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>Still, it’s not like a book can give you polio.

>From the would-be author who insists to his would-be editor that “my grandkids love this story” to the award committee member who says “my ten-year-old thought this book was boooorrrring,” the children’s book world is replete with those who use their own children as test subjects. Expanding the notion of “my kids” to those children with whom we have professional contact (as teachers or librarians) gives us an even bigger pool of lab rats even while the scientific validity of the test population remains questionable.

I’m all for writers, award committee members, reviewers, teachers, and librarians “trying out” books with kids, but I think we need to be watchful of what they tell us. My colleague Anne Quirk talks about the “Steve and Daphne Show” she witnessed one year at a Best Books for Young Adults committee, where, as dutifully supplied by a committee member, opinions from these two teens from a single high school library seemed to be providing the pivotal swing vote. I myself like to use the fact that the two-year-old from downstairs loves to scream “ROAR ROAR ROAR” as evidence that Bob Shea’s Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime should win the Caldecott Medal.

But talk about experimenter effect! Zena Sutherland used to quote Ursula Nordstrom as saying that kids will enjoy the telephone book if it means they’re getting their mother’s attention, just as politicians know not to say that Harold Robbins is their favorite writer. Everybody wants to make somebody happy. And just because your kids like or don’t like something doesn’t mean that other kids will feel the same way. Proximity does not an expert witness make.

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. Carol Gordon Ekster says:

    >As an educator for 35 years and a recently published author,I know the power of teachers taking to a book, using it in their classroom, and spreading it to other teachers to use with their class.
    Carol Ekster

  2. Debbie Diesen says:

    >I definitely concur with the Nordstrom quote. One of my kids went through a stretch when his favorie read-aloud was… the bus schedule! Apparently the combo of the cadence of all those times/cross-streets and his Mom’s voice made for a must-read. (I hope I can be excused for “reshelving” the story after about a week. It does rather lack for plot.)

  3. Anonymous says:

    >I think this is true in the classroom as well. Teachers tell me that their kids loved listening to . . . whatever . . . and I wonder if the alternative was a spelling test. Because if it were, I’d listen to almost anything.

    I’ve seen people judge a book’s excellence on whether or not it can be read aloud in a classroom. There are lots of brilliantly written books that aren’t for reading aloud.

  4. janeyolen says:

    >Wow–did Zena really say that Nordstrom said that about the telephone book? I have been using a variant of that for about 40 years and thought I’d made it up. (Walks away, head in hands, wondering about the vagaries of memory and the collecting unconciousness. And I KNOW I just made that up right now.)


  5. >Love this thread!
    As someone who often introduces books to her students, I am mindful of how easy it is to get kids on board. I mean, they like me (I think) and they want to make me happy. Their faith in me means I can introduce them to books they might never have found on their own. However, their enthusiasm to please me does not mean much beyond that. Now, if they go on to choose other books by that author or books like that book…then I feel like the book has actually connected in another way.

    It’s a lot more interesting to take a different tack–ask the kids what they think about a book and why they think it.

    I ran a mock Geisel discussion in my classroom last week. It was the first time I had done anything of the sort and I was very interested to see if I could teach them how to evaluate the books under the Geisel criteria as I read them. I told them that the books I had chosen were chosen because they could probably be read by new readers but that some of them might have problems that I wanted them to find. That made it a little more interesting for them and took the “I want to please Ms. Smith” factor out of the equation.

    They read them all. Then they took the books to kindergartners and watched them read them. They could help the littler kids with words as needed, but they had to let the kids move among the books as they wished.

    Yes, it was an experiment and yes, I probably learned as much as they did. I was happy with the outcome–they chose a book no one had read before and argued pleasantly about whether the words matched the pictures, whether the font was readable and whether the layout of the page made it a good book for young readers.

    So you know, they chose Dinosaur vs. Bedtime (ROAR! ROAR!) despite the tricky abbreviation “vs.” and the argument about whether an illustration matched the words on a particular page.

    We counted the vote together, tallied it just like the committees do and they cheered like, well, like second graders, at the outcome.

    Does this mean a darn thing to the real committee? I don’t think so. They will have all the books submitted while I had the smattering that happened to fall into my life in the last year. They have tremendous knowledge and expertise. They also have their little test subjects…
    grandchildren, kids downstairs, classroom students and they will read the criteria through their own lens.

    Whatever…I can’t wait to hear which books all the committees choose. There is nothing like being in the room when they are announced.

    I’m happy to say I will be there.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >Oh, Jane Yolen, you AND Neale Donald Walsch. Who can I trust now?

  7. >I am so sorry. THAT was a lot more info than anyone needed!

    Can you tell we do not have school today?

  8. Monica Edinger says:

    >Ah, but certain books if touched by the wrong person (say any boy) CAN give you cooties. Documented by moi circa 1961. And I say Robin needs a blog so we can read more about what happens in her classroom!

  9. >Hmmm, I seem to recall a certain editor testing out Three Stories to Read to Your Dog on his dog. But I do agree. I don’t gauge so much on their response as I do on whether a book reads smoothly or awkwardly, and whether the book confuses them.

  10. Christina says:

    >I agree– hardly too much information. I would have loved to be a cutout on your bulletin board to watch.

