>Why Do I Review Books?

>So someone asked amidst the great blog wars of Tuesday. It’s a fair question but has a long answer.

Let’s first get out of the way me v. The Horn Book, because, obviously, I review books because it’s part of my job, and my job is to “blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls,” as the first Horn Book editorial had it. The Horn Book, in its two print publications and their subsequent replication on such databases as the hornbookguideonline.com, reviews books because that is a great way to blow that horn. We tell people what new books are out there looking for readers. I often tell students that a review is more than a gussied-up opinion and less than literary criticism: it’s service journalism, giving people news about something they can use.

So the Horn Book reviews books because it’s part of our mission. I started reviewing because Zena Sutherland told me I was good at it. She arrived at that opinion the same way Sally Fenwick (Zena’s teacher at the University of Chicago’s Graduate Library School, just as Zena was mine) discovered Zena herself was good at it: from the “book cards” each of us had to write for our children’s literature class. I enjoyed the challenge of getting the essence of a book onto one side of a 3 by 5 card.

I had always liked writing about books–but then, I was the kind of kid who played “library” by drawing date-due slips inside my parents’ books. Book reports were always a complete piece of cake for me–I still remember this long one I wrote about Love Story and the impressive effect it was having on the girls in my ninth grade class. I was never much of a creative writer, but I could expend reams on what any given book made me think about.

School Library Journal was the first place to publish my reviews–I’ve been thinking again about my review there of Annie on My Mind (my first “starred” review), because I’m writing “A Second Look” column for its, God help me, 25th anniversary. After I had been reviewing for a year or so, SLJ editor Lillian Gerhardt asked me to become their YA columnist, I got on the Best Books committee, the New York Times came calling–I got a lot of attention. So there I was, getting attention (and a little extra income) for doing something I liked and felt I was good at. So why I reviewed books then seems pretty clear.

That would change once I began reviewing books for a living, which happened when Betsy Hearne hired me as an associate editor at the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. Zena taught me a lot about style and brevity in reviewing, but Betsy made me work harder, digging deeper into the books I was writing about. She also made me more efficient and more respectful of deadlines: I had to write ten reviews a week, along with the work of preparing the Bulletin for publication. As I began managing the thousands of books the Bulletin received (as opposed to the few brought to my attention by the SLJ editors), I started having a more global interest in, and perspective on, the whole biz. It certainly tempered my reviews, because I was working from a larger context.

I don’t review nearly so much now–maybe half a dozen books, tops, in an issue of the Magazine, a couple of dozen more for each Guide. (I also edit, in concert with my HB fellows, every review we publish.) As many of the blog reviewers have been saying for the last couple of days, I review, mostly, books about which I have something to say. For the Magazine, this will include books I like or authors or characters I keep up on, and also topics I know, or books that deserve a public paddling (yes, Jamie Lee, I’m looking at you) I can’t talk someone else into administering. For the Guide, I’m often doing cleanup on books whose reviews were not received or which were unusable. That’s another thing about professional reviewing: you spend a lot of time reviewing books in which you have no personal interest one way or another.

While reviewing is no longer the core responsibility of my job I still do it. I do it because sometimes, among our review staff, I’m the best person to do a particular book, and I do it because, once I spend the requisite amount of time in the approach-avoidance technique I have about all required writing, I like it. I like the way book reviewing uses my mind. I like the way it changes my mind–even when I’ve read a book and am pretty sure of what I’m going to say, the actual writing of the review often reveals something about the book I hadn’t seen before. Have you ever been surprised by what you wrote? It’s a great feeling. And the word-puzzle aspect of reviewing is fun: you think, okay, I want to get this in, and this, and this and I hope I can use that quote . . . and you have fewer than two hundred words to do it.

Plus, I’m a complete sucker for instant gratification. (Thus this blog, I suppose.) I like having a task that I can start and finish within half an hour. (This doesn’t include reading the book, of course, but speedy readers and writers definitely have an edge in this profession.) And seeing your work in print does not get old.

The recent discussion of blog v. print reviews made me see a couple of distinct differences between the two. First, I’m reviewing on behalf of an institution, not just to express my own opinions. As our assistant editor Claire Gross pointed out in a comment on the discussion, Horn Book (and BCCB, Booklist, SLJ, etc.) reviews get edited by several people in several stages. Yes, the reviewer whose name or initials appear at the end of the review is definitely the author of that review, but in the eyes of the world, it’s the Horn Book’s review, and we (the corporate we) stand behind it. Second, I’m reviewing with a particular audience in mind. The core of our readers are public and school librarians working with children, so we give them the information we know they need. When you see the phrase “an index is appended” in a review, it’s not because the reviewer had a burning need to make that point; it’s that we know that indexes matter in library collection development. And that’s another thing I like about reviewing books. It makes me feel useful.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    >Oh Roger, of course, you are useful.

