The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books was just turning 40 years old when I became editor in 1985, and I was turning 43. Now I’m 78, she’s 75, and we’ve each changed considerably. What has stayed the same is our mutual absorption of stories, pictures, and nonfiction, though both of us became more nuanced in critique and its varieties of expression. Let’s omit my childhood years of critical approach, which involved endlessly re-reading what I loved and returning what I did not love to the bowels of the public library whence it came.
First, some professional history: After working in public and school libraries and getting my MA, I started reviewing for ALA’s Booklist in 1968, was appointed editor of the children’s book section there in 1973, and then moved on to editing BCCB after I got my PhD at the University of Chicago and joined the faculty there. When the university closed the Graduate Library School in the 1990s, I moved with the BCCB to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where I stayed until retirement in 2007. My 22 years of involvement with the Bulletin as either Editor or Consulting Editor/Faculty Liaison were filled with dramatic developments in books for youth, in the art of reviewing them, and in the vicissitudes of the journal itself.
To begin with the latter, shortly after starting the job at the U. Chicago’s Graduate Library School, the dean—a friend and colleague who had been on my dissertation committee—called me in to say that he was leaving for his home country, Australia, to take a new position at the University of New South Wales. The administration then put GLS under review, and although we had been the #1 library school in the country, managed to close it down within seven years through budgetary wiles, based on the provost’s opinion that the Internet would make us obsolete. With the development of computer technology, he asserted, every scholar would be his/her own librarian—no further expertise or guidance through the new world of information was needed! The University of Chicago Press wanted to keep the journal there, but without departmental affiliation, BCCB would have lost its distinctively academic affiliation and the important ways that reviewing, teaching, research, and service—though presenting conflicts of time and energy for an editor—deeply enrich each other.
When the University of Chicago closed GLS in 1990, Leigh Estabrook, the visionary dean of UIUC’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science (now the School of Information Sciences), navigated the journal’s and my move to UIUC. The Center and Bulletin emerged successfully from disaster and not only survived but thrived here, forming a magnetically active venue for the many graduate students specializing in youth services librarianship, both public and school. Together CCB and BCCB have provided a source for classroom readings and research assignments, a place to meet for joint research projects and storytelling presentations, an opportunity to expand critical expertise through exposure to new books and veteran reviewers’ assessment of them, and a force in influencing what’s bought for children’s and young adult library collections nationally. But watching—and experiencing—the 1990s wave of library school closings and budget cuts taught me that critical reviewing requires institutional or organizational support and becomes endangered when that is withdrawn.
Throughout its history, BCCB editing has required adapting to innovative formats and equipment while maintaining reliance on traditionally proven knowledge and experience. When I took over the Bulletin, my predecessor Zena Sutherland used a manual typewriter. My first assistant at the University of Chicago, John DeBacher, did not trust the university’s mainframe computer and insisted on installing Mac desktops, which gave us the flexibility we needed long after the mainframe became outmoded. My first full-time associate editor, the inimitable Roger Sutton—whom I wrote into the budget despite administrative resistance and who became BCCB’s and later Horn Book’s editor-in-chief—programmed my new computer to open with the words “I am not my work,” which I did not understand or embody until well after retirement. In 1995, GSLIS (Graduate School of Library and Information Science) initiated LEEP (Library Education Experimental Program) and the faculty began teaching online, including core courses in children’s and young adult literature, storytelling, and youth services; and in February 1996 during Roger’s editorship, BCCB also went experimentally online. Now I listen breathlessly in the COVID-19 era as Deborah Stevenson—who joined the BCCB as an editorial assistant in 1989 and, after years of incomparable work, became Editor in 2001—describes reading review copies that are submitted electronically, writing and editing all the reviews electronically, meeting with the reviewing committee electronically, and overseeing the electronic BCCB website content. Hats off to you, Deborah, and you too, Roger (I know you are doing the same thing with Horn Book out east in the wilds of Boston).
During my decades of reviewing children’s and young adult books, I cannot generalize what “we” learned, but I can say what I learned. Here is my catechism.
–I learned to mentor and rely on a serial staff of brilliant professionals for reviewing and discussion; and on proficient, energetic grad assistants who answered reference questions, maintained the Bulletin’s book processing, and organized many Center events, from book sales to storytelling festival arrangements.
–I learned that although drafting reviews is a solitary endeavor, the final assessment and edits gain significantly from interactive feedback among internal staff and outside evaluators who work with young people on a daily basis—and I watched as public voices online broadened diversity of opinions and backgrounds.
–I learned, from all this, to listen to others’ opinions but not to abandon my own.
–I learned to share laughter about gauche titles, maladroit writing, or simply “publishing puzzlers” (what were they thinking?).
