Roger Sutton Reflections

I got my first job at the Bulletin on my knees. This was because I was being interviewed by Zena for the job as her assistant, and she, already tiny, was seated at her desk. There was no other chair at hand so rather than loom, I knelt. 

Tiny, yes, but with immense influence in the worlds of children’s book publishing and librarianship, Zena was a one-woman show. She wrote all the BCCB reviews herself (save one issue when she was hospitalized and Hazel Rochman and I deputized), about twenty a week, and the main responsibility of the assistant was to prepare the reviews (basically, retyping and formatting them) to send to the Press. Zena pecked ’em out with two fingers on a manual typewriter with a Carlton between her brightly lipsticked lips (Chris Olson, the assistant just before me, told me that the highlight of her tenure there was listening to Zena and a visiting Beverly Cleary swap tips about blending lipstick colors to the best effect.) 

I’m guessing no one reading this will admit to having read Judith Krantz’s Scruples (1978), but Zena was to me what the character La Comtesse Liliane de Vertdulac was to heroine Billy Winthrop. The “impecunious” but sophisticated (and kind) Liliane takes in the young ugly-duckling Billy as a paying guest in late 1950s Paris and turns her into a swan, and, not so by-the-way, gives her a first-class lesson in Taste. In Billy’s case, that meant learning to spot the difference between “clothes that fit and clothes that do not fit”; in my case, it meant learning a very honed, definite, astringent approach to reviewing books. Zena’s taste in books was catholic as to genre, but was underpinned by a certainty that her eye was impeccable, like Liliane being able to spot a fake Chanel suit at fifty paces. (I must note so that she doesn’t haunt me: Zena was far from impecunious, and she loved telling people that her textbook Children and Books had made her a millionaire.) 

I came to work at the BCCB full-time in 1988, after some years of contributing reviews after Betsy became editor in 1985 (and, no fool, decided that there was no way she was writing twenty book reviews every week on top of her professorial responsibilities). Betsy was no Zena, a state of affairs that Zena unfortunately took to heart after passing along her baby to her favored successor. But there could not be another Zena, not simply because she was inimitable but because the era of the one-woman-show was passing, as children’s librarians began paying as much or more attention to what their young patrons were asking for rather than what they were being advised by the “experts” to buy. 

I don’t think Betsy ever started a review with the certainty that Zena brought to the task. If Zena taught me confidence, Betsy showed me how to review books thoughtfully and carefullyeven tentatively, when called for. Betsy was not a product of Zena the same way I was, but all three of us (and now Deborah) came out of what Dean Boyd Rayward jokingly called “the Chicago School,” formerly reserved for the university’s illustrious department of economics. With a shared heritage of aesthetic and professional values—what do we mean by a good book for children?—the four of us would roughly agree on the merits of a given title more often than not; it also means we share some of the same blindspots. 

When I succeeded Betsy as editor in 1994, after the Center and the Bulletin became a part of what is now the iSchool, I was grateful to have Deborah Stevenson by my side. While quick and sharp like Zena, Deborah brought to her reviewing an analytical dimension and understanding of rhetoric that Zena did not: Zena never felt the need to justify her judgments, but Deborah was a master of the closing argument. 

I left the Bulletin for the Horn Book in 1996, and it was like entering a mirror world. Founded in 1924 and fully up its own ass and steeped in its own history ever since, the Horn Book had its own take on what do we mean by a good book for childrenZena used to call the Horn Book “the little old lady from Boston,” adding “and it’s run by a little old lady, too,” never mind that the editor in question, Ethel L. Heins, was the same age and height as Zena herself. But the Horn Book did have a reputation for prissiness, which stemmed more from its rather grand manner than its editorial judgments, which were in line with the Bulletin’s more often than not. Praise from the Horn Book came frequently with liberally applied lashings of Walter de la Mare: “only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” The Bulletin never talked that way. 

American children’s book publishing and book reviewing along with it changed forever with the 1998 publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by Scholastic. We had seen children’s book crazes before (such as Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club, both also Scholastic, which does not miss a trick) but not for big fantasy hardcovers from the Brits. (It is interesting to look back at a previous transatlantic fantasy success, Richard Adam’s Watership Down [1972], published for children in the U.K. but here as adult fiction, because no one saw a juvenile market for epic fantasy.) But Harry Potter broke and changed so many rules, largely because of another phenomenon that accompanied it: the Internet. Reviews did not matter for this series, as its retail success made the institutional market, always the primary audience for children’s book reviews, irrelevant. And librarians did not care what the Bulletin or the Horn Book thought of the books (although Horn Book did lose at least one subscriber after we said the second book was mediocre!) because children were screaming for them, said screams amplified and reinforced around the world as readers created international online communities devoted to the series. Some librarians even avoided reading reviews for fear of “spoilers,” their professional responsibilities colliding with their own personal enthusiasm for the books. And what did children’s publishing become? The search for the next Harry Potter, the next blockbuster novel that would sell in equal or better numbers to adult fans as well as children. The institutional and insulated market of hardcover books for children had become an afterthought. 

In truth, I am surprised we—professional children’s book reviewers—are still here. There is no shortage of opinions, published quickly and disseminated widely and for free, about new children’s books. The challenge for institutions like the Bulletin and the Horn Book is finding a paying audience for expertise in those opinions. Perhaps that expertise lies not in new-book recommendations but somewhere else—collection development, ideas for using books with children, information about authors, how-tos for would-be authors, etc. I know that the Horn Book has a committed core of subscribers who do so because we “inspire them” (their words, not mine) as librarians, readers, and writers. I’ll take it!