>More on the Love That Won’t Shut Up

>I’m very interested in a comment Nina Lindsay made on the “oh, grow up” thread. Nina said, in part:

To take this in another direction…I’m someone who reads both adult and children’s literature recreationally, but I do find often that my recreational response to children’s literature gets in the way of my professional response. On a daily basis I have to actively separate my appreciation of a children’s book from my critical brain. At the same time I find that my public library colleagues who don’t read children’s literature recreationally also tend not to choose to review it professionally…just because they don’t really like to read it. This then puts a whole new layer on how I read reviews of children’s literature; if I suspect that most reviewers are actually “fans,” I have to suspect their evaluation of the audience for the book, and look actively for evidence in the review that they considered a REAL child audience. The evidence isn’t always there. I’m probably guilty of neglecting it myself.

Nina is bringing up another part of the question I hadn’t thought of: what’s the difference between an adult reading a children’s book recreationally and reading it professionally, and, crucially, what difference does that difference make? It’s tricky, because children’s librarians (and reviewers) are frequently reading recreationally and professionally at the same time–I’m reading Catherine Murdock’s Princess Ben right now, for example, because I’m editing our review of it, but I’m also enjoying it enormously. But my enjoyment isn’t really what Horn Book subscribers are invested in: they want to know if we think it is any good (we do) and if we think the young people they serve will like it. While I don’t suspect that Princess Ben is going to be one of them, books beloved by librarians, reviewers and prize committees but disdained by kids are enough of a phenomenon to have earned their own name: shelf-sitters. Is this a danger of Loving Too Much? That while the reviewers are lovers of children’s books, they are still reading as adults, and their enthusiasms are grown-up ones. Nina, is this at all what you were getting at?

I’d also like someday to see an exploration of the difference between “fans” of children’s literature and “readers” of children’s literature but I’ll leave that for someone else’s purgatory.

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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. >I don’t know the difference between an adult reading a children’s book recreationally vs. professionally, but I do wonder if adults reading children’s books recreationally will eventually have an impact on the content of children’s books. Will adult fans become a market that children’s writers and publishers write and publish for? Will writers and publishers try to create books that librarians, reviewers, and prize committees love and that adult readers will want to read and thus buy?

  2. >I agree with Nina. Our own enthusiasm and enjoyment for a title can get in our way, as we attempt to evaluate books that we hope warm-blooded children will actually read from cover to cover.

    But even when we’re making our best, most self-aware efforts to consider children as the audience, predicting how said creatures will respond is a horribly difficult and unpredictable art.

    I make good guesses, but I’m often surprised, both by the books I didn’t think many kids would enjoy, but end up on lots of “favorite” lists, and by the ones I was sure would get read, but end up collecting dust.

    As teachers and parents, there’s also a dimension that librarians and professional reviewers don’t always have: a relationship with the children to whom we recommend the books. For better or worse, our love or dislike of a book is a real variable that influences what books they read and how much they like them. Depending on the kid or the class, I use various forms of reverse psychology, peer pressure, and bribery to get kids to try new titles. I see my responsibility in growing readers as two pronged: help each kid find some niches in the wide world of books, and teach them to stretch a bit beyond their comfort zones both in content and difficulty.

  3. GraceAnne LadyHawk says:

    >Oh my. You touch on so many things here that I wrestle with, every day.

    I review children’s and Young Adult books for several professional journals. I tell my students that I tend review things for the adult I am, and the child I was.

    Now I was a fairly weird child with eclectic tastes, and that was a very long time ago. But I read children’s and teen literature and professionally, and for fun, and for pleasure, now, as an adult. I write those reviews for other adults.

    Worse (or better) than that, I am one of those folks, Roger, who believes that the best of children’s literature is better than the best of adult literature.

    I read adult books for pleasure and for enlightenment. I used to review them, too, but I do that rarely now. Decades of reviewing left me drowning in a sea of midlist adult fiction: middling prose, middling story, middling angst. Feh. There is a lot of middling in children’s literature (dear goddess please not another Goopy Faerie Fantasy) but at least it does not depress me so.

    This is pretty off the cuff, but I really like the questions you and Nina raise.

    Maybe I want to write a real article about this …

  4. >I posted notes on The True Meaning of Smek Day on my blog yesterday and it’s a book which creates precisely the dilemma of enjoyment v criticism. I enjoyed it. I’m sure kids will enjoy it. But as an sf critic I can only see it as a derivative piece of light hearted and didactic twaddle.

  5. Monica Edinger says:

    >Your post and Nina’s comment in particular inspired me to write a post on my blog about this. (http://medinger.wordpress.com/2008/03/08/keeping-the-kids-in-the-picture/)

    In the world of critical reading of children’s literature I think it is a tremendously difficult and complicated dance we adults do. Taste, experience, memory, environment and goodness knows what else all play into our responses to books written for an audience that is not us (anymore). When it comes to determining the quality and appeal for the intended audience the figures can get mighty tricky.

