By Dennis Abrams
Gavin Jones’ career as a teacher-librarian in Melbourne, Australia has centered on widening his students’ horizons through reading and literature, and promoting long-term, continuous reading that connects with the curriculum delivered at school. That passion for reading led him to create a website, launched in November 2011, that is encouraging reading not only throughout Australia but throughout the world.
The site is called Read it! Loved it!. It began simply as the list of books that Jones had read and loved throughout the years, and recommended to students at school. As the list grew, Jones reformatted it into a basic website that he used locally on his own computer. But, Jones says, “I then realized that this was an ideal opportunity to share my reading experiences and hopefully my passion for these books, and to encourage adolescents outside my immediate circle of students at school to read. I had always wanted to have some sort of online presence that added something of real value to the Internet that was free, independent and wasn’t provided by someone else.”
Jones knew exactly how he wanted RiLi to be designed, how it would help and how it would be different from other sites, summing it up in six points:
1. The website must be quick and simple, one that could be easily used by students, educators, parents and the general public, designed with iPads and iPhones in mind.
2. The book recommendations must be organized specifically. “Getting the right book into the right hands at the right time is what being a literature librarian is all about…It is essential that they be given book recommendations that are relevant, appropriate, and engaging. RiLi is trying to replicate a librarian’s approach online by the use of simple, and very specific organization of the featured titles: by gender, by age, and by genre/theme. Thus, by being specific, RiLi is trying to maximize the possibility that the adolescent reader will enjoy the book they have selected. And hopefully, this approach will resonate with readers, and will engender trust in the book organization and selection.”
3. Book recommendations must be organized consistently. “Most recommended reading ages for books that are used on book websites are based on the advice of publishers and marketers, who want to sell product and thus make the age recommendation as wide as possible. This concerns me a great deal, as people, especially children, cannot ‘unread’ anything they have read. I am often surprised and shocked at some of the age recommendations on websites, especially with books that contain controversial topics and themes. I am also often amazed at the age range mentioned when it is patently obvious to anyone who has read a particular book, what ages it is not only appropriate for, but aimed at.”
4. The site must appeal to adolescents who can’t or don’t connect with other book recommendation websites. “Some adolescent readers, especially reluctant readers, feel overwhelmed, confused and disinterested in most websites that promote youth literature. These websites are complex, infinite, busy, inconsistent, heavy on advertising, include comments by other readers (some helpful, some inane), and focus mainly on contemporary releases and the selling of product. The design, content and function of these websites is driven by advertising revenue and sales of, or links to sellers of books. It is vital that RiLi is independent of this commerciality, as I want teenagers to trust the site, and appreciate that one person, not a company, is maintaining the website, and acknowledge that RiLi is not trying to make any money out of them.”
5. The site should be of assistance to people who need help recommending books. “Sadly, it seems that the number of librarians that spend time actually reading the books they stock is dwindling. RiLi is there to help any students, parents and librarians, who need to find a good adolescent book to read or recommend or buy, and is happy to email to anyone who asks all book suggestions for free in an Excel spreadsheet organized according to their preferences.”
6. The site must be positive and honest. “If I want people to trust the website, it has to be honest. As RiLi does not, and never will receive any free products or inducements, there is no obligation for me to ‘talk up’ any unworthy books or include anything that I don’t want or don’t like.”
The recommendations on RiLi are entirely Jones’ own, listed without plot summaries or reviews. “I made the decision not to include these as I wanted to keep the site as simple as possible. As far as I am concerned, if a book is there, it means that I loved it, and there are a plethora of websites available that will provide plot summaries and reviews…I am trying to cultivate a culture of judging a book by starting it and reading the words of the actual author rather than by its cover, blurb, shout line or review.”
In addition to his original list of best-loved titles, Jones reads 100 books a year targeted at the adolescent market, everything from new titles to classics that people have forgotten about and need to be discovered. “There are some wonderful books that are no longer on the general public radar that I have read and loved, and I am hoping that through their inclusion on RiLi, they get another chance to be read, and be seen in a modern and consistent context.”
Among the recent titles that Jones considers essential reading, listed in purple on the site, are:
- Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines
- Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
- Jeannie Birdsall’s The Penderwicks
- Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago
- Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Dovey Coe
- John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars
- L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables
Jones also keeps a Twitter account that mentions each new addition to the website, and how it is categorized. He contacts the author when their book is included and gives them a chance to respond. Interestingly, a number of them have expressed disappointment that their book has been included in one or two gender/age groups, but after the aims of the website are explained, they generally agree. Indeed some authors such as Darren Shan appreciate the fact that the website actually helps them to escape the pigeon hole they often find themselves in. While others, such as Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring tweeted, “@readitlovedit Great website! I will use it to help for books for my son, thanks. And I’m honored Girl With a Pearl Earring is on it!”
In fact, the response across the board has been overwhelmingly positive. Libraries, authors, bookshops, publishers, organizations and the public at large have all liked what they have seen and have helped to spread the word. And for Jones, knowing that RiLi is helping students, parents and school librarians in the U.K, the U.S.A., Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and in International Schools is all the reward he could ask for. Emails like this one from a librarian in Cornwall, England, make it all worthwhile:
Dear Mr Jones,
Great website — so simple!
We will be promoting it in our school library as it is ideal for students who need some suggestions but don’t want to plough through lots of info.
I would be grateful if you could send me the book lists so that I can consider stocking all the titles.
Despite the site’s success, Jones’s bottom line is simple: “RiLi is simply a list of great books that I have read and want to recommend.”