>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.