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From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Stars

BY ROGER SUTTON

n a financial impact-per-inch basis, starred reviews are probably the most valuable product of The Horn Book Magazine. Publishers like them because they sell books. Stars can also be used to support advertising to sell books, thus potentially increasing ad buys in the Horn Book, so we like them. Authors like them because they sell books both directly and indirectly, driving advertising and signaling award committees (plus, who ever outgrows the desire to have a star affixed to one’s work?). Librarians like stars because they can catch a busy eye, alerting the potential book-buyer to a title that should get a leg up in the selection process or at least not get lost in the shuffle.

But here’s my question: do stars actually mean what people take them to? Does a star say, Buy This, or This Is Important, or The Person/People Who Created This Are Hereby Validated and Affirmed, As Are The People Who Buy/Read It? While the star symbol looks simple enough, it packs plenty of ambiguity.

It also depends on who’s doing the starring. At the top of each issue’s book review section, the Horn Book says that a “ indicates a book that the editors believe to be an outstanding example of its genre, of books of this particular publishing season, or of the author’s body of work.” This is straightforward save for the fact that the “books of this particular publishing season” clause obviates the need for either of the other two conditions. Note, too, that “outstanding” is left undefined. Outstanding how?

True to its low-tech origins (twenty-five years ago the copy was prepared by a two-fingered typist, me, on a manual typewriter), the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books uses what is actually an asterisk (*) to denote, as is stated on the second page of each issue, “books of special distinction.” Although using fewer words to do so, the Bulletin, like the Horn Book, leaves itself plenty of wiggle room.

As do all the journals, really. Booklist’s star statement says that “a star indicates a work judged by a reviewer to be outstanding in its genre.” Booklist editor Bill Ott calls it “short and sweet.” School Library Journal, in the reviewer’s checklist published on the SLJ website, states that starred reviews are for books “distinctly above average in quality, appeal, and/or usefulness.” On its website, Kirkus Reviews states that “a star is assigned to books of remarkable merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus Reviews.”

As I verified with the editors of these journals, “determined by the editors” is the policy of all. Typically, the reviewer of a given title will suggest that the review should be starred, and the editors of the journal will then read both book and review with that recommendation in mind. Reviewers propose, editors dispose. Ott says that “the logic for this system is that the editor is able to bring a degree of consistency to the starring process, rather than having fifty-some reviewers exercising independent judgments in a vacuum.” I still remember my first conversation with Trev Jones, when she was newly installed as book review editor at SLJ and I was a young reviewer. I had reviewed Aidan Chambers’s Dance on My Grave and felt strongly that it should be starred, but Trev felt the potential audience was too small and said no to the star. (“I hate stuffy stars,” she says today.) And, as she explained, the journal has to be able to defend each star. Amen, sister.

But the process is necessarily fluid: sometimes a reviewer will rave about a title but not suggest it for a star, and the editor needs to find out why. Or the editor may try to talk a reviewer into a star, or simply add one. (NB to my fellow editors: do not attempt this last maneuver without adult supervision. It can alienate your most loyal reviewers.) All of the journals have some informal mechanism to extend the star discussion between the reviewer and a single editor, so that, as Deborah Stevenson of the Bulletin says, “it can’t be just one person going head over heels for a personal whim.” At the Horn Book, we have five editors involved in creating the book review section, and we also invite our masthead reviewers to contribute their opinions on star nominations via our reviewers’ listserv. The editors at Booklist, SLJ, and Publishers Weekly have lively staff debates — I’ve walked into a few — and even Karen Breen, one-woman operation at Kirkus, “keeps up a fairly constant stream of conversation with a bunch of my reviewers, so sometimes I can turn to others whom I know are reading for a committee or another journal and ask their opinion, too.”

IN CANVASSING MY colleagues I found that a starred review is more an assessment of the book’s intrinsic excellence than a recommendation for purchase, but all of us seem to be working under the assumption that these are one and the same thing, a premise that looks commonsensical but is rich with unexamined claims. As Nora Ephron wrote, “Even if it is good you do not have to like it.” And vice versa: just because something is not-so-good doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in most libraries serving children and young adults. Leaving aside definitions of good as impossibly beyond the scope of this article, it remains true that reviewing books for children involves a constant if shifting assessment of quality and audience acceptance. Every book reviewer has had the “well, this is fabulous for me and about seven other people” response some books evoke. Should this mean no star? Or does the star become even more crucial, to help get a book of small general interest through the publisher-reviewer-librarian continuum to those happy few readers who will appreciate it?

