Friday, March 19, 2010

Not as rhetorical a question as you might have wished

From the promo blurb for My Double Life, by Janette Rallison:

You know how they say everyone has a twin somewhere in the world, a person chance has formed to be their mirror image? Well, mine happens to be rock star Kari Kingsley. How crazy is that?

Not crazy at all, when you, like I, have just spent two days combing through dozens (and dozens) of new YA novels, every other one of which seeming to encapsulate a formula of romance novel plus high-concept commercial hook plus glamorama cover art. In my day we called these paperbacks.

One of the more interesting of post-Harry Potter developments has been the emergence of commercial fiction for young people; that is, books designed to be purchased by kids/teens themselves, written in an undemanding style and with an alluring, quickly graspable premise. Airport books. Except if they were airport books, I wouldn't have to think twice about not reviewing them. And. There. Are. So. Many. And so many that seem to want desperately to be just like some other book that has already been a hit. Little Vampire Women, I'm looking at you.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Would we get more love from advertisers

. . . if we worked the way Yelp is accused of doing?

"Oh, we can make that 5-in-the-Guide totally go away, no problem. A star, you say? Well, let me tell you what I can do . . . ."

I remember some years ago my friend Mary K. Chelton raising a ruckus in the Letters column of SLJ, implying that positive reviews (in SLJ and elsewhere) bore an interesting relationship to advertising in the same pages. And I myself have pondered the practice of book award committee members being wined-dined-and-sixty-nined by publishers. While I know of no instance where a review or an award has been even attempted to be bought or sold outright, it behooves us all to keep the lines as bright as possible. At the risk of boring you with this anecdote for the tenth time, I remember a BBYA committee I was on arguing about what Gary Paulsen might have meant by some ambiguous turn of phrase or plot, I forget just which. One member brightly announced that she knew exactly what was meant because "Gary told me while we were dancing last night." It's not the dancing I minded so much as its bumping into the evaluation process.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Check for lint

Andrew sent me this op-ed re Kirkus and consumer reviewing whose sentiments I much appreciate, especially this gem: "Too often, the pretense of sharing advice devolves into oversharing the contours of one's navel."

Meghan Daum is here talking primarily about consumer boards like Yelp and Amazon reviews, and I noticed yesterday while looking something up on Yelp that what caught my attention were reviews and ratings that confirmed my opinions about stores and restaurants I had already patronized. I don't read children's book blogs the same way--the bloggers feel like peers; the Yelpers more like neighbors. I'm still working on what that difference means.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Kirkus Alive

Frequent Horn Book contributor and former owner of Kirkus Reviews, Barbara Bader offers her thoughts on the announced shuttering of that review service:

Kirkus Alive

Within days, Kirkus will cease publishing after 76 years. A long, sometimes turbulent run, which has meant different things in the fields of children’s and adult books.

I was successively, and sometimes simultaneously, children’s book editor, non-fiction editor, editor-in-chief, president, and co-owner; but this is the place to talk primarily about children’s book reviewing in the Kirkus context.

When I succeeded Lillian Gerhardt as children’s editor in 1966, Kirkus Reviews was an outlier. It was privately owned, by book people; it didn’t take advertising; the reviews were anonymous; and the reviewing of adult and children’s book was closely integrated. Gerhardt reviewed some adult books, as I did in turn, and adult staffers took on some children’s books.

Virginia Kirkus herself had been a children’s book editor, at Harper, before founding the service in 1933, and it was not until the early 60s that Gerhardt came on board as the first children’s specialist—someone who’d been a children’s librarian, as I was.

In a small office, there was a lot of cross-pollination. We didn’t mince words about children’s books, any more than about adult books. This made a few editors, and more than a few authors, unhappy. They were accustomed to approval or, at worst, a shade less than total enthusiasm. People who write for children often think they’re doing a good deed, and expect to be praised for their efforts. Adult authors are more accustomed to taking the bad with the good, though not invariably.

In the slings-and-arrows line, Maurice Sendak likes to talk about the librarian who covered Mickey’s nakedness, in In the Night Kitchen, with a diaper. My favorite story of disapproval is the jiffy bag that arrived one morning, in the day’s heap of mail, with a dead fish.

With Publishers Weekly, Kirkus did pre-publication reviewing (Library Journal and Booklist came to it later) and like PW, Kirkus was heavily used, for adult reviews, by producers, publishers, and such, as well as by librarians, But Kirkus also took its place as a source of reviews of children’s books, which librarians had less need to order in advance, with other trade organs: SLJ, Booklist, the Horn Book, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. My counterparts, all prominent in the field, were Lavinia Russ at PW, Gerhardt at SLJ, Paul and Ethel Heins at the Horn Book, and Zena Sutherland at the Bulletin.

As different as our publications and their voices, we became buddies, most of us. Then and later, we made our own contributions to children’s books.

At my departure in 1971 to write American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within, my place as children’s editor was taken by Sada Fretz, who kept a very low profile, served admirably for more than a dozen years, and never became well known. (Harper’s Bill Morris, who knew everyone, marveled in later years that he’d never met Sada.) She was a terrific reviewer, though—with a relaxed style that masked the sharpness of her perceptions.

Even as circumstances at Kirkus changed, subsequent children’s book editors—Joanna Rudge Long, Karen Breen—put their own stamps on the reviewing, and made their own marks in the field. Autonomy fosters individuality.

After more than seven decades, from the depths of the Great Depression to the day after the Great Recession, was the demise of Kirkus inevitable?

Perhaps the state of the publishing industry condemned it, along with the cuts in public funds. But Kirkus was not intrinsically a money machine. When it was owned by Virginia Kirkus herself, by a small group of insiders, by the New York Review of Books, and by my partner and me, its purpose was to review books well and at least break even; to evolve and keep going.

Business people, on the other hand, tend to think that a small company chugging along, with a faithful customer base, can be made more profitable with business know-how. And why go on with a business that can’t be made profitable?

The imminent end of Kirkus, as reported on the New York Times blog, elicited considerable regret from readers (including stung authors) as well as, predictably, some glee. With a strong independent identity, it may cease to publish but it won’t vanish from memory. --Barbara Bader

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Monday, November 23, 2009

To "see like a child": all it's cracked up to be?

Back on the discussion of long book reviews, Maluose commented that "those of you who think kids are naturally great reviewers have never had to endure any of their blow-by-blow plot summaries. They make most bloggers sound positively terse." Too true. The "book reviews" kids would deliver when I ran a summer reading club a hundred years ago were painful. And those "a kid's review" posts on Amazon might be shorter but they are not very illuminating. (Does anyone know how that tag gets there? I can't imagine a child using it of his or her own volition.)

I was thinking about children's taste on Saturday when I met a friend and his little kids at a local tot lot. The place is incredibly popular because there are lots of toys--scooters, trikes, a play stove, a little house--all made out of that child-safe but phenomenally ugly molded plastic that, my friend tells me, is very expensive. The colors on this stuff manage to be both flat and garish, and the plastic picks up dirt like a magnet. Whoever thought kids had a natural instinct for beauty probably didn't get out much.

Of course, kids with style are a nightmare all their own.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Too damned long

I see that PW has followed up on Betsy Bird's thoughts on the Amazon Vine program; their speculation that membership in Vine might be a perk for good customers is intriguing if not substantiated. What seems oddest to me is that this program--for which publishers and other producers pay for the privilege of having their products evaluated--is being criticized for eliciting cluelessly negative reviews, which does not seem to serve the purposes of either publishers or Amazon. It's not like the books don't otherwise get customer reviews, but perhaps the Vine reviews post early enough so that any early buzz they provide outweighs what they actually say?

Vine reviews, customer reviews, and, sorry, blog reviews--they are all too damned long. That's the problem I have with 'em. Just because the technology allows one to prattle on forever should by no means encourage one to do so. The one Amazon review I remember appreciating was a negative review of a recording I adore, Adam Guettel's musical Floyd Collins. It read, in its entirety, "Too much yodeling."

