I've been thinking this morning about the underlying attributes of the books that I most enjoy. Some of these I've mentioned in passing within book reviews, but I've never taken the time to give this topic it's own post. There are four criteria that I have long used in assessing books. I realized this morning, however, that a fifth is the one that draws me to the book in the first place, and belongs first in my discussion, and that a sixth is essential for certain types of books:
Premise: This is the hook that gets me to open the book in the first place - the thing that makes me pick this book out of the hundreds of others on my shelves. The premise is especially important when I'm reading adult fiction, in which each title requires a relatively substantial time commitment. As anyone knows who reads my "reviews that made me want the book" feature, I'm a sucker for dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories - almost any premise in that sphere will draw me in. Other premises leave me cold. I read many adult mysteries, for example, but I'm completely uninterested in caper novels and in "hapless guy, through no fault of his own, finds himself in ever-worsening situation." This doesn't mean that I'll never read one - if an author of whom I'm a particular fan writes one, I might try it. But in those cases, the premise is something that must be overcome, rather than something that draws me in. I'll also bypass the premise requirement if a book is strongly recommended by someone who I feel understands or mirrors my reading tastes. But even then, books that I agree that I "should" read often sit for many months on my shelf before I get to them, while others I'm compelled to read right away. (Most recent example: a recommendation to me and a review from Becky's Book Reviews of The Sky Inside, by Clare B. Dunkle.)
When I'm reading children's books I'm reading partly for my own enjoyment, but also to find the books that are going to engage kids. Which means that I have to keep an eye out for premises that might not be relevant to me, but that I think will pull in kids, especially reluctant readers. So I'm still premise-driven in my book selection, but I do try to expand what I'm looking for beyond my personal preferences.
Plot: Here I'm talking not about premise, but about how the book is put together, story-wise. Does it compel me to keep turning the pages? Does it make sense? Do I puzzle over what's going to happen next as I fall asleep? I personally prefer strong plots, where most things that happen point to the conclusion (though I'm ok with moving around in time, and the use of flashbacks). This is why I like mysteries. I read to figure out what happened. I don't tend to get as invested in episodic or slower-paced stories. Again, that doesn't mean that I never enjoy such books, but the other elements have to be that much stronger to compensate. And I will, in certain moods, read and enjoy books that are entirely plot-driven, even when the characters are somewhat lacking in dimension (some of Michael Crichton's books come to mind).
People: For me, the characters are nearly as important as the plot. Usually, a book has to have characters that I care about, in order to keep me reading. This is especially true of series books - the characters had better be quite compelling, to keep me coming back again and again. Truly great characters will keep me reading even when the plot is more episodic (e.g. The Four-Story Mistake, by Elizabeth Enright, and the Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker). And, of course, it's the characters that truly stand the test of time. When we think back on favorite books from our childhood, often we think in terms of the characters (Anne, Pippi, Jo, etc.), rather than the books themselves.
In fact, truly great characters sometimes have more of an impact on the world than their real-world counterparts. I love this quote, by Shelby Foote, said to Robert Hicks, and quoted in an interview of Hicks by Randy Rudder for The Writer, February 2007:
""Always remember, Mr. Hicks, the most important figures to come out of the campaigns in Atlanta will forever be Rhett and Scarlett. And at last account, neither of them ever lived." Then he said "But that's how we remember history. It is through the characters.""
Prose: Here I'm talking about not how the book is put together, but how it's written. Does the dialog feel natural, or is it clunky? Are there turns of phrase that make me stop to read them again? Am I compelled to read the book aloud (as I was with Bonny Becker's A Visitor for Bear)? Do I sometimes smile, sometimes laugh out loud? Do I end up with dozens of pages flagged with little sticky notes? Is there a strong, authentic sense of voice? There are authors who make my jaw drop, with the sheer poetry of their prose (e.g. Marcus Zuzak with The Book Thief). And those are authors whose future books I'll pick up, even when I'm skeptical about the premise.
Sometimes the quality of prose is more obvious when it's not present. There are authors who I simply cannot read, because their dialog is so grating. A trite description, a run-on sentence, too many brand name references ... those can pull me right out of the story, possibly never to return. (But I should add that I rarely see much of this in finished children's books - the ones I receive are extremely well-edited. And I would never hold a copy-editing issue against an ARC).
Place: For me, a strong sense of place in a book isn't 100% required. But it can add a lot to a book - taking it to different level - when done well. Of course the sense of place is especially important in fantasy and science fiction novels that are set in alternate worlds (Blackbringer, by Laini Taylor, comes to mind). But there are also books for which the location is almost a character in the story. Two recent examples for me are A Room on Lorelei Street, by Mary Pearson, and Story of a Girl, by Sara Zarr. And actually, although I know the series is controversial for many people, I think that Stephanie Meyer did a beautiful job of this with the town of Forks in the Twilight books.
[Interesting: I say that place isn't as important to me as some of the other aspects of books, but the books with a strong sense of place are the ones I remember, and feel compelled to mention by name. Take that as you will.]
Pictures: Not every books is illustrated, of course. But for certain books, especially picture books and books for early readers, quality pictures are essential. I've always personally been more of a word person than a picture person. And yet, my appreciation of Clementine stems partly from Marla Frazee's joyous drawings. And Where the Wild Things Are would hardly be the same without Sendak's monsters. There's a clear trend in place by which illustrations are becoming ever more important, even in books for older readers. I think this mirrors a tendency in our society towards increased integration of graphics and text (on our computers and television sets and cell phones).
Of course there are other aspects of books that are important, too. I've lumped some of them in under "prose", but for other readers they would likely rate their own categories. Humor, like place, is not 100% required, but can add a lot to a book, especially to books for kids. A convincing narrative voice can draw me in, even when a book doesn't have any of the other elements that I normally look for. And one thing that will keep me from enjoying even a book that has all of the six P's described above is a heavy-handed "message". Usually those books don't get past my premise filter, anyway.
Everyone's tastes are different, of course, and there's no particular reason why anyone should care what I think. Nevertheless, these are the aspects that I look for in books that I choose to read and books that I choose to review: premise, plot, people, prose, place, and (sometimes) pictures. What do look for in the books that you love?
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.