In class tonight, we are going to be talking to the students about the most important aspect of RA: understanding appeal. Appeal can be quickly defined as the words used to describe why people enjoy a specific book. Subject headings are not very helpful for leisure readers. A reader who likes historical British romances will probably not enjoy historical British mysteries. What is appealing about a book, specifically its pace, characterization, storyline and frame/setting, tone/mood, style/language is at the heart of why someone would or would not want to read it.
Since every reader reads a different version of the same book, reading for the appeal keeps you open to all possibilities. When it comes to helping readers, the Readers' Advisor should listen to what patrons tell us about the books they read. I like to use the bestseller, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold as an example. For some this novel is about the rape and murder of a young girl, even though that part of the book is over after 20 pages. For others it is about a family dealing with a crisis. For still other patrons, it has been described to me as a book about the mourning process.
Each of these patrons enjoyed the book for vastly different reasons and would use widely varied terms to describe it. However, in my class, I strive to teach the future librarians of Northern Illinois to learn the controlled vocabulary of appeal and describe books more empirically. Thus The Lovely Bones can be described as deliberate, measured, heart-breaking, yet ultimately redeeming, dramatic, introspective, intriguing and well developed secondary character, first person narration from heaven, vivid, character-centered, complex, family centered, inspirational, though provoking, tragic, some explicit, but not gratuitous, violence against children, bittersweet, darker, philosophical.
Of course readers do not come into the library or bookstore speaking like this, but the essence of appeal, these adjectives, is how we naturally describe books. This language of appeal is an attempt to create a thesaurus of standardized terms that recreate how people describe what they have read. A full description of appeal and the standardized terms are available in chapter three of Joyce Saricks' Readers' Advisory Service in the Public Library.
Once you have mastered appeal, when readers say I just finished The Lovely Bones and really enjoyed the story of how her family all dealt with their grief differently, you can begin to focus your line of questioning on what she liked about this specific aspect of the book. This would now lead you away from books with other investigations of child murders and toward more books about family’s dealing with crises, like a Jodi Picoult book or even Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan SafranFoer. To contrast, “Rape” is a subject heading for this novel and Sebold’s memoir Lucky is about dealing with her own rape, but a reader who liked The Lovely Bones for the reason I described above, would probably not enjoy Lucky.
What you need to understand is that all readers are looking for a book with a particular feel. Pacing, characterization, storyline and frame etc… speak to this. One final word on the subject, all appeal terms must be positive. RA is a non-judgmental service; so it is measured paced, not slow paced and it is unembellished not simplistic.
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