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

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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Place your bets!

The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards committee is beginning its round of in-person debate tomorrow, and I'll be able to share the names of the winners with you next week. Any guesses? The awards frequently surprise me, as my involvement with the choices ends with selecting the judges and I'm not privy to their discussions. Because the award's year begins on June 1, it straddles the eligibility frames of the calendar year awards such as the Newbery and Caldecott, and can thus both affirm (or not) and predict (or not) what those awards did or will do. Dates aside, the BGHB awards aren't really comparable with the ALA awards, though, because the criteria are markedly different: fiction, nonfiction, and picture books are judged separately (poetry can fall into any and all of these categories); picture books are for both art and text (and illustrator and author); and books originally published in another country and then republished in the States are eligible. Any guesses?

We also had our July/August star meeting today. Those choices will be yours within a couple of days. Let's just say it was lively.

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.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"Crap, here comes Teacher!"

In the comments on the earlier post about dueling reviews, `h wrote:

Speaking of the good stick. There's something I'd like you to measure -- heavy handed instruction -- when an author sticks something into the text that clearly doesn't fit in order to model some lesson-- girls are just as smart as boys, or racism = bad, or it's okay to be yourself. Heavy handed moralizing is the best reason to return a book to the library unfinished, I think. What I really like is insidious invisible moralizing that is going to creep unreflected into the reader's head and take root!
Wait. No! Bad moralizing! Down you insidious lesson, you!
When you review a book, how do you judge the didacticism? Subtle is okay? Heavy handed, not? Or is the divide between didacticism that is currently accepted vs. didacticism you think is misguided?
Is subtle didacticism better or worse than the heavy handed? is insidious didacticism okay if it's on the side of the angels?
I mean the deliberate kind. I don't mean the unreflected reinforcement of cultural norms like Enid Blyton -- those things that stick out like sore thumbs when the culture changes.

I've moved the comment to here, because it's really a different topic, plus, this was the week of my return to the musical stage (it went fine, thank you) and I haven't had time to prowl around for something new. Although I think you can discern very different editorial styles among the seven of us who have been editors of the Horn Book, one thing we will agree upon when eventually gathered together in reviewer heaven is that we all hated didacticism, even while we might have had different definitions of the word and varying degrees of tolerance for it. But here I will only speak for myself. I think one could make a case that all literature is insidiously didactic, attempting to pull you into an author's view of the world. I have no problem with that.

And the problem I do have with overt didacticism is less with its frequent technical clumsiness, where swatches of sermons or lessons are just slapped into the story, then it is with the way it reminds readers Who Is In Charge. Having someone in charge is good for a lot of things--to return for a second to my singing class this spring, I loved the fact that the teacher, Pam Murray, knew more about singing than I did and could thus tell me, clearly and effectively (and diplomatically!), how to become a better singer. That's what I want in a teacher. But I don't want to hear it from a writer, especially when I think of myself as a child reader, being reminded, once again, that grownups are the ones in charge. Books are a great place for kids to escape from being told what to do. They are not a place where a reader wants to hear, "I know better, so listen up." As a reader, I want to feel that a book is a place I can explore, or even a place where the author and I are exploring together. Didacticism shuts that right down.

Didacticism can also bite the author right in the ass. Think of Go Ask Alice. It was clearly intended to be a moral instruction about the dangers of drugs; instead, it was a wild ride through a crazy, exciting world. (I'm now remembering a comment years ago by a librarian colleague, Pamela, who said "these stupid anti-drug books with all their blather about 'peer pressure' and 'self-esteem' aren't going to mean a thing until they acknowledge something else: drugs are fun.")

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sometimes the Jokes Just Write Themselves

Like here.

