Zena Sutherland

Zena Sutherland, née Bailey, directed the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books from 1958 to 1985 and remained an active contributor through 1992: in many senses, she made the Bulletin and the Center for Children’s Books’ reputation. Sutherland’s three-decade tenure coincided with the postwar boom in children’s publishing, and her Bulletin reviews called attention to major authors and illustrators in the field including Judy Blume, Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, Louise Fitzhugh, and David Macaulay. 

Sutherland received her BA in English Literature from the University of Chicago in 1937 and, years later, returned to her alma mater to complete an MA in library science (1968). Although initially concentrating on the field of medical librarianship, Sutherland’s career trajectory changed after Mary K. Eakin left the university in 1958, and librarian and professor Sara Fenwick proposed Sutherland fill the vacant position at the Bulletin.1 This meant that Sutherland would move from editorial assistant to editor in the span of approximately four months.

They agreed that I could probably muddle through if I accepted the job,” Sutherland later recalled. “When I was offered it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to accept. But I agreed, and I took the job on the basis that if I was not happy there, I would stay for six months, and if the dean was not happy with me at the end of six months, I would stay for only six months. I knew after about two months that I had found exactly what I wanted, and I loved what I was doing. I had no experience, but a lot of inclination.2

Sutherland’s reviewing broke from the prevailing genteel tradition that dominated the major book review journals, including the American Library Association’s Booklist, The Horn Book Magazine, and School Library Journal. Her reviews were critical, not universally laudatory. Sutherland believed the Bulletin needed to evaluate children’s literature on the same critical foundations as adult materials. The Bulletin’s highest rating (“Recommend”) became a coveted accolade. Unlike her predecessor Eakin, Sutherland wrote nearly all of the Bulletin’s published reviews herself, with limited input from an advisory committee that met weekly. From 1958 to 1985, Sutherland produced an astounding 30,000 reviews, or about 20 a week. When asked to reflect on this prodigious output, Sutherland reasoned “I really love reviewing. I love reading and I love reviewing. I have been in situations both at the office and at home when I was just flooded with books, but opening every single package was like Christmas.”3

Sutherland’s national reputation as a critic was solidified by other activities, including authoring five editions (published between 1972-1996) of Children and Books, a widely-taught textbook for teachers and librarians. She served as a consultant for the television program Read Me A Story, which aired on NBC Chicago affiliate WMAQ. She also served on the Newbery and Caldecott Medal Committees, chairing the Newbery in 1976, and headed the advisory committee for the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, which she helped to found in 1982. Additionally, Sutherland wrote regular columns for the Saturday Review from 1966 to 1972 and served as a children’s book editor for the Chicago Tribune from 1972 to 1984.4

Zena Sutherland’s legacy is deep. Her reviews helped to change the culture of children’s book reviewing and shaped the equally pioneering work of her successors, including Betsy Hearne (Bulletin editor, 1985-1994) and Roger Sutton (Horn Book Magazine editor-in-chief, 1996-Present). At a memorial for Sutherland, Professor Ann Carlson of Dominican University encompassed Sutherland’s impact extolling “She motivated, challenged, and bolstered the rest of us.”5