Comradeship, conflict of interest and CAKE…

posted in: Tim Hopgood | 20

I’ve been toying with a rather big idea recently: whether or not to stop reviewing books by authors and illustrators I somehow know.

When I started this blog I don’t think I’d met an author or illustrator since I was a child, but now the situation has changed. I’m incredibly fortunate in that I regularly meet people who create amazing books, and even more often I chat with them on twitter or via email. I know that each and every one of them puts everything into creating wonderful books, and I respect what they do so very much.

But as a reviewer, I also have respect for all of you who read my blog in the hope you might find particularly brilliant books. I feel a profound sense of duty to be honest when it comes to what I think of books, and when one starts to build friendships / relationships with people one admires it becomes increasingly hard to admit that one of their books is NOT one you’d particularly shout about.

pingpongSo when Tim Hopgood sent me one of his latest picture books, Ping and Pong are best Friends (Mostly), I was rather anxious. I’m a BIG fan of Tim’s work (you can find all my past reviews here), and we’ve been in touch with each other fairly regularly since I started blogging. But when I opened the envelope from his publisher I felt slightly sick inside. What if I didn’t like his latest book?

I was so nervous I made M read it first.
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She laughed a lot.

Then I made my husband read it.

He really liked it.

Then I made my Mum read it.

She too thought it was great.

Finally I dared to read it.

HURRAH!

Not only did I like Ping and Pong are best Friends (Mostly), I fell in love with it.

Ping and Pong are best Friends (Mostly) by Tim Hopgood is about two friends who love each other dearly but nevertheless, at times, they find it hard to get on.

Whatever Ping does, Pong can do it just that little bit better. Can you imagine how annoying that is for Ping?

Ping eventually decides to step away from Pong’s competitive streak and do… well, do nothing. Nothing at all.

But, can Pong “do nothing” better than Ping? And, even if he can, will doing nothing be fun without a friend to share it with?

Before long, Ping and Pong kiss and make up realising that it’s far more fun together than apart, however hard it is at times. And it turns out Ping is best at something… being a best friend.

pingpongreading

I fell in love with this book not just because it deals deftly with a classic childhood situation, but because it does so with such humour and keen observation that I was giggling and shaking my head and feeling very, very happy all at the same time.

Hopgood’s exploration of the tension that can nevertheless exist in a very secure friendship reminded me of Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories. Hopgood has the same deadpan delivery, the same compassion, and creates the same longing to have the pair in question be your own friends.

I love colour and Hopgood clearly does too. Full bleed pages in a rainbow of colours help give this book a tremendous feel-good vibe while the spot on capturing of emotion in the penguins’ body language gives the reader/listener/viewer the same sense a great poem can – of capturing something profound with such apparent simplicity that it’s hard to imagine it any other way.

Yep, this is a winner. And I would be so very sorry if I couldn’t share this with you because I had a policy of not reviewing books by people I know.

Given our current Edible Book Festival we couldn’t resist baking a cake to match that which appears in the book itself.

pingpongcake

Can you see what we added? Two edible penguins made from aubergines with eyes made out of M&Ms and chocolate drops 🙂

pingpongcake2

Raw aubergine may not be the most enticing thing to nibble on, but the cake was gone all too quickly!

pingpongcake3

Whilst baking and eating we listened to:

  • Counting On A Friend by The Bazillions
  • The Fine Friends are Here by Dan Zanes & Friends
  • Best Friends by Frances England


  • Other activities which would be great fun to try alongside reading this gorgeous book include:

  • Baking chocolate chip cookies! Why not try these delicious ones from A Mummy Too.
  • Making juggling balls – here’s a clear tutorial from Dave Lim. You could add stickers to make them spotty just like in Ping and Pong Are Best Friends (mostly).
  • Serving these gorgeous cream cheese penguins at a picture book picnic!
  • AND

  • Sewing your very own Ping and Pong penguins according to a pattern created by Tim Hopgood’s wife!

  • So I started this post with an idea – what to do about reviewing books where I have some level of conflict of interest, whether through being friends with their creators, their publishers, or simply because I got it for free. It’s a big question for me, and one I’m still not sure I’ve got the right answer to (or at least the right answer for me). I’m very aware I have my own taste in books, and I’m also a great believer that just about every book is right for one reader or another out there. I have a clear review policy, which means I generally don’t have to review books I don’t like, and I always try to remember to include a disclosure statement if the book isn’t one I’ve personally paid for. But have I got the right balance. What do you think?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Ping and Pong are best Friends (Mostly) from the publishers. I was under no obligation to write a review and I received no payment for this review. Oh, and if you’re an author or illustrator I know, don’t worry, it wasn’t one of your books which set me off on the train of thought expressed at the opening of this post, but rather a book by an author and illustrator I’ve never met, never even emailed or tweeted with. Which book? This one, which many are heaping praise on, but which does not make my heart beat faster. Unlike Ping and Pong.