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Milton Meltzer, 94

"That damned Horn Book"--the first words Milton Meltzer ever said to me, upon our mutual introduction fifteen years ago. Meltzer was ever-watchful of how the review journals were treating nonfiction books, a crusade begun by him in our pages more than thirty years ago. We commemorate the passing, on September 19th, of this omnivorously curious and immensely prolific writer with a profile of him written by Wendy Saul upon the occasion of Meltzer receiving the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 2001.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Digital reviewing

We had a call this morning from a publisher who is thinking about supplying reviewers with f&gs of picture books in digital form and wanted to know if Horn Book could work with that/those.

I demurred. Electronic galleys for fiction, maybe. Although my Kindle gathers dust (too hard to hold; I hate the buttons and typeface; the "page" is too gray), my iPod Touch is perfect for reading on the subway or in the dark and can hold hundreds of books. Lots of editors and agents are already using Kindles or Sony readers to manage otherwise innumerable reams of manuscript pages. (It is unfortunate that there is nothing about digital technology that will reward people for writing shorter books.) But picture books demand to be held, and the page-turn and your fingers are part of the story. Less ethereally, picture-book reviewers will often hold them at a distance to see how an image might carry across a story hour, or they will want to try one out with an individual child or group. I remember Chris Van Allsburg musing about the unlikelihood of families gathering around the cozy glow of the computer screen to "read" the cd-rom version of The Polar Express.

I understand the publisher's desire to keep down costs, and, theoretically, electronic galleys would allow reviewers to post their reviews earlier, which is to everyone's advantage. But I wonder if the distance between what is seen by the reviewer and read by the consumer is too great. Are film reviewers allowed to watch the movie on TV?

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Karla Kuskin

Very sorry to read of Karla Kuskin's death last week; there's an informative and appreciative obituary in the New York Times. I was lucky enough to work with Karla ten years ago when I asked her to write something for us about reviewing picture books, a craft at which she excelled.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Is It a Crime?

Drinks for anyone but Elizabeth who can identify the musical quoted in the title.

The Simmons program Crime and Misdemeanors is ending this morning with closing remarks from M.T. Anderson, and my responsibilities--save paper-grading--will be through. I've been twittering away from the back of the room, but it's difficult to convey the extravagant genius and delivery of a Jack Gantos in 140 words. (And something tells me that Mr. Tobin Big Words won't be any easier.) If you go to the HornBook feed (linked over there on the right) you can at least get a sense of who's been talking.

Yesterday I was on a panel with Vicky Smith (Kirkus) and Deborah Stevenson (BCCB) about reviewing; the best moment for me was when Deborah and I confessed to letting House in the Night slip by while Vicky quietly crowed that Kirkus had named it the best picture book of the year. What we neglected to get into is how incestuous this whole business is--I used to run BCCB, Vicky formerly reviewed for the Horn Book, Deborah taught the Simmons summer course the last time and has an article coming up in our November issue. It's a very small pond.

I'll try to get you some more moments from the Institute later this week but am off tomorrow for some kind of management retreat in Ohio. If they think I'm doing trust circles or paintball wars . . . .

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Monday, June 29, 2009

When writers attack!

I wonder what you call the Twitter equivalent to drunk dialing?

And if you're going to whine about how you used to be reviewed (and how that must hurt) by Anne Tyler, it might be politic to spell her name right.

[Update 11:45 AM. It looks like Alice Hoffman wisely thought to retreat from the field and suspended or cancelled her account. But for those who missed it, Hoffman had taken issue, via several Twitter messages, with a review by Roberta Silman of her latest book in the Boston Globe. Along with publishing the reviewer's phone number and encouraging readers to call and give her hell, Hoffman complained, "Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman?"]

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Who's reading YA?

A tweet from Chair, Fireplace, etc. led me to this article questioning the link between the health of YA as a publishing category and the assumption that it means teen reading is flourishing. Every time I see The Book Thief on bestseller charts I wonder about this correlation, and I also think the question speaks to the thriving (thanks, all) conversation we've been having about blog reviewing and how it differs from print. Save for the odd review in VOYA, all major print reviews of YA are written by adults for an audience of other adults selecting books for teens. Blog reviewers include both teens and adults, and more often than not YA blog reviews don't speak from or to a gatekeeper perspective--the reviewer treats the book as one she has (or, more rarely, has not) enjoyed and recommends (or not) to those reading the blog, with no "for your kids" implied. This may be why meta-discussions of blog-reviewing get so heated: it's personal.

I don't wring my hands about adults reading YA as much as I used to, but before you go thinking I've become more generous of spirit take a look at the article linked above--maybe YA books are simply adult books with more appealing covers!

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Publishers and bloggers

In a comment on a recent thread, Elizabeth posted a comment that I thought deserved its own discussion so I moved it here for your consideration:

Re. the question of anonymous posting, I seem to be the only person who holds the opinion that I would prefer to see people use their names, yet hold it I do. I may post my reasons why later, but for now I'd like to talk more about a question that publishers are debating re. the blogosphere, and which I don't think has been discussed on the thread below.

We are getting a lot of requests from YA bloggers, many of them teens themselves, who want galleys of one or another of our upcoming books. We are working at sorting out which of these bloggers have big enough followings to merit sending them a galley. Let's say it's roughly $8.50 to print and mail a galley, and our supply, and our time, is limited. How many of these bloggers might have enough readers to make it worth our while? Or, for that matter, write compelling enough entries that someone would want to read the book they are talking about? Interestingly, most bloggers, when asking for a galley, have not yet learned to say "I get 1000 unique readers a month" or whatever the appropriate lingo is. They just say they love YA literature, such and such book sounds good, and that they'd love to write about it on their blog. And as others have suggested, I think they'd also like to brag to their friends that they get a lot of galleys. But that's not a lot of use to us.

And as Roger and others *have* mentioned on this thread, while we have no idea what professional critics are going to write about our novels, we do expect most blog coverage to be positive. Maybe some of it will be really positive, maybe some of it will just mention our book in a long list of titles, but so far blog coverage, particularly of books seen in advance of the general public, has been pretty positive. When or if that changes, it will be interesting to see what happens. Maybe we'll keep a "naughty or nice" list!

10:51 PM, June 17, 2009


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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blogs and buzz

Here and elsewhere, there have been some valuable discussions about children's book reviewing on blogs and an email I just got has me wondering about the distinction between book reviewing and book buzz. The email, of the multiple-recipients variety, was from Penguin: "Have you read FIRE yet? We want to know what you think! Please send me your thoughts, comments, quotes, etc. so we can get buzzing about the biggest young adult book of the year! Looking forward to hearing from you!"

I think those exclamation points will allow me to forgo another cup of coffee this morning. Fire is Kristin Cashore's sequel to Graceling (published by Harcourt, Awkward.) and will be released in October. The buzz-begging went, I presume, to people who had received ARCs, and I'm guessing that this group includes a fair number of bloggers, given how well Graceling did among that group last year.

I wonder if book-bloggers are going to have to choose between being creators (and subsequently beneficiaries) of buzz and reviewers of books. As I wrote in the comments on my last post, reviewing a book months in advance of its publication is not particularly useful if the audience for your review is the general public. (Advance reviewing of the kind Kirkus does is useful, because it's going to an audience--librarians--who routinely order books before publication date.) But months-in-advance is perfect for creating buzz, and blogging is a terrific medium for just that kind of publicity. Can a blogger provide buzz in advance and a review later? Does involving oneself in buzzing compromise any subsequent review? How cozy can a blog get with a publisher's marketing strategy? And if you DO have "thoughts, comments, quotes" on a book, are you going to give 'em to a publisher or save 'em for your blog?

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

"The fanboys can be merciless."

This Times article about the gypsies invading the castle of professional film criticism has a lot of import to the kidlitosphere as well, as amateur (I use the word in a strict sense) and independent critics join the established professional players in reviewing new books for children. I like what A. O. Scott has to say: “the paradox is that the Web has invigorated criticism as an activity while undermining it as a profession.” He means, I think, that as more people are embracing criticism as valuable, the notion that particular people can have expertise (worth paying for) becomes devalued: all opinions become equal.

