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>"Deceptively simple"

>and other book review tics are in my mind this week, as we wrap up editing the July August book review section of the Magazine and the first half of the Fall Guide. The Daily Telegraph offers a helpful list of words and phrases book reviewer love overmuch, but in what words do children’s book reviewers, specifically, overindulge?

I came into the Horn Book late in the last century on a tear about the then overuse of “humorous” as a more respectable variant of “funny.” I mean, when was the last time you told a friend to read a book or see a movie because “it’s very humorous”? Later I got crazed about “artwork” to mean “illustrations.” Deborah Stevenson of The Bulletin spotted a good one in an article she wrote for us some years ago: feisty, as an adjective to allegedly praise a heroine “who is nonthreatening and totally unserious.”

Now I’m getting bugged by “endearing.” Adults might feel “endeared” to a book or character, but kids’ attachments tend to be more robust. And I think the term also holds the same kind of implied threat as those “Mommy loves you best books,” that the book or character is somehow acting in a way that inveigles approval–rather than alliance–from the reader. Ick.

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.



  1. Anonymous says:

    >Great observation about “feisty” from Ms. Stevenson.

    A few choice words which have grown tiresome:

    Quotidian. The use of quotidian has become overly quotidian.

    Kerfluffle. Cute at first, this has been overused on blogs and listserves and devolved into cutesy. Let’s have a good dust-up instead.

    Can we ban “spunky,” while we’re at it?


  2. >I’m personally getting tired of “compelling,” though I’ve used it myself far too often.

    All I know is if I read one more book where someone “padded” somewhere, I’m going to off someone. It’s enough to make me put an entire book down.

    Loved “kerfuffle,” but I’m with Marian that it has peaked. I think the scrotum affair did it in.

  3. >”Rollicking” is one that I’ve seen too many times in reviews. I’m not sure you’ve persuaded me on “endearing,” though–do you feel the same way about “loveable”? I know what you mean about the difference between kids and adults, but I think they can fall in love with a character too.

  4. >”Quirky!” I’m guilty of this particular abuse myself, but I ahve to say that lately it seems everything in the known universe is quirky…


  5. >On the flip side — let’s work on getting “bonkbusters” into every issue of the Guide.

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    >My main problem with “endearing” is that I only see it used by adults talking about children (the AHD usage example is “the endearing charm of a little child”) and to use it to talk about children’s books betrays the child audience. When reviewers call a book endearing, I don’t think they mean children will find it loveable, I think they mean that they themselves find it so, which is kind of beside the point.

    I hadn’t noticed all the padding about, maybe it’s because I avoid big fantasy novels wherein the characters wear elfin slippers whilst padding across the rush-strewn floors of the castle keep upon missions of dire portent. Magic with a k or fairy with an e and I’m outta there.

    The word I still use, although it doesn’t mean a damned thing, is “friendly” to describe unassuming watercolors.

  7. Jennifer Schultz says:

    >Engaging comes to mind.

  8. Anonymous says:

    >”A romp”
    “Begs to be read aloud”

  9. hpuxnnll says:

    >I’m with Kelly on the overuse of “pad” in books. I remember quitting a YA novel several years ago when a teenage runaway living on his own padded to the kitchen and fixed himself a light supper.

  10. >I hate “compelling” but just can’t quit. What else means “I’m really into it” anyway?

  11. >’Feisty’ annoys me so much. If it was any good as a description you’d see it applied to boys as well as girls. It seems to be a substitute for any meaningful word which might be threatening when applied to a female (intelligent, charismatic, complex, ruthless, strong) and the day I saw Elizabeth Bennett described as a ‘feisty heroine’ I knew there was something seriously wrong with the world. By the way, in case anyone doesn’t know, the word ‘feisty’ actually means ‘farty’. It was used to describe someone who was bad tempered due to wind.

    (Climbs off soapbox and marches away)

  12. >I worry about this when I write.

    Sometimes I read my reviews in print and think, “What the hell was I thinking? ROMP? Surely not “ROMP!” Sometimes I pull up my reviews and pray the editor (not at HB, of course) used a word I thought I had removed from my lexicon. But, there the word is, mocking me, typed by my very own traitorous fingers.

    With only 150-250 words in a review, I am horrified when I waste one on an overused or fluffy word.

  13. Amy Timberlake says:

    >I’m wondering if possibly the overuse of these words is because reviewers don’t have a lot of space to write reviews. You have to explain the plot/premise/feel of the book and THEN comes the opinion (not particularly long in most cases). Sometimes it seems that these words are some sort of code. For instance, if you’re writing a 150 word review, how can you possibly include any sort of criticism?
    Any thoughts?