    20 Responses

    1. Sorry, I know it’s not answering your question, but I LOVE THOSE AUBERGINES! Now that’s out of my system, I’ll think of your question properly in the morning.
      Elli recently posted..Spring

    2. Shala Howell

      My thoughts: your friends shouldn’t be penalized for your friendship by being automatically excluded from getting a fair review on your blog. Authors rely on word of mouth and that means friends who are willing to talk about their work.

      On the other hand, authors shouldn’t expect you to review their books simply bc you are friends. And as their friend, you probably don’t want to kill their sales by giving them a bad review.

      Here’s how I’d thread the needle:
      1) only review books by people you know if you honestly like them.
      2) disclose how you got the book and if you know the author or illustrator, how you know them
      3) let your readers decide how much to weight that relationship in reading the review

      In other words, what you are already doing with the addition of disclosing the relationship between you and the author.

      Good luck.
      Shala Howell recently posted..The Five-Year-Old cooks breakfast

    3. Shala Howell

      Honestly like the book I mean. Not your friend (Note to self: do not post on blogs after 7 p.m.. The crazy days of posting until the wee hours of 9:15 p.m. Are behind you.)
      Shala Howell recently posted..The Five-Year-Old cooks breakfast

    4. I think it is fine to review a book written by someone you are acquainted with as long as they know that you are not obligated by friendship to give it a good review. A friend should also be able to acknowledge the difference between personal feelings and professional relationship.

    5. Thanks Elli, the penguins are so easy to make and are full of character. I could have stripped the veg stall of aubergines to make a big huddle!

      Hi Shala,
      What really helpful, constructive comments. Thank you. I like the idea of including a comment in my disclosure statement about whether or not I know the author. Hope you got a great night’s sleep after your VERY late night 😉

      Hi Barbara,
      Of course you are right. And as long as I know I have been thoughtful in my reviews, even if they are not 100% positive, I’m certainly happy to stand by them.

    6. I think you’re fine- you only review books you WANT to right?
      (and you’ve always got the get out that it didn’t make you get crafty)

      I too however primarily want to say AUBERGINE PENGUINS.
      Polly recently posted..How to be a detective

    7. I’m still in awe of those aubergines, but here’s a more considered answer. As others have said, there’s no way you can write a bad review of a book by a friend. Equally, there’s no way you can write a good review of a book you dislike simply because you know the author. Which leaves only one course of action – don’t review it at all. You could have all sorts of excuses – a long queue of books to review, unfortunately not the kind of book your children would be interested in, or be quite blunt and say it’s not your cup of tea. Mind you, a lovely author who also reviews books occasionally did that once and got a rather rude response from the author concerned. But certainly as an author I’d hate to think that someone gave me a good review just because they knew me. I’d far rather they were honest.
      Elli recently posted..I Can’t Stop

    8. I agree pretty much with what’s already been said. Funnily enough I’ve been thinking the same thing recently (although I’m only just starting out and working where I’m going!) But it is an issue even now for me. I’m quite relieved to see that what I was thinking about doing is what other’s are suggesting to you-phew! The book looks absolutely gorgeous too, and as for those penguins……
      Redpeffer recently posted..Phil Collins and me

    9. Polly, ye-es, but “want” is not always a clear cut thing. I might want to review a book for several different reasons – in the case of the book which got me thinking about all this again, because I don’t hold the same opinion as lots of other people, and want a voice out there for the dissenter (even though writing the review might mark me out in all sorts of ways, and it certainly wouldn’t be easy writing such a review).

      Elli, yes, excuses are always possible, and most times 100% genuine! I’d like to think that a professional relationship could always take (thoughtful) criticism, but that’s not always the case. None of us like hearing what we’ve written doesn’t make people’s hearts sing (or the equivalent).

      Redpeffer, I think writing a clear book review policy was one of the best things I ever did for this blog. It helped me clarify why I review, and if you haven’t written one already, I’d certainly recommend having a think about how you might word one. Happy to look over any draft you might write if you wanted some input.

