How helpful are book lists when helping a young adult -- or anyone, for that matter -- with readers' advisory?
If you look around our library, you'll find lots of lists: books for guys, fantasy authors, adventure books, trilogies, books made into movies, even a binder full of lists of adult books on all subjects and genres you can think of. YALSA has "Best Books" and "Quick Picks" as well as lists of audiobooks and teens' picks from the past few years of Teen Read Weeks. Personally, I love lists for my own use. They give my ideas of books to read or listen to next, sometimes leading me to books I might have overlooked. Lists of genres I'm not as familiar with, like science fiction and adventure, can help me broaden my reading and make me more familiar with the library's collection.
Perhaps this easy access to lists of all shapes, sizes, and interests is why it seems so easy to drag out a list when a teen asks for recommendations. It's easy to forget, especially when I don't personally read the same genre as the teen, how diverse one genre can be and how divergent people's interests can be even when they enjoy the same genre. In this way, looking at a list can be a lot like trying to use a readers' advisory site with few subject terms to match up "Read-a-likes." The result can sometimes be a very poor match, such as a search I once did on "What Do I Read Next?" I was looking for read-a-likes of an edge-of-your-seat mystery/suspense novel. This search resulted in only a few suggestions, one of which was a tearjerker about a young woman with cancer. The similarities between the books were the main characters were in their early twenties and Christian. If I hadn't read both of these books before seeing the list, I would have been in for a great surprise if I had tried the recommended book. So knowing what makes a book appealing is really important, but this aspect can get a bit lost when depending on a list. Good annotations can make up for this in part, but they cannot fully represent all the ways in which a book may catch someome's interest. Since I tend to use a list when I am unfamiliar with a genre, I am more likely to give a poor recommendation because I haven't determined why a teen likes a particular book or genre and I don't know which books on the list will catch their interest most. Instead of being dependent on a list, I need to be more familiar with the teen's tastes and the collection.
This isn't to say that lists don't have their place. Though I read a lot of the fantasy books in our young adult collection, I sometimes go to the list of fantasy authors to help my recollection of what I've read and what else is available. A list can also be helpful for the middle-schoolers who come in to find a book for school -- one of the teachers assigns a genre, so several teens will come in looking for science fiction one month and historical fiction the next. Again, though a list is helpful, understanding the teens' interests and the collection can help in finding a book that the teen will enjoy (or at least not hate too much!) within that genre. For example, some historical fiction novels are more action-oriented, while others are dominated by historical fact, and still others involve time travel. Short annotations on a list simply can't make up for a lack of knowledge of the collection.
While lists can be a starting point, I think it's dangerous to become too dependent upon them. In my experience, teens tend to prefer a recommendation that I have personally read or can talk about knowledgeably instead of a list. If I can show an interest in their preferences and find a few books they might enjoy, I've gone a step further than simply handing them a book that fulfills their school requirements. It shows that I care about their interests and that I'll listen to them. If I can do this, they're more likely to come back and ask for help another time.