Here's what worries me more. In the recent dustup about the BEA bloggers panel and subsequent debate about first- and second-generation bloggers, a-list and b-list bloggers, whether blog tours do any good and what constitutes pay and payola in the book-reviewing blog world, I kept thinking about my favorite Nora Ephron crack, which I will have to paraphrase as I can't find my copy of Crazy Salad. Writing about her experience with a 70s feminist consciousness-raising group, Ephron noted that in its waning days the conversation had devolved into a discussion about how each woman was going to stuff her turkey that Thanksgiving, and that none of the members was even particularly interested in hearing what the other women had to say, they were just impatient for their turn to talk. (Or as Fran Leibowitz put it, "conversation is not the art of listening. It is the art of waiting.") I worry that Internet 2.0 is turning us all into better talkers than listeners--that's what will kill criticism from wherever its source.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Think of the grownups.

A discussion on child_lit about book reviews that give away a book's plot twist or ending led NYPLer John Peters to post a link to Library Journal's announcement that it had begun editing its reviews with the reader--rather than the librarian selecting for that reader--in mind, as well as making them more Twitterific. Meaning: because the real money in book-review publishing now lies in their dissemination through databases rather than as print publications, it's smart to make them as versatile and buzzable as possible. But it would also be smart--financially--to make book reviews as positive as possible, too, as the companies that purchase them--from Baker & Taylor to them in alliance with systems designed to sell people books. So we all need to watch our step.

I wonder what if anything this might mean for the children's review media. While I don't think anyone will be urging SLJ or the Horn Book to write reviews for children themselves, there is a larger and larger audience of adults who read children's books not as gatekeepers but for their own pleasure. Should we be worrying more about "spoilers"? As it is, half the Horn Book office is closing its ears around the other half, all because of Catching Fire.

(And I won't spill anything here. Catching Fire is great fun to read and will be especially appreciated by people who enjoyed The Hunger Games, he said ambiguously.)

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How Others See Us

The New York Times obituary for Eden is a gracious tribute but does that thing I hate: "Eden Ross Lipson . . . was a force in bringing the enchanting but often overlooked world of children’s literature to wide public awareness."

The REASON children's literature is overlooked is because we persist in regarding it as ENCHANTING.

Okay. I'll stop shouting. And, to answer a query on yesterday's note, Eden was terrific at negotiating between the world of the professional children's-book critic and that of the Times children's-book-reviews reader, the educated parent. She knew what I didn't know about what they didn't know.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

R.I.P. Eden

Former New York Times children's book editor Eden Ross Lipson died this morning. She was the editor who first hired me to write for the Times, and she taught me a lot in regard to how to write for a general audience about children's books. We became pals over the years and I'll miss her. For our November, 2000 special issue on "the Future of Children's Books," I asked a couple of dozen writers and critics to name one book to put into the time capsule for future child readers, and you can read about Eden's choice here.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

X hits the spot

Reviewer X has a good discussion going on blog reviewing. I confess I'm dying to try Twitter if only to see just WHO is:

comparing their "hit lists" for authors they plan to ask for ARCs, trading e-mail addresses and results, complaining about whether they're getting an ARC, and actually encouraging each other to send nasty mail to authors they "know" have ARCs, and just won't give them to them. As if they're entitled! (And YES, I have the transcripts. I was appalled.)

I don't do book reviewing here, so I hesitate to join the discussion. Oh, not really. I'm surprised to find out that some book-bloggers request ARCs from authors. Way tacky. But then, it must work often enough if it's being debated as a practice. The forum also has me wondering about just what effect YA book-blogging was having on sales and readership: if the audience for review blogs is mainly other review blogs, and if they are all scrambling for ARCs, do any books get sold as a result? And: Are these bloggers largely adults reading for their own enjoyment and essentially simply swapping recommendations (and tips on how to score free books) among themselves? But then I saw that the very smart X was fifteen and the world brightened a little.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A conspiracy theory of reviewing

Editorial Anonymous has, for writers, some good news and some good news about children's books reviews. The good news, she (?) says, is that good reviews can help sell books. And the other good news is that bad reviews won't hurt selling books.

I have a more nuanced opinion. More and more children's books are review-proof: good or bad, reviews won't make much difference to series franchises, celebrity books, brand-name authors or merchandise. All of those depend on marketing and saturation. Where reviews matter is in public libraries and schools (which themselves serve as a staging post for wider readership).

Good reviews do still matter to this institutional market, and bad reviews (or no reviews) have both a primary and secondary effect. Middling or worse reviews for an author without a built-in audience mean that not only will librarians be more likely to give the book a miss, but its publisher will be less inclined to fork out more money for advertising and promotion. As the legendary Mimi Kayden said, "one or two stars won't do it anymore."

And lets not forget the ALA awards, which consistently provide a bigger boost to sales than any other award out there, save perhaps the Bluebonnet. If The Graveyard Book had been published to indifferent reviews, it would most likely have not won the Newbery Medal. Not because the award committee members are slaves to reviews (although I have seen reviews used to kill a book's chances), but because the members and the reviewers are the same people. Sometimes literally, but more pervasively in the way they imbibe the same historical tradition and, however shifting, "standards." While the Newbery Medal only gilds the success of Gaiman's book, it was essential to the shelf-life of, say, The Higher Power of Lucky (although maybe that's not the best example of my point, as the book got respectful but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews prior to the award).

Certainly, reviews mattered more when most juvenile hardcover was destined for the institutional markets. But certain books still need success there (if only there, often) to allow the author the go-ahead to publish the next one.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Shoot me now.

While I was running yesterday in the glorious weather (ha ha, I know) I came upon a woman walking her dog, a little cattle-dog mix-thing. Hyper but cute. The dog was desperate to come over to me and say hello, so I stopped and played with her for a minute. The woman started talking to the dog: "Yes! Yes! You like him 'cause he looks like your grandfather! Yes!" She then explained that she meant her father of course, like that made anything any better.

I felt . . . seasoned again this morning while pawing through the review carts, and remembering when a book about anorexia (Deborah Hautzig's Second Star to the Right) or lesbian mothers (some Norma Klein novel) was still cause for comment--and review--simply by virtue of its subject. So is it a good thing or a bad thing that books on such topics can now pass unremarked?

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Still, it's not like a book can give you polio.

From the would-be author who insists to his would-be editor that "my grandkids love this story" to the award committee member who says "my ten-year-old thought this book was boooorrrring," the children's book world is replete with those who use their own children as test subjects. Expanding the notion of "my kids" to those children with whom we have professional contact (as teachers or librarians) gives us an even bigger pool of lab rats even while the scientific validity of the test population remains questionable.

I'm all for writers, award committee members, reviewers, teachers, and librarians "trying out" books with kids, but I think we need to be watchful of what they tell us. My colleague Anne Quirk talks about the "Steve and Daphne Show" she witnessed one year at a Best Books for Young Adults committee, where, as dutifully supplied by a committee member, opinions from these two teens from a single high school library seemed to be providing the pivotal swing vote. I myself like to use the fact that the two-year-old from downstairs loves to scream "ROAR ROAR ROAR" as evidence that Bob Shea's Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime should win the Caldecott Medal.

But talk about experimenter effect! Zena Sutherland used to quote Ursula Nordstrom as saying that kids will enjoy the telephone book if it means they're getting their mother's attention, just as politicians know not to say that Harold Robbins is their favorite writer. Everybody wants to make somebody happy. And just because your kids like or don't like something doesn't mean that other kids will feel the same way. Proximity does not an expert witness make.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Amazoning Out

JasonB's post at Galleycat about Thomas Nelson's new program of supplying free books to bloggers on the condition that they review the book and copy said review to an online vendor such as brings up lots of questions, and don't miss the link to the Guardian's essay on the subject, which includes an entertaining, increasingly hostile debate in the comments section.

My own question is about Amazon review overload. It looks to me like customer reviews at Amazon have become an increasingly insidery sport, fun for the reviewers themselves but too overwhelming, in numbers and attitude, for someone wanting to buy a book. There are some excellent reviewers there (hi, Fuse!) but also a lot of amateurism--in the pejorative sense--involving competition among the reviewers themselves to one-up each other. I wonder if and when Amazon will decide that this doesn't help them sell books. Or does it?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Think Pink!