  2. Barbara O'Connor says:

    >Thanks for that, Roger. Very interesting to those of us who know little about the real people in the review world. I confess that for many years I just associated a review with the journal that published it. I didn’t really put a person behind that review. I was shaken from that la-la-land when my book, Moonpie and Ivy, won the Mass. Book Award in 2002. Susan Bloom gave an introductory speech about the book that knocked my sox off. It made me want to run out and read my own book. Afterwards, we were chatting (I had never met nor heard of her) and I told her she should be a reviewer. I know, I know – DUH. She very humbly and politely responded, “Actually, I am.” When I later did my homework, well, [insert red face here.] Since then, I pay more attention to the real live people behind those reviews. It brings the whole process to life and makes it more meaningful, I think. (and we know whose house to TP, if need be.)

  3. >When did you read the books you reviewed? Silly question, except that as a librarian I can’t read books on the job; so all my reading plus reviewing takes place after hours. As I was reading the ten reviews bit, I couldn’t help but wonder when you read the books for the reviews. For the various publications, is it all reading on your own time?

  4. Anonymous says:

    >Roger,

    Are you saying you are NOT on a mission from God to improve children’s books for the children of the world?

    Would you jump ship for more money and go be editor of Kirkus, if Kirkus were as uber-cool for adults as Horn Book is for children?

    h

  5. Anonymous says:

    >Nonsense. you review books because one short misstep kept you away from the Rhode Island School of Design.

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    >While I appreciate the professionalism and unstickiness of Kirkus reviews, I’d go nuts just editing book reviews at this time in my life.

    Liz, I did and still do most of my book review reading at home. But I get to work at home, too, so there’s that. But I was working as a librarian when I started reviewing and writing, and did at after work and on the weekends.

    The RISD joke is completely eluding me. But it’s a good thing that I write reviews rather than draw them.

  7. Anonymous says:

    >no no, not RISD, Parsons. We meant Parsons.

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    >Oh. Well, Tim and I felt it would be best to keep a certain professional distance, you know?

  9. >Again with the Tim thing, Roger. When, oh when, will you realize he’s mine?

  10. >Oh, and Roger, I have a TV recommendation for you. “Shear Genius” is nearly as good as PR. After the disaster of mediocrity that was “Top Design,” I’m in heaven.

  11. Anonymous says:

    >Hey Roger this is a very interesting post but looking at your career it has prompted a question which I hope you will address (maybe in another post!)

    In some of the comments at your bloggers/reviewers post the other day and at other posts that came out of it several people brought up the issue of professional vs amateur reviewers. Can you explain what you think the difference is? I’m not talking extremes (Editor of NYTBR vs teenager blogging at My Space about a book), but everyone in the middle. It can’t just be academic background because many bloggers have degrees in lit, library science, writing, etc. And it can’t just be money because many bloggers freelance as book reviewers for print publications. And then there are writers who guest review at major newspapers – where do they fall in the mix? (or maybe they are really professional reviewers who happen to blog?)

    I understand your point that you are representing the institution and not just your own opinion. I have reviewed several books that I personally don’t love, but know that members of my audience would. (See my current column at Bookslut on books for boys.) So I understand that and I do try to adhere to it wherever I review and I think many other bloggers (Betsy for example) do also.

    Can you please shed some light on what (you think) makes a professional reviewer? (And if you’re someone like me, who reviews for Booklist and elsewhere – do I shift back and forth from professional to amatuer? Or is it just confusion based on where reviews appear?)

    Thanks so much…….

    Colleen aka Chasing Ray

    (I really need to fix my blogger account so I’m not always anonymous!)

  12. MotherReader says:

    >I’m glad you shared your journey to stardom. Well, stardom in the tiny little world of kids lit, but still, very interesting.

    I think I could do the ten reviews a week of under two hundred words each, but probably not if they all had to be, you know, good. I can see where some oversight is necessary.

    Thanks for the last paragraph about the differences between blog and print reviews. It explains a lot, and most importantly, shows that you’ve learned something. ;^)

  13. >Here I was thinking, hey there is a job out there that lets you read the books during work! Oh well!

