Editorial: Please Repeat the Question

Neil Gaiman has his own, very good, reasons for asking, “What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book Anyway?” and you can read all about them, starting on page 10. The question is great, but he doesn’t really have an answer. Don’t feel bad, Neil: here at the Horn Book, we’ve been asking that question for almost ninety years, and it never gets tired. In fact, every time I ask it I become more convinced that it is the most helpful question I know, and I’m afraid of the day—may it never come—when I think we have it answered.

Stripped (usually) of its very bad swearword, the question of what is a children’s book is in play every time we open a review copy at the Horn Book, or when a librarian makes a cataloging decision, or when a parent peruses bookstore or library shelves. (Note that it’s a question asked only by grownups.) Usually the question is subliminal: When we read The No. 1 Car Spotter and the Firebird, for example, we know it is a sequel to The No. 1 Car Spotter, an easy, child-centered chapter book by Atinuke, author of another easy, child-centered chapter book series about Anna Hibiscus. As far as this book (reviewed on page 78) and this question go, we’ve already done the heavy lifting. (The preponderance of series publishing makes our jobs easier in so many ways. Why am I not more grateful?) But what about a sui generis book like Ellen Bryan Obed and Barbara McClintock’s Twelve Kinds of Ice (page 103), an illustrated series of vignettes about winter weather? Kind of a memoir, not exactly a story, almost a poem, the book is the sort that makes us stop and think about how we are going to categorize it: we entertained arguments for nonfiction and poetry before placing the review, uneasily, in the fiction section, and settling, tentatively, on a suggested reading level. What is this and who is it for?—in other words, What is a children’s book?

Picture books bring the question to the forefront. While I hope we all know by now to steer clear of stories demanding gratitude for parental affection, what about the bedtime book (of which we review five in this issue)? At their most transparent, these books function as a pendulum swung while a voice gently commands you to become sleeeeeeeeeepy. Whose needs are really being served here? Because, traditionally, picture books are designed for a dual audience, with the adult reading the words while the pre-literate child watches the pictures, they properly belong to both adults’ and children’s literature, a Solomonic approach I’m comfortable with so long as the juvenile end of things is not shortchanged. It’s one thing for parent and child to laugh together at Bailey (see page 65); it’s another for a book to provoke laughs in grownups because the joke is flying over the head of the child. That’s just mean.

In assessing books for teens, the question becomes more insistent, and more like “When does a children’s book stop being a children’s book?” When I look at this year’s Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards for fiction (Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair as the winner and Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity as honor books), I see three books that could have been published as adult novels without special pleading or blushing. I also see three books that represent the best that YA can be—and not because they seem like “real” (i.e., adult) books but because they respect the intensity teens can bring to reading: all three are about passions of interesting dimensions and reward the same in their readers. And if it is the blushing kind of passion you want, YA has become the place to go: what kind of a world is it when a novel for teenagers (Twilight) inspires smut for adults (Fifty Shades of Grey)? How is anyone supposed to keep track of what goes under whose mattress?

Keep asking, Neil, and we will, too.

From the November/December 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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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.

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