I was asked recently on the blog about how to read critically and I thought it was a great question! It's one I've felt lost with before.
When I first became a librarian and when I especially started committee work, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and that there was no way I could read critically. So first off, get that idea out of your head because you can do it!
For anyone who is starting out as a reviewer or librarian, I recommend reading From Cover to Cover by Kathleen T. Horning. This book is an invaluable resource when it comes to reviewing and is a great reference when you read critically. This is also most likely what most youth services librarians will tell you to start with and many committees recommend reading this book before you start your committee work because this resource is so valued in the profession.
I would also suggest taking a look at some children's literature textbooks or reader's advisory guides. The textbook that we used in my lit class was: Young Adult Literature: Exploration, Evaluation, and Appreciation by Katherine T. Bucher and KaaVonia M. Hinton. I love the genre checklists in this book and have used it for training at work and referenced it often.
Kelly at Stacked has a great cheat sheet to critical reviews that has lots of wonderful questions to ask as you read! She also has a great post about being critical and why critical reviews matter.
Now you get to start reading! There is a big difference between reading for pleasure and reading critically. When I read for pleasure, I can overlook plot holes, ignore small character development, etc. But when I'm reading critically, I'm paying attention to those things. Ask yourself lots of questions as you read such as:
-Does the plot make sense? Are there lots of plot holes? Does it flow smoothly? Does it leave you confused and leave plot points hanging? Or does the plot work well to make a cohesive story? (And series books, sequels and cliffhangers are OK-I try to look at does it wrap the main story of this book up but leave the reader wanting more?)
-Are the characters well developed? Are they stock characters with little development? How are the character voices? If it's written in multiple points of view, does each voice stand out? Do they sound like teenagers (or whatever age they are supposed to be) or do they sound like kids? Does their voice match their actions?
-Is the setting well developed? This is especially important when worldbuilding is a big part of the story like in genre fiction, but setting is something to think about in every book you read. In genre fiction, you want to look at how the setting helps with the plot-does the historical setting add to the story? Was the historical setting accurate? Did the fantasy or science fiction world work or was it just set in a magical land and that didn't matter to the story?
-How is the pacing of the story? Does it drag? Do things wrap up too quickly? Is it a fast read or slow read? And neither one of those is good or bad-it's just different styles. For example, if it's a book built on suspense, does the pacing help keep the suspense up?
-How is the language? Is the writing choppy or flowy (and if so, is it on purpose and fit the book?) Is the writing literary? Did the story get bogged down in the writing or does it have a nice flow?
-Does the story have authenticity? Sure, there are going to be magical moments when you stretch your belief, but you want to look at the story as a whole and if it rings true? Did you believe the characters, the setting, the worldbuilding? Did their actions seem real? Did their voices seem real? If there were some moments of magic or suspension of disbelief did it work with the story?
And a million other questions you'll think of as you read. As you read you want to look at what makes the book work or not work. What works well, what doesn't work well, what needed help, what was perfect.
You also want to look at the audience the book is for (especially if you're reviewing and considering audience appeal). Is it a picture book that talks down to its readers? Is it a middle grade novel that reads more like its written for second graders? If you're reviewing for your library, you also want to make note of who the audience would be-is this a book that you must add to every library collection or would it do well where angel books are still popular but isn't a necessary purchase for all libraries? Read reviews in Booklist and School Library Journal for examples of this-their reviews do a great job pointing out audience appeal.
The biggest thing you can do to read critically is to keep reading and reviewing. I know, I know, it sounds like cheap answer but it's true!! The more you read, the more your critical reading starts to grow. When you start looking at the books you read critically, you'll notice more about them and your critical reading will grow.
I would also suggest reading lots of reviews. This will give you a feel for how reviews are written and what to look for. And I love blogs, but I don't just mean read blogs. Read professional reviews. Read School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly-any professional review journals you can get your hands on. And I know many of them have locked up their reviews so you have to subscribe, but if you don't work in a library, you can always visit your local library and ask if you see their review journals. My library has them in our reference department and they are for library use only, but that doesn't mean a patron couldn't up and ask to read them in the library.
Most importantly, have fun! If you read critically all the time, you'll miss reading for fun. So take breaks, read something for you and that's for fun. And remember that you can do it and you have something valuable to say about each book you read.