Panel Discussion: Critical Thinking – The Role of the Critic in Promoting Books
Professional criticism of children’s literature would be a topic I’d follow with interest to the ends of the Earth. Alas, the sole panel I could find on this topic at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair was entirely based on American and English criticism and a mere half an hour long. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the panelists in question included our own esteemed homegrown critic Leonard Marcus, featured alongside author/critic Michele Roberts.
Here’s a quick rundown of the discussion, moderated by Guest Director Jacks Thomas:
When asked about the process of reviewing itself:
Leonard Marcus: Leonard makes it a point to read the books he’s going to review repeatedly to determine what is is that the writer was attempting to do. Too often people try to review the book they wish that they’d read, rather than the one they did. It is the reviewer’s obligation to give the reader the option to disagree with them. Otherwise it’s just bullying, which he detests.
Michele Roberts: Suggests that one technique when you’re reviewing a book is to read it with children. Very quickly you’ll find out what works for a child.
Leonard Marcus: People who review well often have a direct line to their own childhood memories. For example, Leonard can picture completely his first day of Kindergarten. That said, it is important to separate one’s adult self from the reality of the children that come to the book today, whether it’s your reality or not. As a parent his ideas of reviewing were held up to question when his son became attracted to books that Leonard himself never would have considered. Kids are often drawn to books that mean something important to them at a given moment. One example might be that they want a dog, and here’s a book about a dog.
Jacks Thomas: How do you craft a review? Is it short story writing or an essay?
Michele Robersts: It’s a conversation. It’s like going up to a group at a party. You want to engage them. Be thoughtful and funny, but never lecturing or showing off. We all have a secret show-off inside us and that has to be kept down.
Leonard Marcus: Additionally, how you address the audience depends on what publication you’re writing for. You can make references to classic books if you’re reviewing for The New York Times, for example, to illuminate and to put the book in context. But when Leonard was the book reviewer for Parenting Magazine there was no reason to assume that that readership was attuned to the history of children’s literature. He had to make different assumptions about the backgrounds of his readers. In that case, it was always about being clear and friendly. Most reviewing is storytelling. A review can be a story about another story.
Michele Roberts: She’d add that assumptions she made as a younger writer about an audience, these days she can’t make the same assumptions. If, for example, she reviews a translated French novel, and she wants to quote the original French, she needs to put that in brackets. Audiences are now no longer a single entity.
Leonard Marcus: He never thought reviewing should be treated as an intellectual exercise where you put your knowledge in the foreground. You’re always trying to find a common ground with the reader. And readers today may have less background than in the past.
Jack Thomas: What is the responsibility of the reviewer in the children’s book market?
Leonard Marcus: There’s always the leap of imagination in children’s books. Kids are developmentally different and it’s important to understand what those differences are. Who is the book for? Some of the great children’s books work on many levels. For example, Goodnight Moon to a very young child is just rhythm and a lullaby. To a 4-year-old it could be the beginning of recognizing words on a page. A beautifully crafted book can have more than one audience. There’s a tendency to think of children’s books as segmented, but there’s more of a fluidity of audience of children’s books than is generally acknowledged. Parents these days are well-meaning and want to give kids the best books but often they don’t know what that means beyond the ones they remember when they were kids. And there’s so much fear that you’ll mess up your own kid. It’s the reviewer’s job to make it clear that you won’t ruin your child by reading a book “the wrong way”. We are obligated to help provide for the reader.
Jack Thomas: Do you keep up with changes in development education?
Leonard Marcus: He’s taught on children’s books and development, so he is immersed in different ideas of child development. Of course, he’d never use psychological jargon in reviewing books but it’s important to understand what the themes of different stages of development in a child’s life is. Or the issues surrounding moments like going from home to school and coming to terms with the worlds of your peers.
Michele Roberts: It’s important not to be cruel. A review takes up precious space that could be used to promote a book that you love. So she doesn’t review things that are really terrible (and there’s a lot). Receiving cruel reviews to your own books teaches you a lot as a critic. She wants to stick up for works that are beautiful and important. So her don’t be cruel rule keeps her true.
Leonard Marcus: Generally he agreed. He never, for example, would give a critical review to a debut author. The only exception to getting deeper into the negative aspects of a book would be in cases where a celebrity wrote a picture book and it was clearly a cynical career move. That is worth noting because those are the books that people buy because they’re familiar with the famous person and have no idea what else to buy. Those need to be flagged. But only in that circumstance.
Jacks Thomas: In the past 5 years there’s been a lot of cultural change. What have you seen?
Leonard Marcus: He said he’d been interested in small presses and books from people from historically marginalized cultures. In the last few years that’s been a front and center issue. Now we’re starting to see the field open up more than ever before. It used to be that every 10 or 15 years there would be an attempt to diversify books in America, but there was never enough of a market to support that shift. That’s beginning to change now.
Michele Roberts: Noted that another change is on sexuality. You can now find books with LGBTQ main characters.
Leonard Marcus: There is a strong commitment in America to these books, but it’s also the worst time of censorship right now. Particularly books on race and sexuality/gender identity. They’re under attack in a way that’s systematic. That makes this particular round of book banning more dangerous. With that in mind, we need to remember that when you confer an award on a book, it become evidence for those people who may need to defend its purchase in their libraries.
Jacks Thomas: And what is the role of the jacket?
Leonard Marcus: There’s a phrase in English, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” But if you can’t judge a book by its cover then there’s something wrong with that cover. It should signal to the reader why they should find it of interest. And in picture books, parents often don’t know what they’re looking for. A book jacket can be a clarifying message. Interestingly, if you look at Where the Wild Things Are, it’s one of those rare cases where the hero is not seen on the cover. That couldn’t happen today. These days there’s less time for leaving you with a dreamy mood.
Jacks Thomas: Have you reviewed your criticism from the past and found it lacking?
Leonard Marcus: He came to realize that his “standards” are not as hard and fast as he originally thought they were, thanks to his son.
Filed under: Bologna Children's Book Fair
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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