Mitali Perkins Facebooked and Twittered a question to her friends: "should an author describe the race of a character or leave it to the reader's imagination?"

Good question, and she got some good answers. (Thanks, Gail, for the tip.)

It's a question we also face in reviewing--when do we mention the ethnicity or skin color of a character and when do we not? Sometimes, relaying details of the story will make things clear enough, but it's tougher when reviewing everyday-life-type stories, especially picture books, where the characters happen to be one color or another in a way that has no particular effect on the story or theme. And, as Justina Chen Headley points out in Mitali's post, we tend to mention skin color only when that color is not white. Awwwwwkward. I remember when Ms. magazine made a go of using "European American" wherever white people showed up in a story but it didn't last.

(And, really, there should be some kind of prize for the awkward ways in which well-meaning children's writers signal skin color: "Kathy's cocoa-brown-with-a-hint-of-whipped-cream face glowed warmly as she reveled in the attention of her more boringly-tinted friends." Yeah, I made that up but you know what I mean.)

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

More NBA

We've added a page linking to the reviews we've published thus far of the National Book Award finalists.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Star bar

My favorite curmudgeonly critic Norman Lebrecht offers his point of view about the ever-increasing trend toward using stars as critical shorthand:

Of all the devices that devalue the function of criticism, the bar of stars is among the most pernicious. It suggests that artistic creation can be ticked off like a school essay and subjected to a set of SATs, in which the individual, expert guidance of teachers and examiners is set aside for the one-rule-fits-all solution of 21st century politicians.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"Moore being Moore"

I wish I had thought of this earlier, but we published a far more perceptive account of ACM and her little ways than did that upstart New Yorker. Read Barbara Bader's take here.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

So which is it?

Two books reviewed in the forthcoming issue of the Horn Book Guide:

From Bearport, Meish Goldish's Deadly Praying Mantis

From Lerner, Sandra Markle's Praying Mantises: Hungry Insect Heroes

Nothing* p.o.'d the late Zena Sutherland more than a nonfiction children's book ascribing virtue or venality to animals.

*Except maybe simultaneous translation in dialogue, as in "'Hola, Juan!' exclaimed the pretty teacher to the new brown-eyed and chubby-cheeked boy, 'Hello.'"

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Who needs critics?

Film critic Mark Lawson's Guardian piece about media producers shutting professional reviewers out is interesting to consider in light of the increased commercialization of children's fiction, particularly this:

Professional solidarity aside, it's easy to understand why publicists are looking at ways of bypassing conventional critics. For example, the considerable majority of those who regularly review films in Britain are, like me, white males over the age of 40 who tend to prize originality over repetition and realism above sentimentality. These demographics and values are completely the opposite of cinema's main target audience: 15-24-year-olds seeking, in two senses, a big release on a Friday or Saturday night.

As a result, the cinematic commentariat tends to be far keener than potential ticket-buyers on small-scale, brainy pieces (such as, recently, the quirky drama Son of Rambow or the political documentary Taxi to the Dark Side), while rating many very profitable genres far lower than cinema-goers do: chick flicks, romcoms, horror, children's films and any returning title that is followed by a number higher than 2. That attitude to sequels is typical of the fundamental philosophical difference between serious critics, who flinch at the idea that they know what they will get, and civilian audiences, who are often attracted by familiarity.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Five Cents a Dance

Well, it's not like we wouldn't do this if we thought we could get away with it.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008


It's not just George.

Opera Chic led me to Gramophone's (my second-favorite magazine in the world) plan to sell CDs and downloads on their site. Gramophone is primarily in the business of reviewing classical music CDs; if they (to employ the British usage!) are also selling them, it raises the question of editorial independence--presumably, a glowing review in the magazine could lead someone to buy the CD under review, which Gramophone will also sell to you for its own profit. See the problem?

I understand the temptation, though--we could probably pick up some change if our online reviews linked to, say, Amazon, but the perception that we were trying to profit from two contradictory impulses wouldn't be worth it. Plus, I really wouldn't want to piss off the Children's Book Shop's Terri Schmitz. (Neither would you.) The fact that the Horn Book, like all the review journals, solicits ads from publishers is already tricky enough.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Something stinks

Bloggers criticizing perfume--what will those pesky scamps get up to next!

I can't believe the reporter left unchallenged and unexplored the claim that a "prominent blogger" was "threatened with a lawsuit by a perfume company because she had deemed its product 'only O.K.' and 'a little disappointing.'" The juiciest and most provocative statement in the whole article and there's no followup?

I'll be in New York for the next couple of days, hoping to come back to you with a podcast of some of my conversations. Here's hoping I remember which button does what.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Take that.

As the suit over publication of "The Harry Potter Lexicon" begins in New York, Laurie Frost's The Elements of His Dark Materials: A Guide to Philip Pullman's Trilogy (The Fell Press) has just come across my desk. Like the as-yet-unpublished "Lexicon," Elements contains all manner of facts collated from the object work; unlike that project, it has been published with full consent from the author, if Pullman's preface is anything to go by: "It's flattering, of course, to find one's work the object of such care and attention; but how much more satisfying when the work of reference that results is so accurate, and so interesting, and so good."

Galleycat worries that if Rowling wins, book reviewers will lose. I doubt it--the issue here is not that the "Lexicon" quotes from the Harry Potter books, it's that it raids them wholesale, and not with the purpose of buttressing a viewpoint, negative or otherwise. I'm sure that publishers would love to vet reviews but I don't see how Rowling's victory in this lawsuit would give them that power.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Felt So Nice I Did It Twice

Galleycat has a piece on a Las Vegas writer doing two different--very different--reviews of a book about his city, one for USA Today and the other for Las Vegas Weekly. I did that a couple of times, reviewing the same book for The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and the New York Times (the Times didn't care so long as its review was published first) on the grounds that the audiences were so different, but it's really not fair. It's not fair to the book if you hated it, it's not fair to competing books if you liked it, and it's not fair to the reader if you contradict yourself. Plus, reviewing the same book twice is hell.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

My favorite new reviewing word,

from Publishers Weekly's 3/3/08 review of Penny Vincenzi's (love her) An Absolute Scandal: "chickensian."

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

More on the Love That Won't Shut Up

I'm very interested in a comment Nina Lindsay made on the "oh, grow up" thread. Nina said, in part:

To take this in another direction...I'm someone who reads both adult and children's literature recreationally, but I do find often that my recreational response to children's literature gets in the way of my professional response. On a daily basis I have to actively separate my appreciation of a children's book from my critical brain. At the same time I find that my public library colleagues who don't read children's literature recreationally also tend not to choose to review it professionally...just because they don't really like to read it. This then puts a whole new layer on how I read reviews of children's literature; if I suspect that most reviewers are actually "fans," I have to suspect their evaluation of the audience for the book, and look actively for evidence in the review that they considered a REAL child audience. The evidence isn't always there. I'm probably guilty of neglecting it myself.

Nina is bringing up another part of the question I hadn't thought of: what's the difference between an adult reading a children's book recreationally and reading it professionally, and, crucially, what difference does that difference make? It's tricky, because children's librarians (and reviewers) are frequently reading recreationally and professionally at the same time--I'm reading Catherine Murdock's Princess Ben right now, for example, because I'm editing our review of it, but I'm also enjoying it enormously. But my enjoyment isn't really what Horn Book subscribers are invested in: they want to know if we think it is any good (we do) and if we think the young people they serve will like it. While I don't suspect that Princess Ben is going to be one of them, books beloved by librarians, reviewers and prize committees but disdained by kids are enough of a phenomenon to have earned their own name: shelf-sitters. Is this a danger of Loving Too Much? That while the reviewers are lovers of children's books, they are still reading as adults, and their enthusiasms are grown-up ones. Nina, is this at all what you were getting at?

I'd also like someday to see an exploration of the difference between "fans" of children's literature and "readers" of children's literature but I'll leave that for someone else's purgatory.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Yet another G-word

I received an email yesterday from a librarian who hated our reviews because she thought they had too much plot summary, but she was really pissed that we "almost always give away the ending."

