So it has only taken me a week to update (as promised, but with the assumption I would have done it way sooner) about the awesome workshop I attended at the Ontario Library Association Superconference by Nancy Pearl.

When Nancy Pearl first took to the podium, she told us that, although she is retired, as a celebrity librarian and readers advisory superstar, she often gets approached in the street with those sometimes-exciting, sometimes-terrifying open-ended readers advisory questions.  I was so shocked to hear her say that she actually gets this sick-to-her-stomach feeling every time she is asked one of these questions–isn’t she supposed to be some sort of goddess of readers advisory?  Isn’t she immune to that feeling of terror I sometimes get when someone asks me those questions?  The one where for one second I forget about every book and book review I’ve ever read as I go through the motions of the readers advisory interview, only to have them all (usually, hopefully, eventually) come flooding back in this exhilarating rush.  I guess there is this well-kept-secret that Nancy Pearl is actually human deals with the same human reactions to things–even librarian things–that the rest of us do.  This made me feel great–like relating to her about this brief and familiar moment of terror could be the key to my success at the readers advisory desk.

Ms. Pearl went on to talk to us about what makes a good book–a good book, she said, is a book that a reader enjoyed.  It is useless, she said, to classify literature as “good” and “bad” by any other standards than an individual’s own experience reading the book.  While Hopping Freight Trains in North America by Duffy Littlejohn might be my idea of a good book, someone else might hate that book, but love Miley Cyrus’s Miles to Go, which is not really my kind of book (although I did actually read some good–and some really bad–reviews about it)–but who am I to judge readers on the books that speak to them?  Nancy Pearl made a point of saying that no two of us will ever read the same book.  It may have the same cover, text, ISBN, etc. as a book that someone else read, but our experiences, values, likes, dislikes and what we are going through right now really write the books we read–that one line in that one book that changes my life may be a line that every other reader has just glossed over, or it may change a different reader’s life in a completely different way.  So with that, the rules that define what books are “good” or “bad” needs to change based on every reader we encounter.

Keeping with the theme that good and bad books change depending on the reader, Nancy Pearl encouraged all of us to read out of our comfort zone.  She told us to “read promiscuously,” which has sort of become my new motto, new favorite thing, and newest obsession as far as tattoos I need to get go.  She encouraged us to read at least one book a month that pushes our comfort zones and to read across all genres.  As someone who often wishes that they would stop publishing new books for a year or two so I could catch up with all Young Adult books that already exist, the thought of having to read from different genres on top of trying to read every Young Adult book seems a little overwhelming, but it’s also exciting and liberating too.  She told us, though, that we don’t actually have to read the whole book.  If we’re really not into the book we chose outside of our comfort zone for that month, we only have to keep reading until we are in touch with what kind of reader would love that book (“no one could possibly love this book” is not an acceptable answer, so if we’re reading a book and still feel like that about it, that means we have not completed the challange of finding a reader for that book and have to keep reading!)

Because we all read different books when we read, it does not do much good to ask someone what books they like during a readers advisory interview.  “I liked Harry Potter” does not mean much when there are actually millions and millions of different Harry Potters.  Instead, Nancy Pearl said that she like to say, “tell me about a book you loved.”  She described four different reasons people read (for plot, character, setting or language) and asking this question will encourage readers to give some clues about what the book was about to them, which will help a readers advisor figure out which of these 4 catagories they read for.  Readers don’t read for just one of these things, but generally one or two areas will be more important than the others.

If someone says, “I loved Harry Potter because it was such a page turner–I couldn’t put it down!” and gives a plot description, they are likely someone who reads for plot.  The majority of books are plot-centered and most readers read for plot.  You can easily recognize a plot-centered book by a lot of white space on the pages, because paragraphs are short and there is a lot of dialogue.

If someone says, “I loved Harry Potter because I couldn’t wait to find out what made Professor Snape the way he was,” or says “I felt like Ron was really me” they are someone who reads for character.  Character is the second most common thing people read for.  If you are having trouble finding a character driven book, Nancy Pearl suggested trying one with the character’s name in the title.