    Lobster Quadrille anyone?

  6. Anonymous says:

    >gail,

    I think that what you described might already be happening. I think that more and more YA is being written for adults: YA subject matter, adult writing. This suits me, because I like those books for myself, but it also pleases me because I see a subset of YA readers that is still under-served. I am not sure what you call a fourteen year old who reads and loves Octavian Nothing– mature? advanced? sophisticated? Whatever you call them, I think they exist. On their own, they aren’t a very big market, but if adults add their buying power, maybe there will be more books like those by M.T. Anderson, Margo Lanagan and Elizabeth Wein.

  7. >Adults and kids are undoubtedly coming at literature from different places, but so are people whose tastes differ. Perhaps the fan/critic meets kids most productively in the part of the venn diagram for people who “like that sort of thing.” Deborah Stevenson of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books doesn’t assign books to reviewers who don’t approach a genre or topic with some sympathetic interest, and I suspect the enthusiasm of a reviewer who does enjoy bathroom humor or faerie folk is more likely to be an indicator of the appeal of a work in that mode for a similarly inclined child. The big difference I’ve observed is that adults have less patience for the derivative since they have read more widely.

  8. >I struggle myself with this daily. It is good to address this issue. My personal preferences do color my professional opinion. As long as I make note of it and am open about it, I don’t see the problem.

  9. >Am I wrong to think that children’s literature has always been written by and for adults, and that adult ideas about what’s interesting/good/marketable have always conditioned what’s published for children? I read children’s and YA literature as a fan, a critic, a teacher, and a parent and I don’t really see those roles being all that distinct. But other than occasionally noting that my own kid (whose tastes I know, having had a hand in forming them) will really like a particular book, I’m awfully wary of speculating about what “kids” will like or respond to. I don’t really believe in “kids” as an audience, any more than I believe in “women” or “left-handers” as a discrete and identifiable audience. Am I somehow committing children’s lit heresy?

  10. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think you’re right in a broad way, Libby, but it is also true that educated guesses play a large part in the fact that more books aren’t shelf-sitters; that is, publishers and book-purchasers do a reasonably good job at assessing what children will happily read.

  11. >Yes Roger, “shelf-sitter” is exactly what I’m getting at. It’s difficult to write a review that both praises a book on a literary level but, frankly, cautions librarians to consider very carefully whether they should buy it. And more difficult to read a review that doesn’t say this explicitly, but makes you suspect…

    Anonymous said something about Octavian Nothing, and Libby questions the idea of “kids” as an audience. I remember failing repeatedly to convince anyone that Octavian Nothing was a “kid’s” book…my point being that it was for a very particular type of person, and I could imagine an 11 year old appreciating it as much as an adult…I think that its YA readership is a slim as it’s kid or adult readership. This though is a pretty unique crossover title, and while there are others who have achieved it, in most cases you CAN, as Roger points out, assess what most kids want to read about…for the same reason you can distinguish between kids and adult literature. Of course they are gross generalizations, and that’s why we each get our literary kicks in different ways, but even gross generalizations are based on some kind of watered-down truth.

  12. Anonymous says:

    >Are any of the above comments from EDITORS of children’s books? They are presumably adults, most likely readers of adult books as well as kid lit, and approach the material (i.e. manuscripts) from a commercial a/w/a an artistic p.o.v. It would be interesting to hear what they might have to say – or at least more interesting than the comments of librarians and enraptured fans.

  13. >I have a question, and this may be a naive question since I am still not quite sure how the world works in a lot of ways, but as reviewers- I am sure that some of you have interactions with children or a younger audience- do you ever put their reactions to the book into your review or is it purely your own adult reactions?

  14. Roger Sutton says:

    >I’m going crazy here trying to find a pithy quote from, I think, P.L. Travers about how children’s literature comprises books that children like, books that adults like, and books that both audiences like. It’s a lively and productive tension that’s ever with us. Reviewers concerned solely with the aesthetic value of a book won’t have an audience; reviewers who concern themselves exclusively with child appeal makes themselves irrelevant. As Nina says, the toughest cases are those books the reviewer finds wonderful but only for a small audience. If you say that in the review, you’ve probably done a major injury to the book’s chances in the marketplace, but if you don’t the review-reader won’t easily trust you again.

    I think Octavian Nothing is certainly a children’s book, or as much a children’s book as it is anything else. I don’t think it will have a wide readership–it’s too difficult. But I would argue that that is precisely the reason why it belongs in libraries, because the few to whom the book will speak will be much richer for reading it, and they won’t be likely to find it anywhere else. I think a library has to work like the Constitution and Bill of Rights, providing for the tastes of the majority while ensuring the well-being of the few.

  15. Anonymous says:

    >hear! hear!

  16. >I think I’ll add the line about libraries working like the Constitution to my official collection development policy!

  17. >Bravo, Roger — well put!

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