Her first point is debatable--how much is too much?--but her second is demonstrably false while containing a truth: sometimes, we do give away the ending. As I explained in my response to her, Horn Book reviews are not written for the same people for whom the books we review are intended. The reviews are for grownups; the books are for kids. Sometimes the grownup wants to know if the dog dies.

There's a bigger, probably incendiary, question raised by this particular exchange. How do we feel about grownups who read children's books as if they weren't? That is, people who peruse the Horn Book like another person reads the Times Book Review, looking for a new book to read? As annoying as adults who dismiss children's books as unworthy of attention can be, I also feel my jaw clench when a fellow adult tells me that he or she prefers children's books to adult books because they have better writing or values or stories. This is just sentimental ignorance.

I'm reminded of the ruckus in SLJ some years back when a library school professor wrote that l.s. students like to take children's literature classes because the reading is so easy, "like eating popcorn." You can imagine the heated response, but I think she had a point. While noting the exceptions of James Patterson on the one hand and William Mayne on the other, children's books tend to be easier and thus potentially "fun" for adults in a way they tend not to be for children, an incongruence librarians need to remember, not dissolve. Whatever whoever chooses to read is their business, of course, but adults whose taste in recreational reading ends with the YA novel need to grow up.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Forget Celebrity Writers . . .

. . . for Oscar Day, I present you with a celebrity reviewer, movie actress Saffron Burrows in the Guardian. Good job, too.

My Oscar hopes: No Country for Old Men, Coen brothers, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, none of them*, Amy Ryan, Persepolis; don't care about the rest but think the un-nominated Eastern Promises shoulda won for Best Score.

My predictions: No Country for Old Men, Coen Brothers, Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem, Julie Christie, Ruby Dee (Richard's pick because I can't decide), Ratatouille. Atonement for Best Score although it sucks big bombastic rocks.

*I know this isn't an option. It's like the Newbery and Caldecott: once you've decided that "choosing the best" is a defensible activity, then something has to win. We're talking comparatives, not superlatives, a distinction not observed in Zadie Smith's recent short-story contest. So I guess I'll go with Julie Christie. She makes me go misty.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How to Make a Book Look Good and Work Well

In our new podcast, Horn Book designer (and webmaster) Lolly Robinson talks to Lee Kingman Natti: author, editor, and old Horn Book hand. Lee discusses working with Virginia Lee Burton, picture book design and the aesthetic of the Folly Cove designers.

Lee mentions that she first wrote for the Horn Book in 1929, when she won that year's Reading Contest: "for the best set of fifteen book notes on as many well-chosen books, each book note not to be more than 200 words or less than 100--a prize of ten books." And I must say I like the then nine-year-old Lee's straightforward approach to book reviewing: "I like the book because of the horrible things the Bastables did."

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Friday, February 01, 2008

White man speaks

Debbie Reese revisits one of the more interesting events of my years here. In another recent entry she talks about author John Smelcer's aspirations to Indian-ness. Our review of The Trap didn't mention it, but the jacket flap does claim that the author is "of Ahtna Athabaskan descent," which apparently he isn't, although his adoptive parents are Indian.

Debbie asks if publishers or reviewers might vet an author's claims to Indian-ness. If I were a publisher, I would want to, but I would also want to trust the writers I published. As a reviewer, I don't think I'd know how to go about it. As Debbie acknowledges, it would be ethically dubious to do this for Indian claims but not for others, but forget the workload issue, who would you ask? What would constitute an acceptable answer? And as with all questions involving "authentic representation," who gets to decide?

I'm pondering the parallels and differences between Smelcer's claims (and he's certainly not the first white guy to "play Indian") and those of people who passed themselves off as white and/or male to get what they wanted, be it publication or remuneration or freedom. Your thoughts?

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Starred Books, January/February '08 Horn Book

The following books will receive starred reviews in the January/February issue of the Horn Book Magazine:

Becca at Sea (Groundwood) by Deirdre Baker

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (Foster/Farrar) by Peter Cameron

How the Hangman Lost His Heart (Walker) by K. M. Grant

Jabberwocky (Jump/Hyperion) illustrated by Christopher Myers

When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs (National Geographic) written and illustrated by Hannah Bonner

Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas (Clarion) by Russell Freedman

War in the Middle East: A Reporter’s Story (Candlewick) by Wilborn Hampton

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Do the Math

Jennifer Weiner knows why the New York Times doesn't review her books and she's not afraid to share. Her rant might have been more effective had she not spent so much of it bragging about being rich and popular. I'm reminded of the time I was collared at BEA by a joke-book author who complained that he had never been reviewed in the Horn Book Magazine even though his books had sold several hundred thousands of copies. "Why do you care?" I asked him.

I recently fielded a call from a publisher whose books have never (at least as far as either of us could tell) been reviewed in the Magazine, although they have received some good (and bad) reviews in the Guide. It was not a phone call that could end happily, as our premises (his that the HB deliberately snubbed his books, mine that we didn't) were unmovable and mutually exclusive.

The long answer as to why any particular book was not reviewed is that the Magazine is extremely selective, reviewing fewer than five hundred of the several thousand books we receive. (That's the long answer because it invariably provokes a response that the not-reviewed book in question should have been among the five hundred.) If the book is in hardcover, there's a very good chance the book was reviewed in the Horn Book Guide, thus often providing a print source for the short answer: sorry, we didn't like it all that much. But, on top of the five hundred books recommended by the Magazine are around 1600 more that get wholly positive reviews in the Guide each year. Frequently, those are your Jennifer Weiners: perfectly respectable books that no one needs to be ashamed of reading (or writing) but that don't command extended review attention, at least not from us. Have we ever simply missed something? Sure--I would rashly estimate that a dozen of those 1600 might have been reviewed in the Magazine had the weather or something been different. That, of course, cuts both ways, as in the case of a starred review of a book that no one can remember a year later.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

But I bet he loved Clueless

from the Globe and Mail review of The Seeker: "Whether you fully embrace the Harry Potter phenomenon or simply live with it, there's no question that J. K. Rowling is an imaginative story-spinner. The trouble is that she has ruined the field for the legions of the second-rate."

Update: here's a link to the Maclean's blog post on the movie that commenter Clare references. It's really good.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

November-December stars

Kitty here. While Roger is communing with ISBNs in VT and Blogger is currently cooperating, I'm happy to present you with a list of the books that will receive starred reviews in the November-December issue of the Horn Book Magazine:

Picture books:

On Angel Wings (Candlewick) written by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Quentin Blake
First the Egg (Porter/Roaring Brook) written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
The Arrival (Levine/Scholastic) illustrated by Shaun Tan


Little Rat Makes Music (Harcourt) written by Monika Bang-Campbell, illustrated by Molly Bang
Being Bee (Holiday) by Catherine Bateson
Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic) by Christopher Paul Curtis
Passion and Poison: Tales of Shapeshifters, Ghosts, and Spirited Women (Cavendish) written by Janice M. del Negro, illustrated by Vince Natale
Red Spikes (Knopf) by Margo Lanagan

Folklore and Poetry:

The Bearskinner: A Tale of the Brothers Grimm (Candlewick) retold by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Max Grafe
Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose (Harcourt) selected and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon


Whale Port (Lorraine/Houghton) written by Mark Foster, illustrated by Gerald Foster

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Monday, September 17, 2007

I'm over

at Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog today and feeling cynsational!

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Let's play "peel the label."

I haven't touched the stuff in years, but this NYT booze blog piece querying the value of blind tastings has me thinking about book reviewing, prompted by its rhetorical question, "why are book critics permitted to know who wrote what they are reading?" The question of how a critic's judgment is affected by his or her knowledge of the author (or publisher, etc.) of a book was addressed by Doris Lessing, when she published two books under a pseudonym, Jane Somers. In 1984 she told the Times:

''I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that 'nothing succeeds like success.' If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, 'Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.' As it is, there were almost no reviews, and the books sold about 1,500 copies here and scarcely 3,000 copies each in the United States.''