One hopes that the review that accompanies the star always tells the reader just what it is about the book that marks it for such symbolized distinction. But then, if the review does a good job of telling us why a book is special, why do we need the star? What does the star tell us that the review does not?

The answer, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in our readers. I posted a casual inquiry to the Public Libraries, Young Adults, and Children (PUBYAC) listserv, asking list members “What impact does a star have or not have on your decision to purchase a given title?” Within two days I had approximately fifty considered responses from librarians across the country. To a woman, their answer was: plenty. Most read the starred reviews first, or most carefully, although Louise Capizzo of the Falmouth Memorial Library in Maine cautions, “I read the non-starred [reviews] a little more carefully because the opinion is buried in the body of the review. A review with a star next to it already tells me it is worth considering.” Many consider purchase pretty much a done deal if two journals star a title, although it definitely depends on which two. (Not to worry, my opposite numbers: each of the journals has a fan base that swears by it alone and will forgo the two-star rule if the favorite comes through.)

Still, none of the librarians were ceding their own knowledge of children and books. “I’ve been a children’s librarian for thirteen years so I guess I’ve read a lot of reviews,” writes Dorothy Lagrimas of the Westwood Public Library in New Jersey. “I think that as a young librarian right out of library school I was more inclined to purchase everything with a starred review. Over the years, though, I think my habits have changed — probably due to all the weeding I’ve done of noncirculating items.” Anita Young of the Stanislaus County Library in Modesto, California, concurs: “It happens far too frequently that a book with a starred review becomes a shelf-sitter.”

All children’s collections hold examples of a critic’s darling becoming an unredeemed Cinderella on the shelves. Sometimes this is a case of the selector — or the review — overreaching; sometimes it is a problem of crossed signals, where enthusiasm for a book becomes mistaken for a recommendation for purchase. Often, though, the star is just as much a heads-up as a thumbs-up. When Sophie Brookover of the Camden County Library in New Jersey writes, “The star shouts to me, ‘Hey! This is not just a well-reviewed book! This is a book you don’t want to miss and will want to handsell to your kids,’” she understands that you can’t rely upon the star to do the librarian’s job. Every Cinderella needs a fairy godmother to dust her off and point her toward some potential admirers.

Can there be too many stars? Ott says, “Too many, and the stars lose their cachet; too few, and you’re not delivering a service that everyone — readers and advertisers — expects. What’s the right amount? No idea, and of course, if I did know and told you, a fellow editor, I really would have to kill you.” Not so fast, my friend: librarians and publishers agree that two stars are better than one, opening wallets for both book purchases and advertising. And everyone loves to see three or four — Mimi Kayden of HarperCollins says that “if a book gets three or more stars, then we will probably advertise it. Two is still iffy. One doesn’t cut it anymore.”

In an ideal world, reviewers might always possess the verbal acuity to get across just what makes a particular book fabulous and what nature that fabulousness takes. No star necessary. But this ideal world would also have to be populated by librarians with the leisure to read reviews widely and ruminatively, unimpeded by clamoring young patrons and budget deadlines. Given the increasing numbers of new books and the decreasing number of hours for collection development — and given our culture’s ever-growing proclivity for shorthand, symbols, and emoticons — it seems unlikely that stars will go away. But let them do only what they do: shed light. Over and over, the librarians and reviewers I surveyed used the word highlight to convey what a book review star should do. Diane Roback of PW said that review stars “punctuate” a page, and Louise Capizzo writes, “Having the stars helps me to see those books that professional reviewers think are important.”

The trick is in seeing how that importance is translated — how those stars shine — in a particular library. Some will burn brightly and steadily, others serve more as flashlights for the odd explorer. Some flare and some fall. Starring is collaborative work, first between the reviewer and his or her constellation of taste, between reading and fellow readers, then between the reviewer and the editor, and finally between the review and you. You know your galaxy best.

Roger Sutton is the editor in chief of The Horn Book Magazine.

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


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