If a reader says “I liked Harry Potter because I wished I could go to school at Hogwarts,”  that reader reads for setting.  She suggested Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Historical Fiction books for readers who  read for setting, and actually suggested throwing in Historical Fiction recommendations to Sci-Fi/Fantasy readers and Sci-Fi/Fantasy books to Historical Fiction readers.  Setting is the third most common thing people read for.

Finally, if a reader says, “I liked Harry Potter because I kept finding myself savoring every word,” or if they kept copying down phrases from the book because they wanted to remember them they read for language.  Books centered around language are the least common books most people read.  They are the books that people read really slowly.  You can quickly tell a book written for language because these books tend to be award winners.

I always thought I was special because I read for character, but after hearing her talk about all of this, I realized that I probably read for plot (which makes me feel way less special and insightful!)  Honestly, though, and maybe this is just me flattering myself, I do sit around waiting to learn what happened in a character’s life to make them the way they are and I put down books wanting to know more about how the character will change and grow after the book is done, so maybe I am one of the special ones who reads for character.  And I have been having recurring dreams in which I live at Hogwarts since probably even before I read the first Harry Potter book, so maybe setting is important to me too!

This post is getting long and I could go on about this workshop I attended just over a week ago for a lot longer, but I would actually like to post it some time soon!  The final thing I will leave folks with, though, is probably the most exciting little thing I got out of Nancy Pearl’s talk.  She suggested that we end every single readers advisory interaction by saying, “be sure to come back and tell me what you thought!”  How many times have I suggested books to people and had no clue about whether I was making a good suggestion?  Or how many times have I suggested a book to someone that I knew they would love and (selfishly) wanted to hear all about this book through their eyes?  They generally never come back (well, a few have for me), but why can’t I just let them know I’m interested in hearing what they think after they read it?  Of course, not all of them will, but this could also potentially help build a trusting relationship with the patron where they feel like I am interested in their thoughts on the books they read (because I actually really am) and will approach me for more suggestions in the future, or else will feel free to tell me they hated the book I suggested, which is a potentially equally meaningful bit of information.

  1. Thank you for the reader advisory breakdown – we had a unit of reader advisory in my reference class last semester but the concrete examples of reading the book for plot, character and world helps give direction to something I could not quite put my finger on before.

    • Jackson says:

      So glad to pass it on–we do not have a readers advisory class at my school, so even though I love RA, I feel like I kind of have to look to feedback from other librarians (like Nancy Pearl!!!) in terms of improving my RA skills. Her talk helped me a lot and I’m glad to hear you found my notes helpful!

  2. JC Brown says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your notes, Jack! They were very enlightening and helpful.

  3. Alexis T. says:

    Thank you for sharing this! Lots of great information. I really like the idea of asking patrons to tell us about a book they loved, rather than just naming a title. I might have to check out some of her books now. I read recently that she’s now publishing a series with Amazon highlighting worthwhile out-of-print books. Sounds neat.

    • Jackson says:

      I actually haven’t read any of her books–we have them all at the libraries I work at (I’m sure) as desk reference, but I haven’t actually sat down and read them. Though I probably should. That out-of-print series sounds awesome.

  4. jess says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. As a voracious reader, goodreads obsessive and devoted library patron, it is interesting for me to think about reader advisory stuff. I recently asked my favorite librarian for some book suggestions for my wife, and she told me “come back and tell me what she thought of them!” which I didn’t do because my wife hasn’t talked to me about them yet, but then she followed up with me to see what we thought of them. I was like, that is so above and beyond. Anyway, I think I mostly read for plot, then character, then language, then setting. I could care less where something takes place, but I get deeply invested in the characters. It is a rare book that I read for language, but I do appreciate them when they happen. Anyway, it is interesting to think about stuff like this. I am always refining my ‘to read’ list and holds queue with a lot of these things in mind. xoxo.

    • Jackson says:

      Glad you enjoyed reading it! That’s cool that your librarian asked you to tell her what you thought, I have actually not had a real readers advisory question since attending that workshop, so I haven’t gotten to try out any of this yet, but it’s cool to hear of someone else using the same skills

      That’s also pretty fantastic that she remembered you and came back to ask about it. I need to work on that a little more because I have so many conversations about books with so many people that it’s really hard for me to remember what books I recommend to who, even though I may remember everything else about the conversation and it will probably all come back to me instantly if a patron mentions a book I recommended. I will have to work on that.

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