But what did she prove, really? That people are more interested in hearing what Doris Lessing has to say than in what an unknown writer might? It is a rather dramatic example of how hard it is for a new writer to get noticed, I'll grant that. But book reviewing (and wine reviewing, I guess) is as much news as it is evaluation--readers want to know not just that there's a new spooky thriller just out, but that Stephen King has written a new book. (King of course himself invented a pseudonym, Richard Bachman, not to test the public but to enlarge his share of the market.) Would I be reviewing Ana's Story were it written by someone other than the President's daughter? It's more "not bad" than it is good (which, in an era of egregious books by celebrities, is itself news) but I can definitely see a teen audience for it; kids who would read it regardless of its author's name. But that's the other question, of course: would it have been published had a Name not come with it?

Blind reviewing could certainly shake things up, though. How would publishing would look if reviewing was done that way?

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Get a grip.

I'm staggered by the readers' comments, all four hundred-plus of them, attached to NYT public editor Clark Hoyt's defense of Michiko Kakutani's review of Harry Potter. I routinely skip reviews of things I want to "see for myself" first: did this not occur as a strategy to anyone? (I saw the epitome of this thinking on Child_lit, where someone pronounced the book satisfying, and somebody else started screaming about spoilers.) And the outrage that the Times did not honor Scholastic's embargo--why are so many so willingly led by the nose?

Not by Harry Potter, I hasten to add, but by the mentality of a herd that somehow thinks that its numbers--and the presence of children, cautiously surrounded and protected by the adult bulls and cows--justify a ludicrous degree of entitlement. Is the book's merit so shakily dependent upon plot turns that it is so easily spoiled? Why can't the Times give Harry Potter the same treatment they would give any book? (That is, review it ahead of publication date?) How can Scholastic (admirably) turn the release of a book into news and then complain that it is treated as such? And don't quote "Jo" at me. I haven't met her, neither have you, but in any case respecting--even considering--her wishes regarding the reviewing of her books is both ickily sycophantic and cowardly.

Yes, it's hot here.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Owl Has Landed

And the UPS lady told me they had two trucks in my neighborhood this morning, packed with copies. Our reviewer is on her way over now.

While you're waiting, take a look at this op-ed from a man after my own heart: "Our obsession with spoilers has a diminishing effect, reducing popular criticism to a kind of glorified consumer reporting and the audience to babies."

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Waiting for Harry

The reporters are calling again, looking for a new Harry Potter story. I wish I could be more helpful, but there really is no news. When they ask what the "next Harry Potter" will be, I point out that there was no last Harry Potter, depriving us off the crucial second dot from which we might be able to derive a meaningful line. Of course, we've seen book crazes before--Goosebumps, Sweet Valley, Babysitters' Club--and we can look back into the early 1970s to see another children's book that took over the adult bestseller list: Watership Down. But there has been nothing like Harry. And the next one, if there is one, probably won't be about a boy wizard, if the lack of success of the many post-Harry wannabes is any indication.

As for another frequent question, I really have no idea whether Harry Potter will be widely read in twenty years. One journalist floated the notion that once All Is Revealed, the series' cultural capital will be spent, but knowing that Frodo succeeds in his quest hasn't stopped fans from reading Lord of the Rings over and over again. There is an interesting comparison there, I think, but more for its differences than similarities: while both Harry Potter and the Tolkien books are multi-volume fantasy tales of an unlikely hero shouldering the weight of the world, Lord of the Rings for years was what you read if you were cool (at least, that's what its readers thought) or if you were a dork (that's what its scorners thought). The mass-market success of the Peter Jackson movies (and a Harry-wrought fantasy-friendly zeitgeist) might have changed that, but Harry Potter has been a crowd-pleaser from the start. You don't read Harry because that's what the cool kids are reading, but because that's what everyone is reading. (And I've never seen popular taste so ferociously defended. Tell people you don't like John Grisham, fine. Tell 'em you don't like Harry, and it's as if you have insulted humanity.)

The review copy of the latest Harry should arrive Saturday morning [correction: the 20th] at my house, from whence it will swiftly be retrieved by the assigned reviewer. When she's done, then we'll have some news.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

With Our Face Sketched On It Once or Twice

Gail Gauthier has a link to a valuable article about book reviewing. What interests me most about Alex Good's piece is that much of what he says about the particularities of Canadian book reviewing speak also to children's book reviewing: both often default to defensive postures re their respective embattled territories:

Do these factors – the small-pond effect, anxiety over blowback, our politeness and deference to authority – contribute to our culture of book reviewing? How could they not? They all help push our reviewing into being more positive. And they come piled on top of the aforementioned doping effect, our consumerist culture’s resistance to criticism, and institutional strictures against being snarky. It is not just the entertainment value that consequently drops off (is there a free-standing book review anywhere as consistently dull as Globe Books?), but the level of critical insight. Reviews become abstract, academic, and non-evaluative. Safe.

Have a look. I'm also interested in what he says about the increased pressure of the marketplace, in that reviewers today are often expected to predict and applaud the bestseller, that a popular book is a good book by virtue of the fact that lots of people like it.

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Friday, June 29, 2007


I would really like to get some agreement on this word or for people to give up using it altogether. I most recently ran across it this morning while reading Elizabeth Kolbert's review of some new Hillary Clinton biographies in The New Yorker:

Sympathetic and unsympathetic biographers alike tend to tell Clinton’s more recent history as a sequence of spectacular humiliations—first Gennifer, then health care, then Monica—followed by even more spectacular recoveries: an office in the West Wing, a seat in the United States Senate, a shot at the Presidency. Along the way, they offer some never before disclosed documents or factoids.

One of my first task with new editors or reviewers is to educate them in Horn Book usage of factoid, which we take to mean, following Norman Mailer's coinage of the term in his biography of Marilyn Monroe, something that looks and sounds like a fact but isn't. Our Guide reviewers particularly, faced with the mountain of nonfiction series books that splash random data about their subjects around usually hectic double-page spreads, want to use it to mean "small fact," a usage we immediately spank out of them. I can appreciate words with multiple meanings, but not when they can be used to mean two contradictory things: are these Hillary Clinton books giving us trivia or telling us lies?

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

July/August stars, '07

Reviews of the following books will be starred in the July/August issue of the Horn Book Magazine.

Picture Books:

Fred Stays with Me! (Little) written by Nancy Coffelt, illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Orange Pear Apple Bear (Simon) written and illustrated by Emily Gravett
Follow the Line through the House (Viking) written and illustrated by Laura Ljungkvist
Starring Miss Darlene (Porter/Roaring Brook) written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz


Jack Plank Tells Tales (di Capua/Scholastic) written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt
The Plain Janes (Minx/DC Comics) written by Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Jim Rugg
Pure Spring (Groundwood) by Brian Doyle
The Wednesday Wars (Clarion) by Gary D. Schmidt
The Lion Hunter (Viking) by Elizabeth E. Wein


May I Pet Your Dog?: The How-to Guide for Kids Meeting Dogs (and Dogs Meeting Kids) (Clarion) written by Stephanie Calmenson, illustrated by Jan Ormerod
Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold (Houghton) retold and illustrated by James Rumford

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Deceptively simple"

and other book review tics are in my mind this week, as we wrap up editing the July August book review section of the Magazine and the first half of the Fall Guide. The Daily Telegraph offers a helpful list of words and phrases book reviewer love overmuch, but in what words do children's book reviewers, specifically, overindulge?

I came into the Horn Book late in the last century on a tear about the then overuse of "humorous" as a more respectable variant of "funny." I mean, when was the last time you told a friend to read a book or see a movie because "it's very humorous"? Later I got crazed about "artwork" to mean "illustrations." Deborah Stevenson of The Bulletin spotted a good one in an article she wrote for us some years ago: feisty, as an adjective to allegedly praise a heroine "who is nonthreatening and totally unserious."

