Please Start Reading Books for What They Are

Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

Are you annoyed because the romance you picked up at the library has a happy ending? Bothered because you dove into a middle grade by a favorite author, and found the mystery was “too easy” for you, a full-grown adult, to solve? I have words for you.

I have a favorite fantasy author who released their first middle grade after years of adult novels. Fans pounced on the new book, and some of them were a little over-critical. The language wasn’t as “rich” as they’re used to. The character made poor or immature choices. The story was relatively simple, or the mystery predictable. The protagonist didn’t see that the villain was right in front of them the whole time.

None of these reviewers seemed to have the self-awareness to realize that there was a simple solution for this: the book was written for a 5th and 6th grade audience, and they were reading it as adults.

When we pick up a book with plans to review and rate it online, we have to do so with an awareness of what the book is, and what it is trying to do, and then critique it appropriately. We have to read books for what they are. Yes, to give authors a little grace. But more so, because that’s what a good review does: it meets the book where it is, and then makes its critiques from that starting point.

So, when we pick up a middle grade book, we have to come to it with the knowledge that it’s meant for a younger audience. I’m not saying that you have to dismiss all issues or critiques you have. Young audiences deserve good, complex stories, and middle grade can certainly appeal to adults. But I’m saying that we should turn the first page of a book knowing what age group it’s meant to appeal to, and critique it appropriately.

I’m saying that I’ve seen dozens of reviews criticizing Young Adult protagonists for making “immature” or “overly emotional” decisions. Have you met any teenagers recently? Teens yell at their parents. They make mistakes. They drive people away and say hurtful things and get caught up in the pain of cliques and change. When you’re an adult reading a teenage story, it might be easy to judge their reactions to things, but do you remember what being a teen is like? Let’s start opening YA novels with that knowledge front and center in our minds. Loosen up and remember that teen protagonists are going to make decisions you wouldn’t make as a grown-up who pays rent and is a few years removed from their own embarrassing teen drama.

I can easily extend this into genre as well. I’ve seen reviews where readers are annoyed that the romance was clearly going to end in a “happily ever after” from page one. I’ve seen reviews where readers admit to having no patience for science fiction, then give the book one star because they lost patience with the complicated worldbuilding and quit after a few chapters. It’s fine for you to dislike a genre, and to dislike a book of that genre. But to be thoughtful and fair readers, our critiques have to be informed by what the book is.

Genre can surprise and delight you! Not all fantasy is going to be magical spells and wands, and not all science fiction is going to feel complicated, and not all romance will tie itself up with neat bows at the end. But if you pick up a romance hating neat, happy endings, maybe consider that it’s not really on the author if you read the book and hate the neat, happy ending. I’m asking you to foster a rich self-awareness when you pick up a book, and take a moment to consider perspective before you criticize a book for tropes or details that it was always likely to have.

Remember that your reviews appear to all readers who look up a book, and that they impact ratings. When you spend time writing a review of a book, it should be informed by what that book is, and what it intended to do, rather than misconceptions of what you may have wanted it to be. Meet the book where it’s at, and go from there.

So next time you review a book that wasn’t meant for your age group, or in a genre you never really click with, take a moment to consider whether your critique is a fair one. Take a moment to make sure you’re meeting it where it is.