The children’s book business, only in its infancy when the Horn Book Magazine debuted in the 1920s, came of age in the 1980s as baby boomers stocked their children’s bookshelves and a new breed of teachers replaced their one-size-fits-all textbooks with classrooms libraries. Publishers responded to the growing market by producing more titles, a lot more titles. It was a heady time for children’s book lovers, but the boom posed new challenges for then Horn Book editor Anita Silvey. How could a children’s literature review journal stay relevant if it reviewed just a sliver of the latest offerings?
The Horn Book Guide was her ingenious solution. The new publication would have the same high critical standards as The Horn Book Magazine but a much broader reach. Each semiannual issue of the Guide would concisely review (usually in sixty words or less) and crisply rate (on a 1 to 6 scale) virtually all children’s and young adult hardcover trade books published in the United States during the previous six months.
Ann Flowers, a seasoned Horn Book Magazine reviewer with long experience as a public school librarian, agreed to be the first editor. Her goal, she said at the time, was to create a children’s literature resource that was “so practical and so valuable that professionals will keep it on their desks to use all the time.”
The first issue of the The Horn Book Guide appeared in February 1990 and contained reviews of nearly 1,600 titles. Thirty-seven reviewers, a mix of librarians, academics, and booksellers from all over the country, contributed to the effort. In her inaugural editorial, Ms. Flowers noted the quality of books “range from the splendid to the abysmal” and then calculated that 14% of the titles were given the lowest ranking, and 2% were given the highest. “Either it is a remarkably difficult feat to publish a first-class book, or much of publishing is careless, thoughtless, and unskilled,” she wrote. “Probably both are true.”
The forthright Ms. Flowers, who led the Guide through its first five issues, was succeeded in 1992 by the equally accomplished Hanna Zeiger, another Boston-area librarian with long experience as a critic. Her tenure lasted through 1998, when Jennifer Brabander was promoted to the top spot. Kitty Flynn assumed the editorship in 2001, and Elissa Gershowitz took the post five years later from 2006 to 2012 when Kitty Flynn again took the helm.
Over its twenty-five year history, the Guide’s design has been continually refreshed, its editorial structure has been tweaked, the number of reviews and reviewers has climbed — and production deadlines, the horror of the early years, have become ho-hum — but the journal remains largely as its founders envisioned it. What couldn’t be foreseen back then, though, was the growth of the Internet. These days the Guide can be found on thousands of desks, just as Ms. Flowers had hoped, but it also has a place on tens of thousands of virtual desktops, accessed through various literary databases and its electronic edition, The Horn Book Guide Online.