    Is there an award where kids get to pick the winner? I understand that’s probably dangerous territory– Gossip Girl and Twilight and all of that. But it would certainly be enlightening, wouldn’t it?

    I suppose there is one and it’s called the Best Sellers’ List.

  11. janeyolen says:

    >Actually, the (not surprising, given the title) state by state Children’s Choices Awards are voted on by kids. Of course the selection of titles they can vote on are chosen by adults.

    The winners tend to be pretty predictable: humor, adventure, and bestseller books. But the awards also get a lot of kids reading in the schools and states where the CCAs are run. And the librarians seed some interesting books in with the humor/adventure/bestseller stuff.

    Also, publisher wisdom: it doesn’t matter if you WIN the awards,you just want to be on the lists of nominees because (especially in big states like Texas, California, NY) it means great sales as every participating school must buy multiple copies of the books.

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >And, Jane, I was told by a few publishers thst, from a strictly financial point of view, you don’t want to win the state awards, as that involves large costs of hauling the author around the state and making a sizable donation to the awards program!

    Kind of like the National Book Awards–the better a book does, the more the publisher has to pony up, and without the proven financial gain of the Newbery and Caldecott.

  13. >The Eva Perry Book Club at the Wake County Library in North Carolina runs a Mock Newbery. Unlike the Heavy Medal Mock, this is a kids’ group. It still has an adult mediator, but is far less adult driven than the Children’s Choices award.

    Knowing that your book has been well thought of by a volunteer group of 10-18 year olds who love to read and love to talk about books is exceptionally gratifying.

  14. Roger Sutton says:

    >Keep in mind, too, that there is no one template for the various children’s choice awards–the degree of preselection varies, the number and nature of children participating varies, the books that are eligible, etc. I think they can be a tremendous experience for the participants; I am simply not sure what they tell us about “what children like.”

  15. >Yes, as a way to encourage reading, I can’t fault the Children’s Choice. But, there’s something questionable about an award when you know that many children were assigned the reading and told to vote. Or provided with a ballot whether they had done the reading or not. When the ballot was selected by adults skewing the voting towards “the most popular book among children that we could stomach on the list.”

    With something like a kids’ Mock Newbery, you get a sample size too small to be statistically significant. With the Children’s Choice, you have a giant sample and no control. I would guess that on the receiving end, it’s just nice to get a prize.

    Setting aside prizes. How do you figure out “what kids like?” How do you measure such a thing. Does anybody really know?

    Anon 9:36

  16. janeyolen says:

    >”Setting aside prizes. How do you figure out “what kids like?” How do you measure such a thing. Does anybody really know?”


    if a kid actually ponies up his or her own money. . .


    If a bunch of kids start a blog/club/ about a book that draws thousands and thousands.


    later when adults write about books that changed their lives.(This will surprise you.)

    The two books that set me on the course of my life as a young reader were (oddly) THE PLEASANT PIRATE and FERDINAND.

    Two books that changed my life in adolescence: GEORGE FOX’S JOURNAL and Thurber’s THE WHITE DEER.

    Go figure.

  17. >Sales

    By and large, I don’t think kids do pony up the money. Their parents and other adults do. Books purchased for my kids don’t really reflect their reading choices. I wonder how that affects marketing. If you make a kid-friendly cover, do adults pass, and if you make an adult-friendly cover, do kids pass?


    Most of the books my kids read come from libraries, so I think the circulation records might be the best place to look for current data on who is liking what. Is there an award giving to books based on circulation? Again, we probably call it “Sales.”

    But I’d still like to know what the top ten circulators in Middle Grade Fiction are. If the data were available, I bet it would be interesting to see the top ten picture book circulators remain mostly the same over time.

    I don’t know if the librarians by themselves are reliable just because the sample size of “kids who talk to librarians” is small.


    Yes, then you know you’ve hit the big time.

    Anon 9:36

  18. >Coraline won a few of the Children’s Choice Awards, and I never got to go anywhere or do anything to collect them. (It was rather sad, as one of them was Louisiana, but then Katrina happened). I never even got to eat rubber chicken. But it definitely helped it get taught in schools in Wisconsin, for whatever that is worth.

    And I’m with Jane on this. When kids spend their own money, or when they come to you later and tell you you changed their life. Weirdly, six years takes a 12 year old to an 18 year old, and that’s time enough…

  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >We can tell when a lot of kids like a book by both sales and online clubs-like things, but the other thing that she (and Neil G.) mention–life-changing-ness–is something else entirely. That’s something that has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with individual response, where a book’s popularity is beside the point. It’s kind of like having your own personal version of the Newbery Medal–the books that are “most distinguished” by what they’ve said to YOU. And, as Jane and Neil say, it can be years before you sort out just which books these are.

  20. Anonymous says:

    >The best parent-reading-aloud-to-a-child scene I ever witnessed was a father and son standing in front of the card catalog while the father read aloud the titles of every Bill Peet book the library owned. For some reason, each one caused the boy to collapse in a fit of giggles, while his father maintained his serious, almost ominous, demeanor. I can see the inherent humor in “Cock-a-Doodle Dudley” or “Jethro and Joel Were a Troll” but the fact that this child was peeing his pants over titles like “Eli” and “No Such Things” suggests that Ursula Nordstrom was right.

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