—I learned, in the midst of hosting 5,000 books a year, how to be selective in choosing what deserves attention either positively or negatively; and then how to critique each book both on its own merit and in the context of other books.
–I learned to identify new trends without becoming trendy.
–I learned to turn over genres I did not embrace to others who did, and to deepen my understanding of those I embraced. Among many other topics, I reviewed everything Jewish or related to the Holocaust and Israel (where I had studied anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University). Also everything folkloric (my primary research area), which involved new surges of traditional, multicultural, and satirical versions of tales, legends, and myths. For a long time, I reviewed all things dog. And during a publishing period of expanded baby books, I reviewed many of those, as well as deepening a focus on picture book illustration and introducing new aesthetic aspects of the journal, such as full-color covers. On my watch, the reviews got longer and more specific, including the monthly “Big Picture,” which not only highlighted a special title but also extended the critical analysis to contextual commentary. Other new features included the Blue Ribbons best books lists, Professional Connection reviews, periodic explanations of our editorial rationale for book selection and review policy, and special columns by experts like Nancy O’Brien on children’s literature special collections and Janice Harrington on African-American children’s books.
—I learned that the book will tell you what to say if you listen attentively: it can’t help itself—it is what it is.
—I learned to be clear, with supportive evidence, in service of the book and its consumers rather than showing off what I knew.
–I learned to think long and write short, which served me not only in reviewing but also in writing scholarly research, children’s books, and poetry.
—I learned to write fast and meet deadlines, reviewing about a book a day—there was no time for writer’s block.
—I learned when to take advantage of reviewing the work of those I knew well and when to recuse myself from reviewing those whom I knew too well.
In preparing for this celebration of BCCB’s 75th and last year, I paged through all the volumes during my association with the Bulletin. It was a humbling experience. Navigating the quantity and quality of the journal’s content, its close encounters with extinction, and the impermanence of all those years of work was unsettling. But reconnection with authors, illustrators, publishers, and memorable titles also brought back the exhilaration and comradery that sustained our whole endeavor.
Out of thousands, here are a few old friends I especially enjoyed seeing again as I reviewed my own reviews. Per BCCB style, they are arranged, of course, in alphabetical order!
Verna Aardema, Lloyd Alexander, Aliki, Mitsumasa Anno, Natalie Babbitt, Nina Bawden, John Bierhorst, Erik Blegvad, Francesca Block, Anthony Browne, Joseph Bruchac, Ashley Bryan, Eve Bunting, John Burningham, Betsy Byars, Ann Cameron, Eric Carle, Brock Cole, Joanna Cole, Barbara Cooney, Susan Cooper, Christopher Paul Curtis, Tomie DePaola, Kate Di Camillo, Donald Crews, Demi, Paul Fleischman, Sid Fleischman, Douglas Florian, Paula Fox, Russell Freedman, Jean Fritz, Leon Garfield, Mordecai Gerstein, James Giblin, Paul Goble, Mary Downing Hahn, Virginia Hamilton, Kevin Henkes, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Nonny Hogrogian, Shirley Hughes, Ted Hughes, Warwick Hutton, Trina Schart Hyman, Paul Janeczko, Angela Johnson, Diana Wynn Jones, X.J. Kennedy, Eric Kimmel, Dick King-Smith, E.L. Konigsburg, Nancy Larrick, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula Le Guin, Julius Lester, Patrick Lewis, Penelope Lively, Myra Cohn Livingston, Anita Lobel, Arnold Lobel, Lois Lowry, David Macaulay, Margaret Mahy, James Marshall, Patricia McKissack, William Mayne, Milton Meltzer, Eve Merriam, Dean Meyers, Jim Murphy, Donna Jo Napoli, Naomi Shihab Nye, Iona Opie, Helen Oxenbury, Barbara Park, Katherine Paterson, Gary Paulsen, Philippa Pearce, Chris Raschka, Mary Rayner, Faith Ringgold, Colby Rodowsky, Glen Rounds, Cynthia Ryland, Louis Sachar, Robert San Souci, Alan Say, Alvin Schwartz, Maurice Sendak, Seymour Simon, Marilyn Singer, William Sleator, Zilpha Keatly Snyder, Janet Stevens, Gary Soto, Suzanne Fisher Staples, William Steig, John Steptoe, Mary Stolz, Rosemary Sutcliff, Mildred Taylor, Chris Van Allsburg, Jean Van Leeuwen, Cynthia Voigt, Jill Paton Walsh, Mildred Pitts Walter, Rosemary Wells, Jerome Wexler, Marcia Williams, Vera Williams, Jacqueline Woodson, Valerie Worth, Patricia Wrightson, Laurence Yep, Jane Yolen, Ed Young, Paul Zelinsky, Paul Zindel, Charlotte Zolotow.