Janice Del Negro 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? 

I would very much like to say that the pool of book reviewers and book review editors has diversified considerably, but unfortunately that would be grossly inaccurate. Technology has certainly altered the landscape, with a good portion of reviews available online, whether affiliated with professional review journals or not. The digital clutter makes it difficult to identify reviews that have any knowledgeable authority, but the ease with which online reviews can be accessed means they are being used for selection and collection development despite their subjectivity. 

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

There were a lot of firsts: we moved into the current space after several previous moves (I don’t know how Deborah handled the *many* CCB moves and still managed to keep the BCCB on schedule); the BCCB went online (the website was redesigned to add considerably more depth and the digital version of the magazine was put into production); we published the first Guide Book to Gift Books; we had our first children’s lit conference; our first storytelling concerts; and our first book sale, to name a few. The modus operandi of the BCCB hasn’t changed much over time: the editor assigns books to reviewers, reviewers meet to discuss reviews, the BCCB issues are compiled/created. Changes in CCB space affected workflow, though; I still remember moving into The Little Book House on the Prairie– we were determined to make the books fit in a space not meant for them. (Let me put it to you this way—the BCCB card catalog was on top of the bathtub in the downstairs bathroom.) 

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

I learned to step back from my first personal response; to review the book I had in my hand, not the book I wished I had in my hand; to treat each book (even if it wasn’t particularly good) as the result of many people’s hard work; to give each book the best chance with the best reviewer for that title/genre; to make sure a review revealed more about the book than the reviewer; and when in doubt, go back to the book. 

What exciting “finds” do you remember from your days at the Bulletin? 

Hard to recall, nothing leaps to mind.

What was an especially memorable review you wrote, and why?

I remember being very careful with my review of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux (2003). It wasn’t my book, but I knew it was going to be THE BOOK for a lot of other people. It was a nice piece of book-making, too—I gave it as a present a lot. I did a Big Picture review of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Jade Green (1999), which I thought was a fine and funny semi-spoof of Gothic romance novels—I got a note from the author thanking me for “getting it.” I reviewed Velcome (1997) by Kevin O’Malley—it was a Big Picture, in which I mentioned being able to visualize the author/illustrator cackling in the attic over the text/images—he called me to tell me that was exactly what he’d done.  I reviewed Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s Snowflake Bentley (1998), which I loved, but didn’t think anyone noticed but us, and then it won the Caldecott Medal. I couldn’t believe it. I can only pick award winners when there’s a book I intensely dislike—then it will win a medal and I will not be able to escape it for the rest of my professional life.

Do you remember reviews you struggled with writing? 

Good glory, I had to read the first 50 pages of one particular dragon-y fantasy novel six times because I hated it so much I let it sit until I forgot what I read and had to start over from the beginning. I still say there is nothing worse than a badly written fantasy novel. 

Are there reviews that you would approach differently now? 

Oh, all of them. Reviewers bring their present context to each review: different context, different person, different reviewer.

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

I would like to take this opportunity to say that Deborah Stevenson is the best editor I ever worked with, and I have worked with a wide range of them. Her depth of knowledge, clear-eyed judgment, and precise language exhibit a mastery that I greatly admire. I cannot tell you how many times I think “Deborah would hate this” or (when reading a particularly bland or unsupported review with generic, essentially meaningless language) “Deborah would not let anyone get away with this nonsense.” Really. She is an editor’s editor.

Do you think there’s an ethics of editing and reviewing? Did you experience any challenges in that area?

Yes. Objectivity is a myth, but we strive for it constantly. It is crucial to represent a book fairly, to not allow subjectivity to hamper evaluation. 

The Bulletin is known for its academic roots and, in the last few decades, for its use of in-person meetings where reviewers confer and advise. How did these characteristics of Bulletin work affect your approach to editing and reviewing?

I still miss it. Reviewing is a solitary activity, but the BCCB review meetings were a communal, supportive environment—I always knew people would be gentle with one another even if they weren’t particularly gentle with book evaluations. The Blue Ribbon discussions are a favorite memory, and I loved the passion with which reviewers promoted their choices. This is a dynamic I strive to create in materials classes, particularly in discussions.

Are there other aspects of the Bulletin experience that were memorable or valuable to you?

Stream of consciousness memories/thoughts: 

  • Our graduate assistants were (and I bet still are) absolutely stellar; the BCCB/CCB could not have functioned without them.  
  • Books and food create an enjoyable professional culture.  
  • Deadlines are real. 
  • The refrigerator in The House had a science project growing on the bottom shelfI cleaned it. I spent a weekend cleaning the whole bloody kitchen. 
  • Disco days with Melanie Kimball and Jeanette Hulick 
  • Deborah, laughing, chasing a squirrel out the window.  
  • Hiding in the bathroom because I thought one of the movers was going to die trying to get a desk up a ramp stretching from the top of the moving truck to a second-floor window.  
  • And Sherman, the supervisor of the last move. We were going to build a shrine to Sherman. (We never built a shrine, but we did tip him. He said it was the first time any academic unit had ever tipped the movers.