BookTok: a blessing or a curse? | Series 1, Episode 18


Episode 18

Episode 18 show notes

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Episode 18 transcript

Booktok: a blessing or a curse?

The meteoric rise of BookTok, a subculture within TikTok dedicated to books and reading, has irrevocably altered the landscape of YA literature. With over 110 billion views and counting, its influence on teen readers and the publishing industry is undeniable. However, the question remains: does BookTok act as a benevolent fairy godmother for YA, or is it wielding a more ambiguous, double-edged sword? An in-depth exploration of its impact reveals both its positive contributions and potential pitfalls, demanding a nuanced approach to navigate this dynamic platform.

Unleashing a Reading Renaissance:

One of BookTok’s most celebrated merits is its undeniable ability to spark a love of reading among young audiences. Gone are the days of dusty library shelves and forced assignments. Engaging video formats, overflowing with passion and personal recommendations, can effortlessly capture the attention of even reluctant readers. BookTok transforms books into vibrant, social experiences, fueled by shared enthusiasm and online engagement. This democratization of literary discovery transcends geographical boundaries, connecting readers across the globe and fostering a sense of belonging within a virtual community.

Case in Point: Take the Enemies to Lovers trope, trending heavily on BookTok. Teenagers, often resistant to prescribed reading lists, find themselves immersed in narratives like Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star or Emily Henry’s Beach Read, drawn in by relatable characters and engaging plots. Additionally, BookTok provides a platform for authors like Namina Forna (The Gilded Ones) and Elizabeth Acevedo (Clap When You Land) to gain significant traction, highlighting diverse narratives that resonate with underrepresented perspectives.

Beyond the Usual Suspects:

Beyond its infectious enthusiasm, BookTok offers a refreshing departure from the traditional YA canon. Unlike curated bestseller lists or established award programs, the platform’s algorithm thrives on organic virality, allowing lesser-known titles and indie authors to break through the noise. This spotlight on unique genres and marginalized voices not only broadens the literary horizons of young readers but also challenges the publishing industry’s established norms, pushing for greater representation and inclusivity.

However, the Echo Chamber Paradox Looms: While BookTok champions diverse voices, the algorithm-driven nature can create echo chambers where a small number of popular authors and trends dominate, overshadowing gems hidden beneath the surface. This homogenization can limit exposure to diverse narratives and perpetuate existing biases, hindering the very inclusivity it strives to promote.

Blurring the Lines: Age-Appropriateness in Question:

One of the most concerning aspects of BookTok is the potential disconnect between content and marketing. Books with mature themes, potentially inappropriate for younger audiences, often find themselves packaged and promoted as YA due to the popularity of the genre on the platform. This blurred line between marketing strategies and age-appropriate content raises ethical concerns and necessitates open communication between parents, educators, and librarians to guide young readers towards suitable material.

For instance: Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series, popular on BookTok, showcases a strong female protagonist but contains mature content. This highlights the need for responsible engagement and open discussions about age-appropriateness, ensuring young readers are equipped to handle complex themes.

Beyond Hype and Aesthetics:

The pressure to go viral on BookTok can be immense, both for authors and readers. Authors might feel compelled to cater to specific trends or create sensationalized content, compromising their artistic integrity and authenticity. Readers – bombarded with hyper-enthusiastic recommendations, might develop unrealistic expectations of every book they encounter, leading to disappointment and potentially hindering their appreciation for more nuanced narratives.

Case in point: The popularity of “enemies to lovers” narratives might lead authors to prioritize that trope over organic character development or plot complexity. Similarly, readers might expect every book to deliver the same level of drama and excitement as viral recommendations, overlooking quieter, character-driven novels. Promoting critical thinking and open discussions about authorial intent and literary styles can help mitigate these potential pitfalls.

Ethical Considerations:

BookTok, like any social media platform, presents ethical dilemmas surrounding marketing, content regulation, and potential misinformation. Concerns exist regarding:

  • Misleading marketing: Books with mature content might be presented as age-appropriate.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Viral recommendations can create unrealistic expectations for readers.
  • Algorithmic biases: Popularity, not necessarily quality, can drive recommendations.
  • Misinformation: Inaccurate information about books, literary figures, or publishing practices can spread quickly on BookTok. This misinformation can mislead readers about appropriate content, historical contexts, or publishing processes.

Navigating the Maze: Towards a Responsible Engagement:

Despite these potential pitfalls, BookTok remains a powerful tool for literary engagement. However, approaching it with a critical lens is crucial. Parents, educators, and librarians can act as crucial guides, fostering open conversations with young readers about the content they encounter online, and encouraging them to question what they see and read.