  14. Anonymous says:

    >Roger says: “Adults might feel ‘endeared’ to a book or character . . .”

    NO! NO! NO!!! It is the book or character which is endeared to the reader. Not vice versa.

  15. Melinda says:

    >As in, “Those damn literalists have such endearing ways”?

    *marches off to read Fowler’s*

  16. Anonymous says:

    >As in, “Poor grammar skills do not endear an editor to me.”

  17. >Thanks, hpuxnnll, for noticing the padding.

    It’s particularly bad, Roger, not in Fantasy, but in “literary” fiction. And, usually, someone gets up in the morning and pads to the refridgerator. I just want to drive a stake through a book when I read about yet another character padding to the icebox for a yogurt. Can’t they just walk? Or go? How about stumble? Or schlep, for god sakes.

    So, yes, reviewers fall prey to the same words and phrases over and over again. But so do very famous writers. It’s a constant struggle.

    Okay, obviously this is rant at this point, so I’m signing off 🙂

  18. Anonymous says:

    >the bonkbusters comment had some merit. is part of the reason for overuse of words that the words we’d like to use are too informal for a print review? can you call a book wicked cool? way out there? can you say this one rocked?


  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >Hey, don’t modify a noun with another noun while picking on an editor!

    But yes, my last use of “endearing” was wrong. Hopefully I won’t do it again. 😉

    The best reviews emerge from the book, so it’s good when your adjectives, descriptors, and evaluation can evoke the prose you’re reviewing or the audience the book is seeking. I remember an SLJ review of a book of essays Bruce Brooks wrote for boys, and in questioning whether boys would read such a book, the reviewer concluded, “like no way man.” There was a big spate of “you go girl” in reviews for a while. THAT got tired.

  20. >I’d never use endearing for a book, which I agree would be meaningless, only a character. I think I typically use it when a character is annoying or rough around the edges but somehow wins me over.

  21. Anonymous says:

    >another nuisance: writers who misuse unfamiliar idioms in an attempt to be “with it” (as they might say). One schleps the groceries up the stairs; one doesn’t schlep across the floor. it’s not a synonym for “pad”

  22. Anonymous says:

    >One could possibly schlep one’s ungainly body across the floor…

  23. >’Edgy’.
    This word absolutely makes me crazy. It’s used over and over and OVER.
    ‘Loopy’ was around for awhile, but subsided within a year or two– a long enough run to become gravely annoying, but short enough that I can look back on it with a degree of calm. But ‘edgy’ just stays. Unhappily, this tired modifier is supposed to signal that the book in question is somehow risky and dangerous in subject matter or treatment, but it just makes me roll my eyes and look for a barf bag.

  24. Roger Sutton says:

    >James Marshall said he felt driven to murder by the many times his books were called “zany.”

  25. Anonymous says:

    >Regarding overuse in books, the contruction that’s currently driving me mad (in both senses of the word) in a recent bloated fantasy (nothing famous) is replacing character’s names with “the boy,” “the Dwarf,” “the forester,” “the singer,” etc., not just occasionally, but multiple times per paragraph. Not only does it engender confusion, but the endless repetition of “the boy” to refer to the main character is inherently and inescapably condescending.

    Of course, I was prepared from the start to dislike this book by the cover copy that compares it to Eragon and The Once and Future King in the same sentence…


    P.S. For any Bostonians who read The Dig, there was a hialrious editorial this week regarding the overuse of “douchebag” and its derivatives in their pages.

  26. Anonymous says:

    >what about regional words? e.g. can one say “wicked good” anywhere but Boston? Of course if you are trying to pass . . . maybe it’s used all the time at the HORNBOOK

  27. Andy Laties says:

    >What about overuse of the word “notion” (as a substitute for the word “idea”)?

    I have a lot of trouble avoiding overuse of that one, myself. Whenever I read it, though, I can practically hear the writer slipping into a self-important hoity-toity accent (sort of: William F. Buckley Jr.).

  28. Alkelda the Gleeful says:

    >I don’t like to read that “children will love this book” or “librarians will be eager to add this book to their collections.” My response: Don’t presume to tell me what I’m going to like.

  29. >I’d rather have someone tell me what I’m going to like than to tell me what I’m not going to like.

  30. rindawriter says:

    >I get exhausted wtih reading “lovely” or “beautiful” in regard to illustrations on jacketflaps when the illustrations actually STINK!

    The same when a review says the words of a book are “lyrical” or “poetic.” Especially when the words are not.

    I’m not an expert in doing book reviews so I don’t have to worry about acting like one when I write one. Frees me up to interact with the book and makes for me having a good time in the writing of the review which is why I write them in the first place.

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