Publishers and booksellers alike reach out to teen readers, not always successfully. Robby, a 16-year-old blogger, helps explain why. In his Modern Romance blog, Robby offers insights into what one poetry-writing high school junior in the Boston suburbs reads. And for the most part, it’s not what his elders might think. His blog can range from Walt Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta,” which he reprinted on his blog to mark the 10th anniversary of September 11, to reviewing Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and interviewing Emma Staub (Other People We Married). “Reviewing has become my way of processing the stories I read,” he says.
So what makes a teenage book blogger tick? To find out, PW spoke with Robby about how he chooses his books, why he doesn't read very much YA, if he reads e-books, and how he feeds his reading habit.
Very few, if any, of the books you review are specifically marketed teen readers. What do you think of the YA category? Is it helpful to you when you’re looking for the next book to read?
I used to review much more YA. When I first began my blog a few years ago, nearly every book I read was YA. I’ve branched out since then, but that’s where it started for me. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with so many YA authors, either through their blogs or Facebook or interviews. Many of the stories and things I write could be considered YA, if they were published. Certainly, categories are restrictive. Young adult books aren’t simply for teenagers. What I’ve always loved about YA, especially realistic YA, is that they are real stories about real teenagers experiencing real things. At any age, you can find yourself connected to the characters, to the events, because even if you haven’t gone through exactly what the characters are, you can relate. That has helped me more than I will ever be able to convey.
Where do you look for books to read? Hilary Emerson Lay, manager and merchandiser at Spirit of '76 Bookstore and Card Shop, told me about your blog, but you seem to attend readings at a lot of different bookstores. You even mention buying books at the Paper Store.
I look anywhere and everywhere for books. I have a soft spot for yard sales. Books are everywhere. I try to shop at independent bookstores as often as I can, especially Spirit of ’76, because they are wonderful and have treated me so well. But I will occasionally make my way to Barnes & Noble. I used to buy almost all of my books at Amazon—low prices/free shipping/laziness—but nothing compares to the life inside of a bookstore.
I laughed when you wrote about reading Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty, after buying it for your father for Christmas and then deciding he wouldn’t have liked it anyway. How do you decide what to read: author, cover, price, school assignment?
Thank you for laughing! Originally, I was planning on buying him Jonathan Franzen’s most recent book, but I decided against that. Two Christmases ago, I bought Maya Angelou’s Letters to My Daughter for my mother, which she never read. Of course, I read it instead. I’ve decided this is a good strategy—to buy books for other people that I know they will not like so I can simply take them back.
I’ve discovered that I am quite shallow when it comes to buying books. I don’t take books out from the library too frequently, for many reasons. One is that I owe them large sums of money on both my mother’s account and on mine. The second is that a few of the women who work there scare me, though they are adorable. The third is that if a book does not have an attractive cover, I will be more reluctant to read it. I am learning to disregard covers, though. Titles are certainly important, but mostly I’ll know I need to read a book if I continue to go back to it, if I continue to see it in bookstores and elsewhere. I’ll feel some magnetic pull, and decide to create the time.
You strike me as pretty independent. How important are recommendations of parents, teachers, or friends?
I’m always looking for recommendations. If I see a person reading a book on the subway, I will get on the floor if I have to, just to see what they’re reading. Word of mouth is the best kind of promotion. To be able to go to a friend and say, “I just read the most amazing book, and I think you’ll love it,” is brilliant. And if that friend loves it, they will tell their friend, who will tell their friend, and suddenly those same words you originally read are all over the place, and it traces back to you. I have bonded with many parents—and also teachers—over books For a long time, I didn’t have many other friends who read, but that has changed. It is essential, I think, to create a community.
I was amazed at how up-to-date you are on forthcoming books and books in the works. Where do you get your information? Are there specific blogs you recommend?
I get my information all over the Internet. Like all teenagers, I spend way too much time on the computer. Instead of sitting on Facebook though, I read poems and interviews and search obsessively for book signings I can go to. I am on hundreds of e-mail lists by now, and I follow hundreds of blogs, which is where I get most of my information. Two Web sites I have to come to love very much the past few months are The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown. Both are online literary journals, full of essays and reviews and interviews and columns about nearly everything you can think of. There are some incredibly talented writers writing in these places, and I am addicted.
I’m guessing that you read physical books. What about e-books?
My opinion regarding e-books has changed many times. Personally, I am not interested in e-books. I prefer a hard copy to hold in my hands. I prefer being able to trace lines with my fingers and feel the paper, the energy of a book, rather then feel the megapixels. Of course, if there comes a point where books are only available electronically, I will adjust. Writers will find a way to write. Readers will find a way to read. It may become more difficult, and it may be frustrating, but I will always find a way to read. And if I can’t read, then I will listen.
Are there any books that you've read that you think, no, I just can't write about that one?
Many books I read for school I have found myself unable to review. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was one of the hardest books for me to finish, and it is the only book I have truly wanted to throw into a large volcano. We read The Catcher in the Rye last year for English, and it has become one of my favorite books. I have not reviewed it. If I read a book for enjoyment, I will almost always review it. Sometimes it takes me a few days or weeks, but I try to set aside the time for it. There have been books I’ve had to let stew on the back burner as well, but I try to get to those, too. It helps me comprehend a book, to write about it.
You read a lot of fiction and literary nonfiction. Do you have a favorite genre or author?
Genre-wise, my favorite is fiction. That is very vague, but I often find the books I end up reading are in the fiction section of bookstores. Contemporary, realistic fiction is often what I connect with the most. I will always have a love for YA. Poetry is like nothing else. I would like to read more nonfiction—social commentary, history, psychology, and philosophy. Once I finish the 60 books I have that I have not read, I will look into it.