Now I'm getting bugged by "endearing." Adults might feel "endeared" to a book or character, but kids' attachments tend to be more robust. And I think the term also holds the same kind of implied threat as those "Mommy loves you best books," that the book or character is somehow acting in a way that inveigles approval--rather than alliance--from the reader. Ick.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Mad Bitches Against Gay People"

Here's an interesting story about censorship and the upcoming publication of And Tango Makes Three in the U.K. I'm refreshed by Mel Burgess's suggestion that censorship furor is often more a fact of media exploitation than it is a reflection of the actual fortunes of a book. For the record, here's what the Horn Book Guide said about the book:

Two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo court, build a nest, and raise their (adopted) daughter Tango. Highly anthropomorphized to maximize the sentimental but noteworthy lesson on family diversity, the story gains depth from the biological reality of same-sex penguin partnering. Gentle illustrations of the smiling penguin family add appeal, if not scientific accuracy, to this book based on a true story.

Tango is, for me, an example of a book that is didactic but On My Side, that is, a book that says something I think all children should hear. While you might think reviewers would go easy on a so-so book that speaks to their own values, I wonder if the opposite is true--that in order to combat even the suggestion of boosterism, we give them a harder time. But, as I recall, I couldn't take the smiles.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

He says . . she says

A student seeking resources for a paper dragged Sylvia E. Kamerman's Book Reviewing: A Guide to Writing Book Reviews--by leading Book Editors, Critics, and Reviewers (The Writer, 1978) from my dusty shelves to my desk the other day, and it's quite an interesting volume viewed in the light of the current drama about the slow death of book reviewing in newspapers. I mean, this book would lead you to think that venues and opportunities abound for the would-be critic, with most of the essays written by newspaper book editors and critics including Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and George A. Woods of the New York Times, William McPherson of the Washington Post and P. Albert Duhamel (whose wife was my high school librarian) of the Boston Herald. Lots of good advice from all.

There are four chapters on reviewing children's books (including one from our own Ethel Heins, and another from my friend Barbara Elleman) but I was most intrigued to find out from George Woods's piece that he once ran dueling reviews on the same page of the New York Times Book Review. The book was Wild in the World (Harper, 1971) by the late John Donovan, longtime director of the Children's Book Council. Donovan is most remembered for I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, generally credited as the first children's book to allow the love that dare not speak its name to, well, not speak its name exactly, but at least roll around on the floor. But Wild in the World, a folklorically spare story about a boy who sees his entire family die one or two at a time, then befriends a wild wolf (or dog), only to die himself in the end. Barbara Wersba's review topped the Times's page, headlined "One of the most moving books ever written for children . . ." and below followed June Jordan's: " . . . . or just another horror story told in monotone?"

Woods explained this gambit in his essay "Reviewing Books for Children":

There is no objective yardstick that one can place against a book and say, "The good stick says this does not measure up." Good or bad, success or failure is measured largely in the reviewer's responses and mind. I think of John Donovan's Wild in the World, which was reviewed intentionally in The Times by two eminent critics in two separate reviews running on the same page on the same Sunday. One said it was the worst book ever written for young people; the other said it was the finest book ever written for young people. Who was right? Who was wrong?

While granting Woods's point about informed subjectivity, I would in fact turn the question over to him: was it right or wrong for the Times to refuse to take an editorial stance on a book? It's true that the Times's daily book critics are often at odds with the Sunday reviews, but that's a long-standing distinction, and no one thinks of Maslin's or Kakutani's weekday reviews as being "what the Times thinks" the way the Sunday reviews stand alone, apart from their reviewers. If anything, Woods's experiment demonstrates the need for dueling publications, and an audience that knows it can't find everything in one place.

We regularly battle within the office about which books are going to get reviewed and how. But one side always wins, if with a victory tempered and informed by the debate. We work out the stars, and the annual Fanfare list the same way. Certainly, a book that doesn't do a thing for me can still get starred, because its proponents had the better argument than my "if I have to read one more intricately chess-game-like fantasy novel I'm going to scream" point of view. I'm less concerned with readers knowing what I think than I am with them having a grip on “what the Horn Book thinks." I definitely don’t want them to feel like we couldn't make up our mind.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

My view exactly; if only we could convince the rest of the world.

"Nothing satisfies the appetite for allegory quite like a movie about flesh-eating zombies"-- The NY Times's A.O. Scott on 28 Weeks Later.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Watch the ladies and learn

This GalleyCat story shares a very interesting case study of the relationship between blogging and book reviewing as viewed through the genteel lens of romance publishing. Good Lord. We are total pikers.

Has anyone read Elizabeth Peters' two mysteries about the romance-writers circuit, Die for Love, and Naked Once More? Hi-larious.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Late to the Party,

but the New York Times today sums up some of the issues that were bouncing around here a couple of weeks ago. What is perhaps most salient is that their news about blogs-and-books reaches a potential audience, in print and online, of far greater number than any blogosphere dustup does, while here it's mostly insider baseball. I find it odd, though, that Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus sets himself up as the defender of newspaper book reviews as providers of regional coverage ("While I’m all for the literary bloggers, and I think the more people that write about books the better, they’re not necessarily as regionally focused as knowledgeable, experienced long-term editors in the South or Midwest or anywhere where the most important writers come from") as if, one, that's true, or two, that's important. And is he saying that "the most important writers" are more likely to be found in one region than another? His assumption of regional origin as such a defining characteristic of writers that it needs to be nurtured by regional newspaper coverage seems evidence of someone who is ignoring the Internet, and what it's doing to social geography, at his peril. (Or maybe it's just smugness that he lives in New York.)

I'm with him on the "knowledgeable, experienced long-term editors" part (he says, anxiously patting his paycheck). This is what newspapers and the traditional review journals have, but it's not the fact that those media are disseminated on paper that gives them their value. It is simply that their authority was built in an era when book news came on paper. That is becoming less and less true. But the real distinction is not between paper and bloggers; it's between editorial authority and unsifted opinion. That's where the fight will be.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Who Cares Who Is John Galt?

Amidst the National Book Critics Circle's campaign to save book reviewing, I can only express my envy of the U.K.'s Guardian book pages with such features as China Mieville's thoughts on propaganda and children's fiction: "Of course a lot of agitproppy art is crap, true, but then so's a lot of everything." It's certainly true that children's book critics eagerly leap upon "didacticism" like it's a bad thing, while pop pap like The Clique gets away with its rampant consumerism because it's "escapist." Good Lord, May Day certainly is in the air.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

"Little did he know"

That line is the tipoff, in Stranger than Fiction, to English professor Dustin Hoffman that Will Ferrell might be telling the truth when he says that he can hear someone (Emma Thompson, we know) narrating his life. Hoffman says that he teaches a whole seminar on "little did he know," and while this seems meant to be a joke about the excesses of literary theory, you really could teach a whole lot about "little did he know" and similar reveals of an author's hand. The line also made me remember my days as Zena Sutherland's assistant--Zena hated "little did he know," and the presence of it or its variations ("had she but known," etc.) in a novel meant a mandatory point deduction in a BCCB review.

We missed this movie in the theater, where it must have come and gone in a minute. When we watched it last night, I kept thinking how much I wanted a Queen Latifah in my life--she plays an "author's assistant," hired by Emma Thompson's publisher to do whatever it takes to get Emma to finish her book. Which Emma does, like, three times, while the movie tries to figure out where and how it wants to end. I was happiest with ending number two. But see it if you can; this movie is one of the more satisfying examples of the fourth-wall cracking we've been seeing so much of lately.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why Do I Review Books?

So someone asked amidst the great blog wars of Tuesday. It's a fair question but has a long answer.

Let's first get out of the way me v. The Horn Book, because, obviously, I review books because it's part of my job, and my job is to "blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls," as the first Horn Book editorial had it. The Horn Book, in its two print publications and their subsequent replication on such databases as the, reviews books because that is a great way to blow that horn. We tell people what new books are out there looking for readers. I often tell students that a review is more than a gussied-up opinion and less than literary criticism: it's service journalism, giving people news about something they can use.

So the Horn Book reviews books because it's part of our mission. I started reviewing because Zena Sutherland told me I was good at it. She arrived at that opinion the same way Sally Fenwick (Zena's teacher at the University of Chicago's Graduate Library School, just as Zena was mine) discovered Zena herself was good at it: from the "book cards" each of us had to write for our children's literature class. I enjoyed the challenge of getting the essence of a book onto one side of a 3 by 5 card.

