novel with the consolation that at least it was written by someone who can legally drink alcohol. The reins of literary glory and financial success are passing into other, cuter hands.

But, on the whole, is this Bad for Literature? I was for a while a regular reader of the Los Angeles Times’ “Kids’ book reviews” feature (now apparently discontinued), and though not lengthy or particularly illuminating about style or place in the literary canon, the reviewers had gotten some elements of book criticism down pat: contextualization (“If you like books about dragons, you’ll like this book”); plot descriptions that give enough details so that a reader is intrigued, but not so much that they don’t feel like they have to read the book; a certain evangelism (“You must read this”). They were also honest about their expectations, and how they were occasionally overturned—for instance, the following review.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

Trenton Lee Stewart

An orphan named Reynie Muldoon is a smart child. One day, he comes across a weird advertisement directed to the children across the city. He answers the ad and has to take three tests. The tests are easy for him. Reynie goes on a mission with two children for a Mr. Benedict. Mr. Benedict wants to destroy his brother’s invention, The Whisperer. Why? You will find out when you read this book. I thought this was going to be another lame old mystery book. But this is a sensational story.

Reviewed by Harrison, 10

Third Street School, Los Angeles

So, I’m optimistic. Bring them on. Child reviewers are the wave of the future, and I’m not going to linger behind the wave, thumbing through a lame mystery novel. The more critical voices, the better I say, even if they savage my avant-garde Brazilian novel of linguistic disintegration for not containing enough wizards. And the best thing about the BiblioNasium hordes? Eventually, they become adult reviewers.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.