Friday, February 10, 2006

The Tom and Daphne Show

I think these were their names; years ago my colleague Anne Quirk came back from observing a Best Books for Young Adults committee meeting and said, "It's become the Tom and Daphne Show." Tom and Daphne were young people known to one of the librarians on the committee, who was having them read nominated titles and report back to her; she would then bring their comments to the committee as a whole: "Tom loved it.'" "Daphne was bored."

I was reminded of Tom and Daphne while reading Ty Burr's review of the new Curious George movie in the Boston Globe:

A fellow movie reviewer of my acquaintance recently spent some time railing against the habit some of us have of canvassing our own spawn for opinions when reviewing a kids' movie. Sentences like "the little critic sitting next to me thought 'Madagascar' was a brilliant addition to world cinema" drive her nuts, reeking as they do of both exploitation and smarmy parental indulgence.

And not just that--as Anne said of Tom and Daphne,"Do these kids have any idea of the power they wield?" This has been my experience as well--the opinion of a single child being allowed to trump the collective experience of a committee or the considered judgment of a reviewer. Why can't we have faith in what we are supposed to be good at?

22 comments:

Susan said...

My first grader read your column, and he agrees with you.

Anonymous said...

Ouch. Do I do this? Ouch, ouch, ouch.

For me he is still Zozo (and I've got the books to prove it).

I don't know if I could bear to sit through the movie, but I do love the final line of The Village Voice's Pete L'Official review: "Misanthropic toddlers will be rolling in the aisles."

Monica

kt horning said...

Roger, what do you think of BBYA's practice of bringing a whole group of Toms and Daphnes in, live and in person, to comment on the books?

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Why should the children listen to the critics? Shouldn't they have faith in doing what they do best? Who are these books for? but, Roger, I am sympathetic to your terror that you and the Horn Book staff can be replaced any moment by a pack of nine year olds. And they're so sticky.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Children according to Fran Lebowitz and reasons, perhaps, Roger, to rethink this.

Children do not sit next to one in restaurants and discuss their preposterous hopes for the future in loud tones of voice.

Not a single member of the under-age set has yet to propose the word chairchild.

Children sleep either alone or with small toy animals. The wisdom of such behavior is unquestionable, as it frees them from the immeasurable tedium of being privy to the whispered confessions of others. I have yet to run across a teddy bear who was harboring the secret desire to wear a maid's uniform.

Hollis said...

The R-Man: "...the opinion of a single child being allowed to trump the collective experience of a committee or the considered judgment of a reviewer. Why can't we have faith in what we are supposed to be good at?"
The keyword is SUPPOSED. The other keyword is REVIEWER. Adults who rely on childrens'/teens' opinions as criticism (vs informing their criticism) often don't feel comfortable as critics themselves, or, doubt that they are "good" at whatever "this" is. For this species of adult, that the kids liked it is enough. They don't have faith because they really aren't good at it. Fine. These same adults, when pressed to be more critical, will say, "I just loved it! I felt so moved by it! I continued to think about that book for a week. Even my husband liked it!" Fine. This is all marvelous banter at a cocktail party, or when booktalking to children and teens, but it is, as you suggest, useless as a review or as criticism. The problem from my barstool is that too many people who work well with children and "just LOVE (gush gush) books for children!" are not critics, and should not be writing reviews. Period. People who value Tom and Daphne's opinions over proper reviews are, well, not as influential as you might think. (The commerical world loves these people, and self-obsessed/impressed writers love these people, but seriously, Roger, do you?) The mission to get the goods in the hands of the kids is something everyone in this profession shares. But we all approach it with unique skills, and the honing of these skills is really important if we want credibility both within and without.
Loving books and loving teens does not a reviewer make.
And the credibility of teens' opinions is, itself, unreliable at times. Teens have agendas. Adults who teach kids how to discuss books have agendas.

Uh Oh. A certain influential someone just walked by. I could get fired for spending too much work time on this fluffy, kid-influenced site.

rindambyers said...

I don't have any children to whom I can expose books, only a myriad nephews and nices and the neighborhood children who visit me now and again...but, but, but...

I did teach preschool for two whole years...and read incessantly to my children there, and if you want to take the reactions of children into consideration in eavluating a book....I would highly recommend this method:

Take the book anonymously, mind you, anonymously, into the classroom of a poverty-stricken grade school with an incompetent, overworked, harrassed teacher in the later afternoon when the class is thorougly restless, tired, and bored and longing for freedom, and, wihtout any help or positive reinforcement from the teacher, attempt then to share the book with the children...You'll find out very quickly whether that's a good book or not for that age group....and mind you, I said "group," not individual children.

I know. I've fought the battle, day and day out with preschoolers, trying to keep them interested for five seconds in books...oh, how I would scour that library bookmobile, hoping against hope, that today, the other teachers hadn't taken out all the "good books." Translated, a good book means a book that will keep a large group bored, tired, preschoolers halfway STILL and attentive for six minutes...or six seconds.

Roger Sutton said...