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.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Tell Us What to Do

After enduring my second round with the dentist with an audiobook about a serial killer who removed his (or her, I haven't managed to finish it yet) victims' teeth, I decided for my third date with Dr. Guen to try some chicklit (chiclets, heh) again and began listening to Sally Koslow's Little Pink Slips, the roman a clef about Rosie O'Donnell's takeover of McCalls. I'm enjoying it enormously: the writing is several cuts above Sophie Kinsella's, and leagues from Plum Sykes or the Prada and Nanny girls. When the book begins, our heroine, the editor in chief, who is soon to be usurped (or something, I'm only an hour in) by the Rosie character, has just come up with a radical re-visioning of her magazine (helped by a hunky but as-yet sexually ambiguous designer) only to be outfoxed by her "frenemy," the publisher character, who has come up with her own plan to brand the magazine with the Rosie character's imprimatur.

The book's discussions' about the future of the fictitious Lady magazine made me think: What could the Horn Book Magazine do better, or more of, or more interestingly? I always have this question running around in my mind (this is not necessarily a sign of dedication; it stems as much from my default anxiety as anything else) and I've come up with plenty of ideas that usually involve money we don't have. Like becoming a monthly, or printing in color, for example. Some ideas don't cost anything, but they do collide with Tradition: changing the logo, say, or making the magazine a standard size (which would actually save money).

And while book reviews remain the number one reason people subscribe to us, more and more of our readers access them electronically, either through our own or via our licenses to the various wholesalers who sell books to schools and libraries, who provide their customers with ancillary databases of reviews and bibliographic information. So I think print book reviews, ours and everyone else's, will become less and less important to the school-and-library audience that is our mainstay.

So what should the Horn Book--the print Horn Book--do? My enthusiasm for The Invention of Hugo Cabret in great part stems from how it's so necessarily a book. It needs ink on paper to do what it does; it needs to have page-turns to convey the story. There's plenty that the Horn Book, Inc. can and does do electronically to "blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls," (our sturdy mission statement since the 1920s) but what will keep our print-self necessary? What can we do with the Magazine we can't do online? Who can we reach, and what would they want us to tell them? Yes, they pay me to answer these questions but they pay me to ask them, too. So, I'm asking.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ice-cold killers

I'm really enjoying Booklist's May 1 Mystery Showcase issue, especially editor Bill Ott's "A Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to Scandinavia," which surveys the major Nordic crime novels that have made their way to our shores, a great summer-reading list. We already know about Norway's penchant for this kind of thing.

More on Lloyd Alexander

We've posted further information about Lloyd Alexander here. And below, fervent Alexander fan and my best friend Elizabeth Law offers some of her own thoughts:

Lloyd Alexander is one of my favorite writers of all time, as well as one of my most influential. As a child and young adult, I read the Chronicles of Prydain at least once a year. I often slept with one of the books in my bed, so that it was the last thing I read at night and the first thing I read when I woke up. I don’t mean to over-analyze it, but those books had everything for me--good plots, a character I wanted to love and cuddle (Gurgi), a girl I wanted to be (Eilonwy), a friend I wanted to have (Fflewddur, after whom I named a cherished stuffed animal), and Gwydion, who seemed as glamorous to me as the teenager down the street who starred in all of the high school plays. (Years later, I still have a crush on Taran. Where, oh where, is the man who would sleep all night on the floor outside my door just to protect me?) Most of all, the books created a completely convincing, layered world that I wanted to be a part of.

Professionally, I learned an enormous amount from a piece Lloyd Alexander wrote years ago in the Horn Book, “The Flat-Heeled Muse.”:

Once committed to his imaginary kingdom, the writer is not a monarch but a subject. Characters must appear plausible in their own setting, and the writer must go along with their inner logic. Happenings should have logical implications. Details should be tested for consistency. Shall animals speak? If so, do all animals speak? If not, then which—and how? Above all, why? Is it essential to the story, or lamely cute? . . . (from “The Flat-Heeled Muse, Horn Book Magazine, April 1965)

I have quoted again and again from my dog-eared Xerox of that article in editorial letters. The point of the piece was that every fantasy world has an internal logic it must follow. Yes, it’s a pain for a writer to work that logic out, and to stick to it, but without it the writer’s story will feel fake and too convenient.

