Finding good books for kids can be challenging; finding outstanding ones can feel nearly impossible at times. Jordan B. Nielsen, creator of The Rusty Key, offers free children's book reviews in this amazing website modeled after a mysterious old house.
About Jordan B. Nielsen
LoveToKnow (LTK): Tell us about Jordan B. Nielsen.
Jordan B. Nielsen (JN): I'm a non-reader who fell in love with books. As a kid I could have told you what time of day it was by what was on Nickelodeon, but you could not get me to sit with a book for more than ten minutes; it was excruciating for me. Even as a teen I was more interested in the visual, and I ended up going to film school in Boston to learn how to make movies. But then two things happened in film school that changed my life: I read Harry Potter, and on a whim I took an introductory course on writing for children. Harry Potter taught me how to not just love reading, but to be excited to read, that blow-off-your-friends-skip-your-classes-lock-yourself-in-your-room-for-hours kind of excitement for books.
Once I was infected with the love of reading, it spread to all the book genres, and then it really was off to the races. By the end of film school, I was taking more writing classes than film classes. I went on to get my Masters degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and I now live in Park Slope, Brooklyn with many, many books. I'm just about to finish writing the first book in an action-adventure-meets-science series for young teens.
The Rusty Key
LTK: The Rusty Key is an amazing endeavor. What inspired you to create it, and why did you choose a key as an icon?
JN: I first moved to New York in the fall of 2008, looking to get a job in children's book publishing. Thanks to the economy, the closest I got was a retail job working in the Scholastic Bookstore in SoHo. I was 26 years old with a Masters degree, working a $9 an hour job that occasionally required me to put on a Clifford the Big Red Dog mascot suit and dance around on Broadway. Let me tell you, you come to a lot of realizations about yourself from the inside of a giant foam and polyester dog head.
What I realized was that I actually didn't care about how a book was made; it was the story itself that I loved. The best thing about that job was when a twelve year-old would come in to the store who had devoured the Percy Jackson Series and would look to me to tell him what to read next. Eventually it came to me that this was something I could really do: take my love of reading and writing and children's books, and create a place that celebrated all of those things, where I could help kids and parents to find great books on a larger scale.
I went through a number of names for the site, trying to come up with some sort of pun or play on words that would nod toward the canon of children's books, but then like a bolt from the blue I had The Rusty Key in my head. Throughout children's literature, it's something you see again and again, that plain, little old key that unlocks a magical universe. It's a fascinating and exciting idea that this ordinary, forgotten thing can take you to an extraordinary place. We like to say that our Rusty Key unlocks a love of reading, which is a fantastic adventure in and of itself.
LTK: What can visitors expect to find in the Reading Room?
JN: The site is designed like the kind of creaky old house that you see in many children's books, the type that orphans get sent to a lot, where around every corner you might find something frightening or something magical. Each section of the site is called a 'Room'. In the Reading Room you'll find the real bread and butter of our site: the book reviews. We use 'Bookmarks' to highlight special attributes of the good books we've read ("Brilliant for Boys" "An Up All Nighter," etc.) and our Bookshelf keeps visitors informed of what to expect next. There are special little surprises at the bottom of all of our 'Rooms'. In the Reading Room you'll find a cozy place to curl up with your favorite book.
LTK: What about in the Cellar?
JN: The Cellar is where we like to have a little fun. There you'll find author interviews, themed reading lists, opinion articles and more. It's sort of our Marry Poppins carpetbag of kid lit content: there's a little of everything in there.
LTK: What is the Golden Key Collection?
The Golden Key Collection is our selection of the best of the best in children's literature. It's broken into three age groups, and arranged like a museum display case. You can't go wrong with a book that's been given our Golden Key. It's the standard we hold all of children's literature to.
Free Book Reviews on the Site
LTK: The Rusty Key reviews many books. Do you have a favorite review?
JN: We've definitely chosen to ignore the old phrase "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all". If we truly despised a book, you're going to know exactly why. And I have to say, the negative reviews are the most fun to write. By the time I finish reading a really awful book, I'm usually so full of ire and consternation that it's all I can do to stop myself from writing ten pages on everything that was wrong with it. However, it's of the greatest importance to me that our reviews are serious-minded and uphold a high level of discourse and criticism. You're not going to find snarky blog rhetoric at The Rusty Key. That said, my favorite of my reviews is 'The Game of Sunken Places' which still stands as the most incomprehensible children's book I've ever read.
LTK: The one word summaries are brilliant. Is it difficult to come up with them?
JN: Thank you! Generally I have my 'One Word' in mind before I've finished reading the book, so for me it's fairly easy and something akin to a gut reaction. When designing the format of the site, I wanted to come up with a way to give readers an instant idea of our stance on a given book. I considered a 1-5 rating system involving keys, but what would "We give this book three keys" really say to the reader about the book? I wanted something more articulate. Some of our reviews can be quite lengthy, and I knew it was important to keep in mind the reader who doesn't necessarily want to read fifteen hundred words in review of a children's book. Some people enjoy reading negative reviews; some just want to quickly find a good book for their kids to read. So with the 'One Word' we're trying both to give our readers a simple summary of the book in question, and a feel for what our longer review has to say. I do enjoy picking them!
LTK: What is your favorite book for adults? Does it relate to any of your favorite children's books?
JN: It's a murderous question for anyone who reads a lot. I have to list: Willa Cather's My Antonia, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary are examples of the finest, most heart-rending prose ever constructed. However, Ian McEwan's Atonement is probably my favorite book, as it had the biggest emotional impact on me, and that was simply because of the realness of the characters. That absolutely relates to the way I regard children's books: the most fascinating idea for a story can be sunk by flat, clichéd, unrealistic characters, but characters that are multidimensional, true to life, and memorable can make a book about picking out wallpaper the most riveting thing you've ever read in your life. That's really at the heart of what we're looking to elevate with The Rusty Key, the stories that speak honestly about people and life in all its complexity, whether it's from the perspective of a ten year-old girl or a teenage wizard or the inner monologue of a china rabbit.