In an era in which books want to have sequels, sequels want to spawn series, series want to be like that other guy’s series, and those other guys become fewer and fewer as publishing consolidates itself, we thought it might be nice to take a time-out in favor of the outliers. Welcome to the Horn Book’s special issue on Different Drummers, in which we celebrate the odd, the marginalized, the independent, and the otherwise nonconforming among us.
Business as usual, you might think, in an industry that just gave its two biggest awards to books about a finger-painting gorilla and a larcenous fish — and you might have a point. As we planned the issue, I had what I thought was a clever idea to somehow graphically denote the reviews herein of books that we thought embodied and/or celebrated difference. Maybe we could have stickered them with a little Horn of Gondor or something. But that quickly revealed itself as a ridiculous idea: notwithstanding the nine YA novels with one-word titles, the review section is bristling with nonconformity. Kittens in hard hats, rabbits on skates, a boy with twelve fingers, a wereopossum, and all manner of supernaturally or scientifically enhanced young heroes populate the picture book and fiction reviews; pioneers such as Tito Puente, Anne Carroll Moore, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Igor Stravinsky are subjects of books reviewed in the nonfiction section. Children’s literature takes all kinds. (In “Different Drums,” short pieces scattered throughout the issue, our contributors tell you about some of the strangest.)
What this issue is aiming at are the books, the readers, the writers and artists, and the publishers who stand out from even the given otherness of our profession. Polly Horvath and Jack Gantos address the accusation of being weird. Barbara Bader and Leonard S. Marcus allow Paul O. Zelinsky and Tomi Ungerer to let their freak flags fly. In an industry that survives by cannibalism, Elizabeth Bluemle, Mary Cash, and Jason Low discuss staying out of the pot. Liz Burns and Claire Gross and Eugene Yelchin talk about books for kids who are perfectly not-weird but whose way to reading may be complicated by circumstances weirder than they should be.
As far as reading itself goes, it’s both a community and a private — sometimes secret — activity. Certainly, children of all stripes and sizes read in public without shame, and certain books foster social inclusion and even cachet. I remember our CEO Randy Asmo telling me how his son became king for a day at school by having scored an early copy of the latest Wimpy Kid title, and while I’m slightly squicked-out by the willingness of people to read Fifty Shades Freed on the subway, right out there for anyone to see, I admire their nerve. This is conventional reading in the best sense — books that tell the rest of the tribe that you’re keeping up and paying attention.
At other times, we read as a way to distinguish ourselves, to commune with those parts of the self that don’t seem to keep pace with the daily parade. Ironically, but of course, we discover by reading that there is in fact at least one other person who knows exactly how we feel. (There’s a great portrait of this kind of reading in Jo Walton’s Among Others, an adult book I’ve recently been urging upon everyone, my private reading become call to the faithful.) Independence is one thing, alienation is another; reading keeps the latter at bay while allowing the former to flourish.
From the March/April 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.