The Pirate of Panther Bay in the Classroom

Earlier in May I had the opportunity and great pleasure of talking to the Great Books English class at The Miami Valley School in Dayton, Ohio. The students were reading The Pirate of Panther Bay, my debut YA novel, and the teacher asked me to come in and discuss the book and the writing process more generally.

One of the more interesting opportunities this presented was trying to gauge how perceptions of my novel changeed as readers made progress through the story. I spoke to the class after they were about half way through (Chapter 19), so they hadn’t reached several climactic scenes. I started out by asking them to rate the book on the amazon-style scale of 1 (for poor) to 5 (for excellent) to get a baseline for the group. I thought I would follow up after they completed the book to compare their perceptions to the mid-point.

Currently, reviewers on amazon.com give Panther Bay an average of 4.5. (This actually isn’t that bad given that The Hunger Games is averaging a 4.6, Mockngjay averages a 3.6, and Twighlight averages 4.0. Within the genre Piratica averages 3.8 and Pirates! averages 4.3.)

This class, however, would be a little tougher than my current reviewers on amazon. When readers buy your book either in a store or on-line, they represent a self-selected group–they wouldn’t buy a pirate book if they really liked vampires, for example. So, naturally, I would expect the ratings to be lower simply because all the students at MVS were required to read the book regardless of their genre preference.

For the 18 students in the class, the overall score was 3.3 on a five star scale at mid-point. So, as expected, this was a fairly critical group. The boys scored Panther Bay at 3.0 at the halfway point–one 4, four 3s, and one 2. The girls scored it at 3.5–six 4s, four 3s, and one 2. (The favorable edge registered by the girls isn’t that surprising given that the book has a strong, take-charge female as the heroine.)

After the students read the entire book, scores were reported back to me via the teacher. Interestingly, the overall average for the entire class stayed the same at 3.3. But the composition of the ratings changed. The boys average increased to 3.3 while the girls’ score fell to 3.4. (At least one girl apparently downgraded her score to a three.)

Am I disappointed PPB didn’t get a 5-star rating? Sure, but that expectation was probably not realistic. For this class–avid readers with high academic skills and expectations–a five star rating would have meant they were blown away by the story and characters. Reading through the four star ratings and reviews showed that my first novel had done much of what I had hoped–created complex, layered characters in a dynamic story that transported readers someplace new.

The difference between a 5-star and a 4-star rating really came down to the pace of the story in the opening chapters–they wanted the story to start out with a really big bang. This was true for the girls as well as the boys. (Ironically, my original opening chapter started out in the middle of a high-seas battle, but I decided for creative reason to start out with a more character-driven beginning.) Some of the students also didn’t like the angst I put my lead character through, preferring a more heroic, even if less complex, personality. For the students rating the book a 2–one simply doesn’t like the genre and the other (so I was told) really didn’t like any of the books they were reading in the class.

The students giving the 3 and 4 star ratings, on the other hand, were quite insightful and helpful.

So, what do I need to do to get that 5 star rating on my next book based on this sample of readers?

  1. Start out with a bang, preferably a fight or pitched battle;

  2. Keep the layered characters;

  3. Keep the dynamic and circuitous story lines;

  4. Give my lead character (Isabella) more consistency and focus;

  5. Keep the pace moving.

Overall, while the candid feedback was tough to process at times, the experience has really helped me sharpen my story for the second book. And feedback from discerning readings is the best. 

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