KT, I'm not sure what the point of bringing YAs to BBYA actually is. I guess it's fun for the kids and enlightening in some kind of free-form way for the commitee and onlookers but I secretly (well, I guess, not anymore!) think it's a way for all the grownups concerned to feel kinda cool and kid-friendly. What other purpose is it serving, as far as the committee's charge is concerned?

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Okay, cheap shot because she used her name and I haven't. But aside from that, I have to say, fair is fair.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they use kids because they're just not sure that they're so very right about everything and need the kids to bolster up their opinions?

Because, hey, if the kids love 'em, then they must be good. Well, marketable. Maybe.

pkbear said...

I think the reviewers are just using their own comments as their childrens so that no one will think that they actually go to see THOSE kinds of movies or read THOSE kinds of books. Let alone enjoy them. personally, I admit it up front: I'm soon to be 45 and I still love the movies "Indian in the Cupboard" and get a little misty during "Neverending Story" and i've just gotten hooked on The Edge Chronicles cause it's just darn fun and the pictures are wicked.

Roger Sutton said...

Betty Carter has a great article in the September/Oct issue of the HB in which she questions whether "public reading" has become valued at the expense of "private reading," that is, books that are good for groups or classroom discussion become "good books" for social reasons, not literary criteria, and books whose power depend on quiet one-on-one reading too often are ignored.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is not particularly healthy for any one or two children to become oracles for a particular reviewer or committee. Reviewers should employ their expertise, use their judgement. However, it is just common sense that they should also regularly interact with children, to observe and listen to their responses to books. It is possible to become too removed from the point at which the action should really be taking place.

Andy Laties said...

Hello Anonymous. Perhaps this is the juncture where "Best Books" lists selected by Association of Booksellers for Children, or Booksense (American Booksellers Association), or Regional associations of booksellers will naturally be different books than those selected by professional book reviewers. Similarly, books preferred by librarians working daily with children will differ from those preferred by pro reviewers. (Doesn't School Library Journal utilize working librarians as reviewers, for instance? Wouldn't their Starred titles therefore be different than Horn Books? Partly because they're responding to readers' observed responses to books??)

Andy

Anonymous said...

Why do you assume that the books would be different? Is it because professional reviewers are so out of touch that they can't recognize a book that is written for children? Or because you lack confidence in children's ability to recognize and enjoy good literature?

I disagree with both of those assumptions.


A truly good reviewer should be able to recognize superior literature. They should also have experience with children and their response to that literature. And they should use that experience to inform their reviews.

Otherwise the reviewers are just writing for each other.
And the books might as well just be written for them.

I hope this is not too rude. But I felt I must defend my students, who have wonderful literary taste (and sometimes read junk for fun, just like the rest of us).

rindambyers said...

Yes! Yes! I do believe in a moderate and healthy intake of junk reading now and again.

...I think reviewers need knowledges, expertise, but above all, they need empathy, curiosity, openness, a willingness to KEEP LEARNING!! And to be passonate about words. And a willingness to respect quality in books that they may not like personally so much.

But I think it is foolish to rely heavily on a few children or YA's or even a group of children for input into one's own reviews. For example, good books for my particular group of preschoolers might not be as good for a one-lap listener.... INTERESTING though, what individual readres like and don't like. What a wide, wide world it is after all..

jess said...

While there are many excellent books for children (excellent in a critical, literary sense) that are not popular favorites, I think that the real magic happens when a book can be considered distinguished literature AND be loved by children. And any critic/reviewer who does not at least stop to consider how the target audience will react to the book is really shortchanging that very audience.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Here's what I think about the whole critic thing. Writing criticism is a form of being seen. I suspect all critics of wanting to be seen. That their opinions are much more the thing for them than the books. I feel the same way about interviewers. The interview is really, finally, about the interviewer. Writers want to be seen too. The book is how they have chosen to do so. So when it comes to the reader filtered through the critic's need to be seen, there is necessarily a kind of unnecessary baggage tacked onto the direct writer/reader connection. (Roger, this isn't to say your job is superfluous. You know I think you're a terrific critic. And I know the business is what the business is. And that critics and librarians exist in a strange parallel universe. I am simply musing on why there is something so off about ranting about expert readers. As far as the writer is concerned, all readers are expert.)

Betty Carter said...

Another serious problem with putting too much stock in kids' comments is that the comments are always tied to those kids we see in our libraries. Perhaps there are books out there that would reach others, but we don't know about them or publicize them or buy them because those kids are neither coming to our libraries nor talking to the librarians.

Anonymous said...

If they're not coming to your library, what do you care about buying books for them?

Anonymous said...

Because I'd like to be able to serve as many kids as possible. And I'm thinking that by relying on critics to review books on their own merits I can find something new to attract readers i haven't seen before.

Roger Sutton said...

It's not just the kids you *don't* serve (yet) that you need to think about; it's also the kids who aren't comfortable, or wouldn't be caught dead, talking to the librarian or joining a club. I was a kid like that. Library collections of all kinds need to speak for themselves.