Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lunchtime Book Recommendations: An Idea as to How to Create Must Read Books

I often eat lunch in the Hebrew Academy lunchroom during the same time as some of the elementary school grades. The other day, I was in the lunchroom when I saw one of the teachers do something very interesting. Towards the end of the half hour period, when students were beginning to finish, she took the microphone and asked if any students would be interested in coming up to tell everyone about a book they recently read and would recommend. The teacher then asked for a show of hands as to who has read the book. A young friend of mine recommended Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It seems that the vast majority of the kids have read the series. I am not familiar with these books but they clearly seem to be very popular. Another kid came to the floor carrying a copy of Garth Nix’s Lirael and suggested the first book in the series, Sabriel. When asked what he liked about the books the kid did not say anything so I shouted out “Mogget.” Mogget is a cat shaped spirit, who likes sleep and fish and will kill you if you take his collar of. His main role in the series is to be the sardonic voice of reason, saying “this is stupid and we are all going to die.” I raised my hand, but was not called upon. I wanted to recommend Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. This is a teenage book about a reality show in which twenty-four kids are thrown in a giant arena; the last one alive wins a life of fortune and fame. Think of it as Theseus meets Lord of the Flies with a totally awesome heroine armed with a bow and arrow.
This whole idea of allowing kids to come up and make book recommendations is an excellent exercise in controlled chaos. We are handing a microphone over to kids without any prescreening and they get pitch any book they so wish. I also think it is a brilliant way to sell reading to kids. One of the advantages that movies and television have over books is that they start with a wider audience and there are fewer of them to compete for an audience. This allows for the creation of a “must see” factor; people will watch films and television shows, regardless of their actual merit, simply because they know that other people are watching these things and they do not want to be left out when these things are being discussed say around the office water-cooler. The model here is for committed individuals to take an interest in something. Once a critical mass is reached, these individuals become a group and the object of their interest becomes a lightning-rod for others to bring them into the group. A larger and larger group of people will “tune in” to find out what the whole fuss is about.

It is certainly possible for books to do this. Harry Potter and Twilight are proof. In both cases, Goblet of Fire for Potter and Breaking Dawn for Twilight, these series had a moment where they went from just being very successfully books to being “cultural phenomenon.” The key to this was that these books became big enough to catch the attention of the media. The media, true to its fashion, made these books front page news as they “examined” the phenomena. Of course being front page news sold more copies of these books, bringing more “examinations” and continuing the cycle. Potter and Twilight succeed through a bit of luck and because they possessed certain qualities to give them mass appeal. The question becomes, how do you create a dozen Potters and Twilights? Take Nix’s Abhorsen series mentioned earlier, these are the sort of books that have the right mixture of in theory being for children while having more adult content to appeal to a mass audience. All that is needed is that bit of luck to create the needed critical mass in order to attract media attention and make them “must read” books.

Having kids come up and recommend books to their peers in a public forum allows for the creation of small groups around a book. I get up and recommend a book. Someone else raises their hand to show that they read it. Now I have something to go over to that person with in order to talk to them. A third person in the audience in the crowd sees that two people have read this book and are excited about it. This person then goes and reads the book. Now you have three people interested in something. Interest gathers interest and before you know it you have chain reaction of people reading the book to find out what everyone else is talking about. And you have it, Must Read Books!

1 comment:

Eric said...

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are SOO good. I can't wait for book 3 :D