    10. Porbably OK so long as you can be objective about it (not so easy if it’in the children’s book world one is bound to be asked to launch parties etc. and inevitably one meets authors, illustrators at these as well as their publicists. In such instances, I don’t have a problem, it’s not as if you are duty bound to do a review. I tend only to post positive reviews on my own website as I know how devastating it can be to somebody to have a book ‘shredded’ by a reviewer after all the blood, sweat, time and energy that has gone into it. Plus there are enough good books out there to do adopt this policy. However if asked to review a book by another organisation or publication and I personally know the person well I think I would decline even if I thought the book was brilliant. But I would be negative(without being destructive I hope) about a book of someone I don’t know in another publication as that could be part my role. It’s always tricky.

    11. I’ve had that question too. I’ve come to the conclusion that if I really can’t find anything good to say about a book, I won’t review it. I usually can find something positive, even if the book is not my cup of tea, and so far there’s only been one book I categorically refuse to review because I know more harm than good will come of it. It wasn’t one I was sent or one I requested, it was one I had to read for other reasons. I don’t think I’d be doing a service by being a dissenter in my case, I’d just be publishing a bad review. I have had a couple though where I didn’t especially like it myself, but I made it clear in my review this was down to personal taste, and that I could see that the book was great for *insert reason here*. So, sitting on the fence essentially 🙂

      So far no one’s asked me to review their book though, so I may have to have a moral rethink if I ever get that popular!
      BooKa Uhu recently posted..So shiny… so pretty…. I want! *grabby hands*

    12. I love those penguins too. Brilliant!

      Reviewing books by “friends” can be quite a challenge because in this day and age of social networking, pretty much everyone is a friend in some capacity. I only review books I can personally recommend. I agree with Shala’s good suggestions.
      jama recently posted..tasting the abc’s of fruits and vegetables and beyond by steve charney and david goldbeck

    13. It’s been really interesting reading your post and the subsequent comments.

      I’ve never been in your position with regard to knowing authors or illustrators but have been sent books for free by publishers. I would echo what you’ve said about having a clear review policy, which – as you rightly say – is informative for those looking to contact you for reviews as well as helping you stay focused on what you think is right for you. I found that writing a review policy really helped me get things clear in my own mind and I often mentally refer myself back to it when I am questioning things about my blog.

      I don’t think I have much more to add to what others have said when it comes to reviewing books by friends, but in terms of the particular book you’re talking about I know that as a reader I would be very interested to hear your thoughts. I really like the book and C does too, but as with everything in life, I realise that people have different preferences. When it comes to books, I am finally (it’s only taken me thirty-odd years) getting up the confidence to express my opinions and am realising that it’s not personal if others don’t always share them.

      I appreciate that it’s hard to give and take criticism sometimes, especially when the subject is something as personal as a book that someone has put so much time and effort into creating, but I don’t necessarily think that means that you shouldn’t write this particular review. You are now in a position of being able to talk with experience, knowledge and a respected voice and you are never unkind, unfair or spiteful. As others have said, although it may sting the publisher/author/illustrator friend initially, in time they will hopefully realise that you are sparking discussion and debate. If one gets commercial about it, then they could take comfort in the fact that online discussions and mentions will create publicity, push their names up the search engine rankings, etc (though clearly I realise they’d rather do that with one hundred percent rave reviews!).

      In an ideal world, there would be a simple way of linking all book bloggers’ reviews together so that people could read a range of responses to the same book and therefore, in this case for example, read your review in the context of other more positive ones and then draw their own opinions.

      I suppose it’s harder for you as your blog one of the kidlit biggies, so your voice perhaps naturally has more weight than others, meaning that you are faced with these difficult questions in a way that mightn’t be so pressing for someone like me. (I don’t want that to sound like some odd way of grasping for praise, I’m just trying to be objective and couldn’t think how else to phrase it!)

