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