I had always liked writing about books--but then, I was the kind of kid who played "library" by drawing date-due slips inside my parents' books. Book reports were always a complete piece of cake for me--I still remember this long one I wrote about Love Story and the impressive effect it was having on the girls in my ninth grade class. I was never much of a creative writer, but I could expend reams on what any given book made me think about.

School Library Journal was the first place to publish my reviews--I've been thinking again about my review there of Annie on My Mind (my first "starred" review), because I'm writing "A Second Look" column for its, God help me, 25th anniversary. After I had been reviewing for a year or so, SLJ editor Lillian Gerhardt asked me to become their YA columnist, I got on the Best Books committee, the New York Times came calling--I got a lot of attention. So there I was, getting attention (and a little extra income) for doing something I liked and felt I was good at. So why I reviewed books then seems pretty clear.

That would change once I began reviewing books for a living, which happened when Betsy Hearne hired me as an associate editor at the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Zena taught me a lot about style and brevity in reviewing, but Betsy made me work harder, digging deeper into the books I was writing about. She also made me more efficient and more respectful of deadlines: I had to write ten reviews a week, along with the work of preparing the Bulletin for publication. As I began managing the thousands of books the Bulletin received (as opposed to the few brought to my attention by the SLJ editors), I started having a more global interest in, and perspective on, the whole biz. It certainly tempered my reviews, because I was working from a larger context.

I don't review nearly so much now--maybe half a dozen books, tops, in an issue of the Magazine, a couple of dozen more for each Guide. (I also edit, in concert with my HB fellows, every review we publish.) As many of the blog reviewers have been saying for the last couple of days, I review, mostly, books about which I have something to say. For the Magazine, this will include books I like or authors or characters I keep up on, and also topics I know, or books that deserve a public paddling (yes, Jamie Lee, I'm looking at you) I can't talk someone else into administering. For the Guide, I'm often doing cleanup on books whose reviews were not received or which were unusable. That's another thing about professional reviewing: you spend a lot of time reviewing books in which you have no personal interest one way or another.

While reviewing is no longer the core responsibility of my job I still do it. I do it because sometimes, among our review staff, I'm the best person to do a particular book, and I do it because, once I spend the requisite amount of time in the approach-avoidance technique I have about all required writing, I like it. I like the way book reviewing uses my mind. I like the way it changes my mind--even when I've read a book and am pretty sure of what I'm going to say, the actual writing of the review often reveals something about the book I hadn't seen before. Have you ever been surprised by what you wrote? It's a great feeling. And the word-puzzle aspect of reviewing is fun: you think, okay, I want to get this in, and this, and this and I hope I can use that quote . . . and you have fewer than two hundred words to do it.

Plus, I'm a complete sucker for instant gratification. (Thus this blog, I suppose.) I like having a task that I can start and finish within half an hour. (This doesn't include reading the book, of course, but speedy readers and writers definitely have an edge in this profession.) And seeing your work in print does not get old.

The recent discussion of blog v. print reviews made me see a couple of distinct differences between the two. First, I'm reviewing on behalf of an institution, not just to express my own opinions. As our assistant editor Claire Gross pointed out in a comment on the discussion, Horn Book (and BCCB, Booklist, SLJ, etc.) reviews get edited by several people in several stages. Yes, the reviewer whose name or initials appear at the end of the review is definitely the author of that review, but in the eyes of the world, it's the Horn Book's review, and we (the corporate we) stand behind it. Second, I'm reviewing with a particular audience in mind. The core of our readers are public and school librarians working with children, so we give them the information we know they need. When you see the phrase "an index is appended" in a review, it's not because the reviewer had a burning need to make that point; it's that we know that indexes matter in library collection development. And that's another thing I like about reviewing books. It makes me feel useful.

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With apologies to Velma

Varner, who played no part in the story I was vaguely remembering on yesterday's blog comments. Varner succeeded May Massee as the children's book editor at Viking, and did many good things, not least of which was suggesting to the young Susie Hinton that she go with the initials S. E. for her first book, The Outsiders.

Here's the story, which is from an interview Leonard Marcus conducted for the January/February 1995 issue of the Horn Book. Leonard was interviewing HarperCollins's library marketing wizard Bill Morris, who was clearly in the mood to spill:

I don't know that this is true, though I've been told it is, that during the years when Miss [Anne Carroll] Moore was chair of the Newbery-Caldecott committee, the committee would never actually meet. The other members would just send in their ballots to her, and she and Miss Massee would get together to count them! If you look at the list of medal winners, there was a period when Viking won something almost every year! It's a marvelous story, whether or not it's true.

That, my friends, is gossip (for those of you who opined that children's book blogs did not traffic in same).

Thanks to all of you who participated in yesterday's ferocious discussion. I learned a lot--mostly that what I was looking for in blog book-reviews was perhaps a case of missing the oranges for the apples. Someone has just asked in the comments there that I address the question "why do you [meaning me] write book reviews?" to which I have a long answer and will try to address after I've gotten a virtuous amount done on the book I am allegedly here at home writing. So it might be tomorrow.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

This is why I don't have a blogroll. Or friends.

In the face of a cranky attack on blogging that appeared in the resolutely print journal n+1 (and which is excerpted here), Fuse #8 this morning offers a defense of review-blogging that, I think, misses a big part of the point. I agree with her about the general cluelessness about the argument, but I don't think the biggest problem the online reviewing of children's books faces is its "out-and-out unapologetic fire and verve." Would that it were. It's more a problem of, to take a leaf from the old Spy magazine, "[b]logrolling in our time." The fact that librarians, teachers, enthusiasts, reviewers, parents, publishers and authors are conversing in the same corner of cyberspace has created a community of interested parties heretofore unknown in the children's book world. (Children themselves are still among the missing). In the old days, public librarians and school librarians barely spoke and both groups complained about teachers. All three groups interacted with authors via publishers and usually discretely.

That the brave new world has all-of-the-above kind of people in't, communicating as peers rather than through hierarchy and intermediation, is in most ways cause for celebration. But I'm not sure it has lead to better reviewing: can we truly "all be in this together" at the same time some of us are judging the work of others? Authors active in the blogosphere get treated differently there from their out-of-the-loop compatriots: they get more and kinder attention. It's hard not to be nice to someone, author or editor, whose own site may appear on your blogroll, or who regularly drops by your place to comment.

I recognize that I speak as someone invested in the system of book reviewers as putatively disinterested experts. But authors: reviewers are not your friends. This is not to say that we are out to get you, either--merely that we don't have your interests at heart. I watch with a sinking heart the "blog tours" of writers; recalling my favorite Law & Order mantra, any subsequent review from any of these blogs becomes "fruit from the poisoned tree." (Likewise, Fuse, with that Little, Brown promotion.) It isn't a bad thing at all that publishers are doing their best to use blogs as marketing tools. That's their job. But it's a reviewer's job to ignore the publisher and the author, and to instead focus on the book and its potential audience. Coziness has its price.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Still Baking

I know I promised another post re chicklit earlier today, but my thoughts never got quite where I wanted them. I was pushing an enormous book-truck's worth of the stuff back to the Guide after rejecting it for review in the Magazine and I found myself thinking, I bet old Michiko never has to do this. That the grown-up book world recognizes distinctions between literary, commercial, and genre fiction that we barely observe in children's book publishing. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Or is it a bad thing for Literature, but a good thing for Children? But my thinking is still half-baked so I'm not ready to offer any conclusions. Feel free to draw yours, however. I would appreciate being beaten to the punch.

Posting sporadically until Wednesday as my beloved Limoliner is taking me and a bagful and an earful of unread adult books to New York, where I'll be attending the Scott O'Dell Awarding to Ellen Klages for The Green Glass Sea, interviewing Ellen for the Horn Book podcast which is to debut in May, I think, and hanging out with Elizabeth. We're seeing Company, and she is going to explain to me the mystery of Sanjaya, and I also hope she--or someone here--can point my in the direction of a good classical cd store, as we have lost all of ours in Boston--you can get El Divo and Andrea Bocelli at Borders, but that's about it. But E and I also hope to send some posts your way. I hope you all have swell weekends, too.

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