Cultivating Critical Thinking Skills:

Discussing Content and Representation: Encourage young readers to analyze the books they encounter on BookTok, discussing themes, characters, and representation. Is the story diverse and inclusive? Does it reflect their own experiences or offer new perspectives?

Beyond Hype and Aesthetics: Help readers move beyond visually appealing covers and trending hashtags. Encourage them to consider the author’s writing style, plot development, and overall message of the book.

Diversifying Sources: Recommend trusted resources like libraries, independent bookstores, and diverse book reviewers to broaden their exposure to a wider range of voices and literary styles.

Empowering Responsible Readers:

Open Communication is Key: Maintain open communication with young readers about their online experiences, discussing potential biases and the importance of responsible content consumption.

Promoting Digital Literacy: Equip them with the skills to critically evaluate information online, and to understand algorithms, sponsored content, and the limitations of social media trends.

Fostering a Love of Reading: Ultimately, the goal is to cultivate a genuine love of reading that extends beyond fleeting trends. Encourage exploration of different genres, authors, and formats to discover books that resonate on a personal level.

The Future of YA Literature:

The impact of BookTok on YA literature is still unfolding, presenting both exciting opportunities and potential challenges. By acknowledging its strengths and limitations, we can harness its power to promote a love of reading, champion diverse voices, and foster a vibrant literary community. However, ensuring responsible engagement, critical thinking, and open communication remains crucial in navigating this dynamic landscape. Ultimately, BookTok can be a valuable tool for enriching the lives of young readers, shaping the future of YA literature, and ensuring that the written word continues to inspire and captivate for generations to come.

Additional Exploration:

1. Case Studies:

Positive Case Study: Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda gained significant traction on BookTok, leading to increased readership and sparking important conversations about LGBTQ+ representation in YA literature. This highlights the platform’s potential to amplify diverse voices and connect readers with meaningful stories.

Negative Case Study: Certain BookTok trends promoting unhealthy relationships or unrealistic body image portrayals raise concerns about the potential for negative influence on young readers. Analyzing these trends and their impact can inform discussions about responsible content promotion and age-appropriate reading.

2. Comparative Analysis:

Compare BookTok with established online literary communities like Goodreads. While both provide recommendations and connect readers, BookTok’s focus on short, video-based content creates a different dynamic compared to Goodreads’s more text-based platform. Analyzing these differences can offer insights into the unique strengths and weaknesses of each platform in influencing YA reading.

3. Actionable Tips for Parents and Educators:

  • Start a Book Club: Encourage young readers to discuss BookTok recommendations with peers in a safe and supportive environment, fostering critical thinking and shared experiences.
  • Engage with BookTok Together: Explore BookTok content together with young readers, sparking discussions about marketing strategies, authorial intent, and responsible content consumption.
  • Promote Diverse Voices: Actively recommend books by diverse authors and from various genres to counter potential echo chambers and broaden young readers’ literary horizons.

4. A blessing or a curse?

By acknowledging the complexities of BookTok and fostering responsible engagement, we can ensure it remains a positive force for YA literature. Empowering young readers with critical thinking skills, promoting open communication, and supporting diverse voices will pave the way for a future where BookTok inspires a love of reading and strengthens the connection between young readers and literature.

Episode 18 chapter markers

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

  • STEM and science fiction books for children – our run down.

Episode 16 credits

To see full details of licensing information, Creative Commons, GNU license credits and other attributions that apply to every episode of this podcast, see our School Reading List podcast credits information page.

Credits specific to this episode

  • Kevin MacLeod – Bummin on Tremelo – (purchased lifetime extended license registered to Tom Tolkien license ID FML-170359-11969).
  • Listener submitted monologues from debut and self-published authors including: Phone me when you’re home! By Wendy Garvey, On My Back Paws by Anna Skoyles, Luna and Helio The Eclipse by Gina Keulemans & Why, Oh Why, Am I a Crocodile? by Alex Brooks, illustrated by Hannah Worsley.

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About Tom Tolkien

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Tom Tolkien is a highly qualified (BA Hons, PGCE, QTS) children's literature expert and teacher with over 25 years of experience. He has led inset courses, developed curriculum materials, spoken at conferences, advised on longlisting for several international children's literature literature awards and written for educational publishers including contributing to a BETT award-nominated app. Social profiles: Twitter | Linkedin