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.