Deborah Stevenson Reflections

During 75 years of book reviewing in the United States, what’s changed, what’s stayed the same? What have we learned as critics? 

What’s stayed the same is the passion people bring to it, whether they’re writing in 1950 in print or in 2020 on Twitter. People care very much about books for young people, and those books are always part of and sometimes proxy for larger cultural debates.  

Changes are many. On the good, there’s the complicating the notion of authority; Roger used to refer to the early influential editors as “the Foremothers,” and there really was a pantheon approach to how they were treated and which particular ones you followed. While there are still vestiges of that in Internet discourse, overall there are many more voices of influence in youth literature. The gatekeeping, award, and collection development processes have been disrupted. There’s been work on that before, of course, but the Internet makes it possible for minoritized and underfunded voices to reach people in a way you really couldn’t in print, and it has a tangible effect on discourse and on publishing.  

I would also say that books have on the whole gotten better; not that the best books now are better than the best books in every era, but that the degree of artistry and thought even in the lesser books is much higher.  

On the bad, there’s the time and money pressure on libraries (especially school libraries), which makes a huge difference in who gets to be part of the conversation or even know there’s a conversation happening, and there’s the speed at which books have to make an impact to be successful. It’d be nice if eBooks bring the return of the midlist title and allow books a longer time to get to kids. 

I’d say that even the notion that we learn as critics is a more recently respected idea, so one big answer is a recursive one: we’ve learned it’s important to keep learning.  

 What was working at the Bulletin like during your era of editorship? 

From a literary standpoint, there have been terrifically exciting developments; it’s been amazing to see the rise of graphic novels, the surge in diverse books, and so on. Being in Champaign, as opposed to a big city, has made assembling those in-person reviewer teams a challenge sometimes, so we’ve almost always been on the reviewer hunt, but fortunately it always seems to work out.  

What did you learn from your work at the Bulletin that influenced who you are as a critic, scholar, reader, etc.? 

Seeing the totality of the genre provides a rare perspective. It’s a macrocosmic view that provides a counterpoint to the often microcosmic approach of literary criticism. I read an individual text with an intense awareness of the context in which every book operates, of the other thousands of books we received that year, their subjects, their styles.  Huge numbers of books fly beneath the critical radar, yet they still form an important part of the genre, and I get to see them standing behind every book I focus on. 

What exciting “finds” do you remember? 

A great recent(ish) one is Anastasia Higginbotham’s Death Is Stupid. It’s a picture book published in 2016 by the Feminist Press, which hasn’t been a big source of children’s books, and it didn’t come with much youth lit fanfare. But it was the rare book that managed to make its outsider status work for it: the genre of death books for kids is predominantly soft watercolors and slow adjustment, usually involving a dead pet and often concluding with a skyward view on a sunny day. And I like those books too, but Death Is Stupid gives room for kids to kick back at all that massaging toward acceptance with a protagonist who’s pushing back against the adult platitudes that really aren’t helping at all. It’s got some bite, and therapeutic picture books often don’t have that. 

What was an especially memorable review you wrote and why?  

I’m trying to avoid the recency effect on this one, so I’m going to go back to David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003). Most of the time it’s easier to review a book that you have issues with (so long as you don’t let it spill out into a carpfest). A happy book that fills you with joy can actually be a real challenge to review because you just want to descend into repeating how great it is, which is about the least effective way to convince people. In a genre like YA that tends toward the cynical, something hopeful can seem fluffy and unserious. And I thought Levithan had done something so clever yet so effortless with a utopia that was just out of contemporary American grasp and beckoned us forward, while still telling a gorgeous love story about these boys and our potential for love. He’s also a very quotable writer, and I remember having an incredibly long list of quotes that didn’t make it into the review. I just wanted very much to convey the glow of the book and the glow conferred by the book. 

Do you remember reviews you struggled with writing? Are there reviews that you’d do differently now? 