On a personal note, I send my thoughts to his now-retired long-time editor, Ann Durell. It was Ann who read the manuscript for The High King, intended to be the 4th and last book in the Prydain Chronicles, and said to Lloyd, “There’s a book missing here.” She saw the piece of the saga that Lloyd himself hadn’t yet seen, the book that became Taran Wanderer. That’s the greatest kind of editor/author relationship.

I’m so grateful to both of them.--Elizabeth Law

Lloyd Alexander

I have an appreciation of Lloyd Alexander, who died this morning, promised for later, but for now I'd like to direct your attention to this letter he wrote to Horn Book editor Ruth Hill Viguers long ago.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

But Sammy the Snot Who Lives in Your Nose? Sure!

Publishers Weekly alerts us to the latest buy-an-agent scam; I love e-literary agent's sage analysis of the publishing market: "because this is a highly competitive business, we recommend that you take the time to run your manuscript through a spell check." If they wanted to tip us off that they were wolves after sheep, well, they just did.

But mind their strict guidelines: "Sorry, we don’t accept poetry or pornography." And whose pride, poets' or pornographers', do you think that hurts more?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Maybe they were on to something,

those YA writers
who made
spareness of line
look like

The company Live Ink believes this in fact is a more efficient way to read prose. Look here to see what they've done with Moby-Dick.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Five Thousand Acre, Thirty Billion Dollar Wood

Lolly Robinson reveals another tree-creature, this one sprouting from the greens of Harvard:

Nudge nudge wink wink

Equally inspired and deflated by the imminent release of the third Shrek movie, Time's James Poniewozik has an article this week about the fracturing of fairy tales in both movies and books. He's right about how such twisted retellings can appeal to both children and their accompanying adults ("the Shrek movies have a nigh-scientific formula for the ratio of fart jokes to ask-your-mother jokes") and right also to wonder about the disappearance of the original tales:

The strange side effect of today's meta-stories is that kids get exposed to the parodies before, or instead of, the originals. My two sons (ages 2 and 5) love The Three Pigs, a storybook by David Wiesner in which the pigs escape the big bad wolf by physically fleeing their story (they fold a page into a paper airplane to fly off in). It's a gorgeous, fanciful book. It's also a kind of recursive meta-fiction that I didn't encounter before reading John Barth in college. Someday the kids will read the original tale and wonder why the stupid straw-house pig doesn't just hop onto the next bookshelf.

We certainly see relatively few straightforward folk- and fairytale retellings among new picture books, save for a couple of publishers, like North-South and Barefoot Books, who specialize in them. The glitzy '80s saw lots of lavishly illustrated traditional retellings of familiar tales, the '90s brought more cultures into the mix, but the 'aughts are twisting and turning. Northrop Frye told us this would happen.

Friday, May 11, 2007

When something's not as cool as you thought it was.

That last thread about the tree-face which I thought had been handcrafted by a local free spirit but which turned out to be only the latest thing in lawn ornaments, brings me to another question: why do I now think the tree-face is kind of tacky just because there are thousands like it around the country? Is that fair? (Maybe.) Am I being a snob? (Yes.)

I'm reminded of two things, make of them what you will. The first of them is a story I read, in a children's writers' newsletter, which had as its hero a little boy named Bennigan. Named, the author said in a note, in honor of a delightful little family restaurant she lunched at while visiting some friends out of town.

The other thing takes me back to the mid-seventies, when my friends and I were all going off to college, and my friend Susan told me how she quickly realized she had to hide her Carly Simon albums at the back of her Smith College dorm closet.

Hell is other people. Just look in the mirror.

Neighborhood watch

This appeared on my street the other night. What's next, flying monkeys?

Update P.S. Go here to see any illusions you had about whimsical public art destroyed.

