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Claire Bidwell Smith

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What We Can Learn From Teen Readers: A Conversation With 16-Year-Old Book Critic Robby Auld

Posted: 05/09/2012 5:18 pm

He may rock a Justin Bieber haircut and have to sit through 11th grade biology class, but teen book critic Robby Auld can certainly hold his own when it comes to the book world.

In the last year he's gone from penning a blog he thought no one was reading to interviewing writers including Emma Straub, and reviewing some of this spring's hottest books such as Jessica Keener's Night Swim.

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New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt claims, "Robbie Auld is a very old soul in a young body. I first met him when he did a review of my novel, Pictures of You--a review that was so intelligent and thoughtfully written that I was startled to find out he was so young."

Los Angeles Times bestselling author Brad Listi adds to that, explaining, "He's unusually insightful and articulate and well read--mind-blowingly so for someone his age. There's an enthusiasm and a depth of feeling that comes across in his writing, and often a real sweetness, too. People really respond to it."

Robby Auld came onto my radar when he reviewed my book for The Nervous Breakdown, writing one of the most thoughtful assessments of my memoir to date. Afterwards I couldn't help wanting to know more about the kid who cracked the literary scene.

Claire Bidwell Smith: Can you walk us through the process of how you went from being a regular teen with a little blog about books, to a bonafide book critic interviewing established people such as Emma Straub and Jennifer Gooch Hummer, and publishing your reviews on literary websites? Was there a tipping point?

Robby Auld: A bonafide book critic?! Can I frame this? I've had such good fortune. I started my blog in May 2009. It wasn't the first blog I created, but I've stuck with it the longest. I'm actually still in the process of figuring out how I got from there to here. Quite a few people have opened doors for me along the way. I volunteered at the Spirit of '76 Bookstore in Marblehead, Massachusetts sporadically for a year or two, which significantly contributed to my confidence in myself as a reviewer. The manager of that bookstore, Hilary Emerson Lay, really got the ball rolling for my Publishers Weekly interview last fall. It wouldn't have happened without her.

Helping Caroline Leavitt research for her next book was a blissful, humbling experience. Brad Listi, the editor of [online literary magazine] The Nervous Breakdown, contacted me about reviewing books for the website after I requested a review copy of Lenore Zion's My Dead Pets Are Interesting (published by TNB Books) and did an interview with her. When I try to create a timeline for this process, I usually end up blushing and sobbing and hugging my bookshelves. The writers I've had the honor of being in contact with have been so good to me. There have been multiple tipping points.

CBS: With all the technology out there these days -- Facebook, videogames, Skype, etc. -- how is it that you're an old-fashioned "book guy"? Where does it come from, and were there any outside influences that encouraged your love of words?

RA: I read because I'm looking for more substance than Facebook or video games will ever provide. What I find fascinating about Facebook is how superficial each interaction seems to be, but also how poetic. I invest profundity into Facebook because I want the superficial interaction, but it isn't always enough. Skype is different. I often have to turn my camera off when talking to someone, because I end up staring at myself instead. Literature has this precious weight that social networking will never have.

I above and beyond prefer Twitter, though. It's a platform in a way that books are, too. They each have their place. It's nice to have both, to go from the depths of a book into the depths of Facebook, if it exists.

I'm not sure where my love of reading comes from; my parents, my daycare provider, people I will never remember. Teachers, too, though I am more reluctant to admit this. I wrote a story about a bunny in second grade that I've never quite been able to suppress.

CBS: I think most people would assume you would review YA books, but instead you've been writing about everything from Guns, Germs and Steel to The Year of Magical Thinking. How do you choose what to review? Any persons in your ear, saying "You have to read this book"?

RA: When I first started my blog, I read mostly YA. There's a whole portion of the blogosphere that is exclusively YA reviews. And there are still a few YA writers who I will always read, because they defy the genre instead of defining it and I think they're the ones who are doing something special. I have read nearly everything by Sarah Dessen, Sarra Manning, Deb Caletti, and a few others. Siobhan Vivian will always be at the top of this list. Those books lead me to what I'm reading now. I "read" Guns, Germs and Steel for my AP World History class last year. I'd like to read more nonfiction. I'm getting there.

Caroline Leavitt has sent a lot of great writers my way (Jennifer Gooch Hummer, Jessica Keener, etc.). Brad sent me a copy of your book. The only person in my ear who I listen to is myself. Deciding what to read and review is instinctual. I want magnetism.

CBS: What do you think makes a good book review? Also, what makes a bad book review?

RA: I don't think there's any one answer to this question. For me, a good review is one that is accessible while still digging beneath the surface of the book being profiled. In my own reviews, I attempt to create an intimacy, or transfer it from the pages of whichever book to the review itself. It's important to briefly discuss plot, so that any casual reader can finish the review and know what the book is about.

One purpose of a review is to encourage a reader to either run frantically to their nearest bookstore and purchase a copy or steer clear of it and erase any recollection from their memory; the second one occurs less often. A good book review is insightful and informed. One struggle I happen to love when it comes to reviewing is incorporating the inconsistencies of a book into a positive review. A bad book review is a rewritten summary and not much else, or one that only brings up a book's shortcomings but does not explain where they come from or why they don't work or the effect they have on the rest of the book. A great review incorporates all of this, insight and intimacy and personal connection, praise and criticism, conversation.

