Saturday, December 12, 2009


The news about Kirkus is very sad. I am friends with several of the children's editors--Lillian Gerhardt, Barbara Bader (who was also the owner and publisher for a time), Diane Roback, Joanna Rudge Long, Karen Breen and current editor Vicky Smith. And I treasure one issue, published interregnum and written by the adult staff, which was complete bedlam.

Kirkus had a reputation, memorialized by Trina Schart Hyman (no friendly flower herself) in a drawing she did for a Jean Fritz picture-book biography, for being mean. I remember Zena taking umbrage at a Kirkus review of (if I have this right) a children's book by the actress Barbara Bel Geddes: "as a writer, Miss Bel Geddes is a wonderful actress." But, jeez, if that's what you think of as mean, get out more. (And let's not forget Zena could be ruthless when she thought the book was asking for it.)

Speaking only of the juvenile reviews, I think what people had trouble with was the fact that Kirkus was no coddler. Children's books generally occupy a protected status because of their intended audience, and if you shouldn't be mean to children, then you shouldn't be mean to their books. "But kids like it" is a defense mounted in our field all the time, an argument that would be laughed right out of any critical conversation about books for adults. As well, preachiness is tolerated in children's books (because preaching to children comes second nature to adults) even while grownups won't stand for it in their own recreational reading. What Kirkus did was to treat books for children and adults the same in the same publication. Good for them. It was also, almost always, fun to read.


sanctimommy said...

Kind of a nasty article!

Sad to see such a venerable publication go, though.

Susan said...

I appreciated that in a field of "recommended-only" review journals, the reviewers at Kirkus were willing to write the odd slam review together with the many positive reviews that they also wrote. But I must admit that no other journal inspired me to read quotes out loud in fascinated horror as they insured that no one would order a particular book from THEIR journal once they had condemned it as thoroughly as only Kirkus would. And there must surely be some authors who are happy to see its demise.

But as a librarian in the field, I used it and valued it, and it was at the top of our priority list, the only one that staff knew they had to rush through ASAP to take advantage of its timeliness.

Roger Sutton said...

Sanctimommy--what on earth was nasty about what I wrote? I must be missing a joke somewhere.

I'm glad Susan reminded us that Kirkus was much more than slam-slam-screw-you-ma'am. It's interesting to me that Kirkus has a rep for negative reviews when you will find such in roughly equivalent proportions in BCCB, SLJ and the Horn Book Guide. Maybe Kirkus was just better at it than the rest of us. ;-)

kristin cashore said...

Just wanted to second that I think it's super-sad news.

Also, at the risk of trying to speak for someone else -- I assumed that sanctimommy was referring to the nastier parts of the NYT article, not your words, Roger.

Anonymous said...

I can speak only for the children's book reviews in Kirkus but they were GREAT - pithy, valuable to both author and editor, always worth reading whether positive or negative. And they came early, so one could be prepared

GraceAnne LadyHawk said...

I loved reviewing for Kirkus, and I did so for three brilliant editors. I am going to miss reviewing for it, and reading its reviews, very much indeed. said...

I have mixed feelings about the demise of Va. Kirk-US. (As it was known on the tombstone that Trina drew for the Fritz JOHN HANCOCK book.) But my very first Kirkus review of my very first book--PIRATES IN PETTICOATS--ended with the killer line: "More swish than swash." In my first 100+ books I believe they liked three unreservedly.

Of course my latest book (out in January of 2010) just got a star in Kirkus. Maybe the last star ever from the Kirkus brand. I am not unaware of the irony of this story arc.

However, in a world in which reviews re more and more often in the hands of nonprofessionals like the ubiquitous Harriet Klausner, having a professional review service go down in flames is a blow for all of us.


emay said...

"Children dislike preachy books" is one of the silliest and most persistent myths of children's literature. Children LOVE preachy books. They always have. I myself adored SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, which as an adult I found incredibly preachy and practically unreadable.

For that matter, adults are pretty fond of preachy books as well. THE DA VINCI CODE? BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY?

Anonymous said...

I'm with emay.

I'd be interested to know how the Horn Book negotiates its mission and exactly what its mission is. Do you say, "This is preachy twaddle that every librarian should buy because kids will lap it up?"

Or are librarians just supposed to read between the lines and see that "a good choice for reluctant readers" means the same thing?

If the latter, what do you do to distinguish twaddle that any kid will read, from the book that is actually well written and ideal for the struggling reader?

MLaF said...

I'm a math teacher, not connected with the publishing world in any direct way, but I'm a reader. Despite the many (wishful?) comments in various articles that Kirkus was "...typically not seen by the general public", I know it well. It's on *every* amazon or ebookseller's given book page, and seeing a starred review always made me look longer, read further. At a time when book world is, however you judge it, in flux, it is very sad to lose a group of people dedicated to making sense of it.

sanctimommy said...

Oh I'm so sorry, Roger... I meant the NYT's article was really nasty! It seemed kind of inappropriate, really. I mean, who brings snark to an eulogy? It left a very bad taste in my mouth, like the author had been burned by Kirkus and was now reveling in its demise.

Your write up, as always, was very interesting and I enjoyed reading it. Sorry for not being more clear in my original comment.

Roger Sutton said...

Well our mission has always been "to blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls" and my distaste for preachy books has nothing to do with the fact children do or do not like them. I don't like them.