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.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Brahma, mon dieux!

We saw one of my favorite operas on Sunday, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, premiered in 1863 and putatively set in Ceylon. Its big tune, a duet for tenor and baritone, is apparently England's perennial number one favorite. The Opera Boston production we saw played the Orientalism up to the hilt, with shadow puppets, projections of many-handed (I'm guessing) Hindu gods, and sinuous dancing girls. I'm guessing it was no more "authentic" than the opera itself, which shamelessly indulges itself and the audience in exotica.

It made me remember a sumptuous picture book edition of Aida by Leontyne Price and the Dillons, trumpeted by the publisher as a retelling, via Verdi, as an African story. Nope, pure Italiano, based on a scenario by a French Egyptologist. And Turandot is about as Chinese as I am. These operas make me think about our own field's stern requirements for cultural authenticity and against Orientalism. Bizet, Verdi, and Puccini would be banished from the shelves. I guess I should be grateful they are operas, not books, and thus subjected to grown-up criteria that acknowledge the presence and even perniciousness of stereotyping without making it the trump card of evaluation.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Hometown Hero

Although he has graced New York for many decades, obdurate Illinoisan Richard Peck, late of Decatur and Rogers Park, came home to a hero's welcome at the 25th Zena Sutherland lecture last Friday, garnering the largest audience yet at that event. Peck is a gifted speaker, with a particular talent for making people feel like they agree with him even when they don't. ("I don't agree with a word you said," Virginia Hamilton once said to him, "but I love the way you said it.") While Peck's lecture ranged widely and smoothly over such topics as his family, his writing, the history of YA literature (with special tribute paid to Robert Cormier) and the state of contemporary education, through it all ran a strong thread of respect for teenagers and the challenges they face (poor schooling, indifferent parenting, the tyranny of peers) on the road to adulthood. I liked it. We'll be publishing the lecture in an upcoming issue of the Magazine, so look for it.

Below, Richard Peck with CPL Children's Services Director Bernie Nowakowski:

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Two more reasons not to vote for him.

From the NY Times:

When asked his favorite novel in an interview shown yesterday on the Fox News Channel, Mitt Romney pointed to “Battlefield Earth,” a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. That book was turned into a film by John Travolta, a Scientologist.

A spokesman said later it was one of Mr. Romney’s favorite novels.
“I’m not in favor of his religion by any means,” Mr. Romney, a Mormon, said. “But he wrote a book called ‘Battlefield Earth’ that was a very fun science-fiction book.”

Terrible taste. Lousy grammar.

Free Speech

Yup, tomorrow night Richard Peck will be giving the Zena Sutherland Lecture at the Chicago Public Library. 7:30 PM, Harold Washington Library Center, tickets are free but must be reserved in advance: 312-747-4780. It's filling up so hurry up, and I hope to see you there.

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.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

God bless audiobooks

I spent two hours this afternoon undergoing a root canal with only novocaine as my friend. And an audiobook, Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopoholic, really very dopey but just the thing for the circumstances. I had wondered if I would be able to concentrate enough amidst the drilling and tugging and ER-like passing of pointy instruments between the dentist and his assistant, but it was eerily easy: what was actually going on in my life during that time so was so completely alienating and out of my hands that I escaped quite thoroughly into the story. You should try it.

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.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

So now will I have to read it? It's not like they did.

A fifth-grade class in Pittsfield, MA has joined in a legislator's effort to name Moby-Dick the Commonwealth's official State Book. Melville wrote the book while living in Pittsfield, but that's about as much as the kids know--none of them have read it. And we wonder why lobbyists get a reputation for cynicism.

Besides, I remember attending a ceremony at the State House, in tow with Elizabeth Law, where I thought we were naming Make Way for Ducklings the State Book or something. Oh, wait, I just checked and that was the Official Children's Book. Jeez, this field is getting more crowded than the Grammys.