  14. Roger Sutton says:

    >That’s a good question, Colleen, and here’s a provisional answer (I’m still thinking). I think the difference between a professional review and an amateur one is the degree to which it’s about the reviewer and the reviewed. A lot of the blog reviews I read tell me a lot about the blogger–his or her likes and dislikes and personal circumstances. It’s hard for that review to be clipped away from that blog and stand alone, apart from the blogger. Professional reviews are designed to stand alone–apart from their reviewers and even from their original context–this is one reason electronic products like Booklist Online and Horn Book Guide Online can work, the individual reviews can be sorted into all kinds of order and still make sense. A professional review is more firmly tethered to the subject book than anything else. But the blog reviews (not all, certainly, although I still maintain that most are too long for their own damned good ;-) are part of a larger narrative, and work best within that narrative, which is really an evolving portrait of a person. Again, this is just a provisional thought, and I’m curious to know what others think.

  15. Anonymous says:

    >Here’s the answer, colleen, while Roger thinks some more, professionals get paid for it.

  16. >I found the discussion of blog vs. journal reviewing of interest. I often review for SLJ and work from the premise that I am writing as accurate a description of the book as possible. I find that it is almost a technical skill rather than something lofty and intellectual. And in the end, if the description is true, there is no need for personal opinion. The book will flourish or not based on its own merits. Do you feel Horn Book Reviews are Descriptive?

  17. Roger Sutton says:

    >Well, Ms. P., once you’ve started “describing a book,” you’ve already ventured into subjective territory, because you’re deciding which details about a book are worth sharing. I don’t think any book intrinsically has merit or not, because merit is an external determination, a judgment.

    That said, there is a lot of technical skill involved in writing a review, and I agree that the reviewer’s opinion of its merit is not necessarily the most important thing about the review. It might be more important to get the ISBN right, in fact!

  18. >Colleen-

    I also think that the amateur vs. professional review also has something to do with editing. Roger pointed out the amounts of editing and polish that go into what everyone would consider a “professional” review. So even those who review professionally, their blog reviews usually don’t have that same amount of oversight.

    I also agree about the larger narrative. When I’m posting reviews I originally wrote on my blog in another forum, they often need tweaking in order to make any sense outside the greater context I’ve placed them in on my blog.

    But that’s just my two cents. What do I know? :)

  19. rindawriter says:

    >I just need reviews that HELP ME to find truly interesting, exciting, well-written new books to satisfy my book hunger….I did not care personally so much for the Book Thief for example, (I like old-fashioned narrative formats better) but it was a MOST interesting and provocative new read…and I was glad to have been pointed in its direction…I just don’t think I would have gotten POINTED in that direction so much had it not been for reliable, trusted rewiers pointing me there…it’s hardly the latest YA chick litty sort of stuff now is it?

  20. a. fortis says:

    >Another fascinating discussion! Thanks, Roger, for sharing a bit of your professional history (as a writer/general freelance monkey I find it interesting to read about how people get into various publishing-related careers).

    Another, albeit less exciting, difference between the reviews you write and the ones bloggers write has to do with rights, and who “owns” the reviews–as you said, you’re working on behalf of a corporation, who presumably has general jurisdiction as well as editorial authority over anything you write for them. A nice thing about being a blogger is that I can feel like I’m maintaining ownership over what I’ve written. Then again, I’m not the one getting paid!!

  21. Roger Sutton says:

    >A. Fortis, is correct, that independent bloggers have more freedom in what they get to say. While I do get the last editorial word here at the HB, I’m still reviewing on behalf of the company, which owns the copyright to everything I publish in our pages.

    Let me hasten to add that we regularly publish reviews with which I do not wholeheartedly agree but nevertheless make their cases convincingly.

  22. Rachael says:

    >Hi Roger. I’m coming in very late with a question that occurred to me this morning. What do you do when you change your mind about a book after your review has already been written, published, and duly noted?

    Case in point: when I read Born Confused for the first time, I hated it, and thought the prose was so sloppy and meandering that I couldn’t believe it had even found a publisher. Now, almost a year later, I find that I can’t get it out of my head, and that despite the sloppy writing, it had some of the more genuine characters I’ve come across in YA lit lately. If I had written a bad review of that book, I’d be feeling kind of guilty right now.

    So, does that ever happen to you? If so, do you make any public acknowledgement?

  23. Roger Sutton says:

    >Rachael, a review is meant to convey an initial impression and, sure, I sometimes change my mind later. But as I said someplace else on the blog, I don’t always change my mind to the book’s benefit. So I don’t see the point in publishing mea culpas (unless we’ve actually made a factual error, in which case we do run a correction).

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