A book review is not always literary criticism by definition, and vice versa. The aim is to catch a reader's attention and pique their curiosity.

CBS: Do you have a particular genre that you lean towards, and if so, why? Also, do you see any trends that you're not attracted to right now?

RA: If any, contemporary fiction is the genre I am most drawn to. Contemporary poetry as well. It feels most relevant. Of the fiction and poetry I spend most of my time reading, it is commentary on the current world. I wish I were more interested in reading the classics. Those seem to be reserved for English class, though, and for the time being, that is where I will leave them. Those were commentary of the world they were written in, and it's interesting to see how that relates to the present. Of what I've read that wasn't first published within my lifetime, I love Fitzgerald the most. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books. Regarding Salinger, Nine Stories was far better than Catcher in the Rye. I'd like to read as much Steinbeck as possible.

I'm not attracted to the YA Paranormal trend at all. It takes skill to write any kind of book, but these strike me as formulaic, an equation. They have their own section at Barnes & Noble. I read the Twilight saga, and enjoyed them, but that's about all I can manage.

CBS: You are more on top of the latest book news than a lot of writers I know. How do you stay current? Where are you getting your book news?

RA: Twitter. Nearly every writer is on Twitter, retweeting their friends and publishers. It circulates. There's a large community there. It's nearly as big as the Justin Bieber fandom. I know how big that is because many of those accounts follow me. It's the hair.

CBS: What do you think about the popularity of young adult books right now? Does it annoy you that so many adults read them?

RA: As I wrote above, I got my start reviewing YA and conversing with other YA readers and writers. I was a shy little boy reading books about girls and their friends and their crushes. I wanted to laugh. I wanted a distraction. I still want these things, but I reached a point where I wasn't getting them. Within any genre, there is a formula, which will ensure success but not always satisfaction. I'm sure there are exceptions within both the Paranormal genre and the entire Young Adult genre, but I wanted to move on. It doesn't annoy me at all that adults are reading YA.

If a writer is writing YA, that doesn't mean they are trapped in their teenage years reliving endless trauma. If a reader is reading YA, it doesn't mean they're still stuck leaning against their shoddy school locker watching their future husband kiss the wrong girl. I'm glad people are reading at all. Many Young Adult books are so brilliant that they put a stop to the isolation of adolescence, or contribute to the end. Being a teenager is lonely. Being any age is lonely. A book should pull the reader and writer out of this, and YA does just as much as Fiction. There's a time and place for both.

CBS: Tell us about your reading and your book buying habits. Where do you buy books and when do you read?

RA: I rarely buy books. I was in Philadelphia not too long ago and bought a few books at a tiny shop, but that was the first time in weeks. If I go to a book signing and don't have a review copy, I'll buy one. For a few years, I spent all of my parents' money on books, and I have nearly 100 that I still haven't gotten to. Now, though, I spend my own money taking trains into Boston so I can meet the writers of these books I'm loving and hug them, give them a weak handshake.

I would love to say that I only shop at independent bookstores, but that wouldn't be true. I wake up at 5 every morning and, if I don't have a test to study for or other assignments to finish, I make a pot of coffee and read.

CBS: About your future Brad Listi says, "Sky's the limit for him. I think he could have a great career in publishing, whether as a writer or a critic or an editor, or all of the above. He's still quite young, so I imagine he'll be sorting it out in the years to come. And whichever direction he chooses to go, I expect he'll do well." So what do you think? Will you become the next Michiko Kakutani, or the next Jonathan Franzen?

RA: I couldn't tell you. Both? I've read that Jonathan Franzen is not very fond of Michiko Kakutani, but maybe I'll be an unhealthy balance of the two. I just want to keep reviewing and having places to review. I'd like to publish a novel. I'd like to make readers laugh and cry within a single paragraph/stanza. I'll be applying to colleges this coming fall/winter. I think this is leading to the rest of my life. My foot is in the door, right? I'd like to get a leg in before my next birthday.

CBS: What do your parents think of all this? What do your friends think?

RA: I kept my blog a secret for the first year or two. I remember telling a friend of mine in Biology freshman year that I had a blog, and showing it to her, and feeling protective. When my mother took me to a Caroline Leavitt signing in Waltham last year, she talked about me briefly during her reading, which is still one of the best moments of my brief life. Before that night, I hadn't told her much about my reviewing, but she wanted to know more.

After the Publishers Weekly interview went up and I began reviewing for The Nervous Breakdown, it became more public. It's probable that my friends have always read my blog but didn't tell me, because they knew it would affect my approach. I eased into it. My mother tells every person she meets. My friends follow in silence. Again, my good fortune never ceases to amaze me.

CBS: What are you reading right now?

RA: I'm reading Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith. I'm making my way through it slowly because I know there's a lot there, within each line, and I want to be attentive to every opportunity. Caroline Leavitt sent her my way, too, actually. Next is Samuel Amadon's new collection. After, Diane Keaton's memoir. I will likely read other things between. Slowly but surely, I will do it. That's the plan, at least.

 
 
 

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