      Ultimately, I think that if you believe in the reasons behind the decisions you make – and can support them in the face of others’ potential discomfort with what you’ve written – then you’ll continue to develop a blog that is not only a useful resource for readers but that feels right for you.
      Rosalind recently posted..Lovely Lucky Wish Mouse

    14. I struggle with that, too, Zoe. The worst for me are the books (by people I know on some level) that I don’t love, but about which I have something to say. It’s much easier to write a mixed review when the author is largely anonymous to you. But in these days of Twitter and Facebook and conferences and whatever, anonymous authors become more and more rare. Of course it’s easier when you love a book, but there’s still this voice in my head, wondering if my review is influenced by how much I like the person. Ah well, we just do the best we can, and disclose enough information to allow our readers to make an informed decision.
      Jen Robinson recently posted..Look! Another Book!: Bob Staake

    15. Just reading through this fascinating discussion, lots of food for thought. Just wanted to add to the voices saying that a thoughtful critique of why a book doesn’t work for you would be really interesting & useful, we do need a balance of reviews out there to help us readers make informed decisions about purchases. I can imagine personal connections make this difficult, but hope all the excellent advice above will help you going forward! (Ps I tend to not include book apps I have not enjoyed so much on my blog, and wonder too whether I should include them or not, to balance out views held by others and give an alternative point of view.)
      Helen D recently posted..Four Little Corners and War Horse win 2013 Bologna Ragazzi Digital Award

    16. Thanks everyone for the helpful, thoughtful comments – it’s great to hear everyone’s responses.

      BookaUhu – yes, finding something good is normally possible, and that’s what I try to do, at least, I try to find something that theoretically I think is good, or would work for someone else.

      Jama – yes, books that you can personally recommend – but even that can become an unclear boundary when you can see a book could work for someone, but doesn’t work for you. I like it on Jules’ blog – she clearly states hers isn’t really a review site, but a fan site.

      Rosalind – Thank you – all very reassuring to read! I think it is important that I’m confident in my reasoning if I give a book a thumbs down – but I’m only human, and sometimes I doubt myself (especially when lots of other people love the book eg books by Jon Klassen)

      Jen – it’s good to know I’m not alone. And yes, the hardest are definitely those that I don’t love, but about which I have something to say.

      Helen – I try not to include reviews which are negative too much of the time as I hold on to the fact that this blog is something I do for the FUN of it – it’s not a professional site (though I try to behave professionally) – I want to surround myself with things I love and enjoy where possible, and sometimes I feel life is too short to write reviews of the books that don’t make my heart sing. All this to say, I don’t think you should feel obliged to review apps you don’t like!
      Zoe recently posted..Comradeship, conflict of interest and CAKE…

    17. I have a question on this topic that hopefully you can answer!

      I often see publishers on Twitter asking for bloggers to review books and wondered if that means that when you are sent books you are obliged to write a review.

      I have also seen reviews where a blogger says that the book was sent by the publisher but they were not asked to write the review.

      So the question is, do you review every book sent to you, is that the expectation from the publisher? Hope you don’t mind me asking, I’m still so new to the blogging world 🙂

      I also love the penguins – great idea 🙂
      Catherine recently posted..My Mummy and Me by Tina Macnaughton

    18. Hi Catherine,

      I categorically do NOT review every book sent to me. I would need about 20 lives to do that.

      IF I have requested a book from a publisher (Eg because I’ve seen it in a catalogue) then I try hard to review it on the blog, but don’t always manage to do so.

      IF a publisher approaches me about a specific book, and I say that yes I’m interested in a review copy, again, I try very hard to review it on the blog.

      So…in other words, if something comes entirely unsolicited, then I only review it if I TOTALLY and CATEGORICALLY love it (or my kids love it). If it’s a book that I had some hand in getting sent to me, then I do try hard to review it on the blog, even if I don’t think it is the best thing since sliced bread.

      If you wanted to respond to a request from a publisher for a review, you could point them to a review policy that says you don’t promise to review, but will try to. That’s what I do, and then I say, if they are happy with my review policy, then please do send the book on through.

      Occasionally, I HAVE to review something eg because I’ve agreed to be part of a blog tour.

      Does that help?
      Zoe recently posted..Comradeship, conflict of interest and CAKE…

    19. Thanks Zoe, yes that helps.

      I started my blog (mainly) to recommend books for expats who don’t have a lot of opportunity to browse in bookshops. I want to make sure that the books on the blog are books that (primarily) my daughter and I enjoy reading.

      If I have been offered books I am happy to accept them if whoever is making the offer is happy with my recommendation policy and I have already done so and acknowledged them on the post.

      I just wondered if a publisher / author offers, for example on Twitter, whether that meant that you were obliged to write a review about every book – but it seems not?

      Thank you for taking the time to answer 🙂
      Catherine recently posted..Icky Sticky Monster by Jo Lodge

    20. Karen in PA

      Review them all — it would be terrible to miss a good book because of a conflict of interest.

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