A recent one that comes to mind is Brittany Luby’s Encounter (2019). It’s a Canadian first encounter picture book, by a writer who identifies as Anishinaabe and an illustrator who’s an enrolled member of the Tlingit and Haida. So I was hoping for a picture book analogue to Michael Dorris’ Morning Girl (1992)except without the complicated subsequent authorial identity questions. Instead, it reads like a 1950s take on multiculturalism where a day of fellowship proves we are more alike than different, and all the discussion of the colonial devastation of European arrival is relegated to endnotes, which picture book audiences don’t read. I could not wrap my head around this being the work of First Nations people in 2019, and I kept rereading it and showing it to other reviewers to see if I was missing something. Ultimately, I had to say that whatever book the author, illustrator, and publisher meant to create, what they’d created was a problem, not a solution. 

I’d probably do all of them differently now, and the ones I’m writing now I’d do differently in the future. That’s the price of constant evolution. Specifically, I really shouldn’t have been the person who reviewed Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (2005), because that’s so not my kind of book, so as a result it’s not a good review. More recently, Emily Jenkins’ A Fine Dessert (2015) was a really pivotal moment for me; I liked so much about it and got stuck in whiteness and didn’t object as strongly to the strand involving the enslaved family as I would now; I was focused on the fact that usually the contributions of enslaved cooks are rendered invisible, but this was a problematic kind of visibility. 

Did you learn editorial lessons from predecessors and colleagues? Which ones proved most valuable? 

I was fortunate in being able to start out at the Bulletin as a graduate assistant, and I learned so much from being able to work with Zena Sutherland, Betsy Hearne, Roger Sutton, and Janice Del Negro. They were all incredibly generous in their transparency about their process, which was even more illuminating than direct instruction.  They were especially brilliant at modeling a blend of confidence and humility that made a diversity of opinion possible and welcome; it’s much better for the journal and the books when I can see my take might not be the most useful one or even the correct one and let another voice influence me or speak on the book instead. 

Do you think there’s an ethics of editing and reviewing, and did you run into any challenges in that area? 

Yes, absolutely. As an editor, I have a responsibility to the subscribers, to the creators of the books we review, to the writers who review, and to the young people who read the books. Those have to stay in balance.  And those ethical considerations inform the process right from the start, when we’re considering which books get reviewed and to whom they get assigned. We want to choose the reviewer most likely to be thoughtfully enthusiastic about that kind of book; they’re a critically informed version of the child reader who’d choose to pick the title up.  So it’s not fair for me to give the cat book to somebody who hates cats and would never voluntarily read a book about them, but it’s also not fair to give it to somebody who loves every single cat thing they encounter and can’t think critically about a cat book. 

A common issue is the double-edged sword of personal investment. If a book addresses an issue close to me or my life, I may have more knowledge about it than another reviewer, but it can also mean I put too much weight on this single book (or an element of that book) as a proxy for that larger issue. When that happens with a reviewer, my editorial responsibility is to make sure the book’s value doesn’t get lost in that; that their excitement or disapprobation matches the book that’s before us. Sometimes you do as an editor have to say “It’s not the book, it’s you.” That’s why you need to be an editor your reviewers can trust, and that’s why prior editors’ establishing that diversity of opinion was so valuable—it made room for that as part of the process. 

The Bulletin has focused on its academic roots and, in the last few decades, on an in-person group of reviewers who can confer and advise. Do you think those characteristics affected your approach to editing and reviewing? 

We fondly refer to that in-person part of the process as “peer-reviewed reviews,” and it adds incalculable dimension and richness for me as an editor, because there’s a real chance for dialogue with viewpoints that differ from my own and not just a static reading of a reviewer’s copy. It also means that the Bulletin experience is a cohort of professionals, who often spin off into other projects together. 

Are there any other aspects of the experience that you found memorable or valuable? 

Alongside the marathon swim in the youth literature ocean, the Bulletin is like a laboratory for reading, writing, and criticism. There’s an amazing amount of ambient knowledge about how people read and analyze that I’ve gotten from working with our reviewers for so long. That may have been the most surprising thing about my editorial experience—that working intimately with skilled, articulate readers would constantly illuminate me about the individuality of literary response. All reviewers—all readers—are microcultures, dynamic, distinctive, individuated yet responsive.  It’s been like an intellectual polycule where we’re all married to one another’s reading.