Subscribe to The Horn Book

Oppel v. Engel

In our first bracket of BoB judges, Kenneth Oppel selects Bomb over Wonder, and Margarita Engle chooses Code Name Verity over Titanic. The fact that I agree with both of these decisions counts for nothing in my little meta-battle; what we are evaluating here is the ability of each judge to come to a clear decision.

Engle begins badly: “Judging is inherently biased.” Tell it to the, er, judge. Bias means that the person judging has a pre-determined and frequently unspoken stake in the outcome of something. We don’t even need to get into the weeds of subjectivity and objectivity to allow that a judge can render a decision  free of bias. But bias isn’t the problem with her and Oppel’s arguments for their choices; where they both go astray is in their refusal to actually compare the merits and flaws of their assigned contestants. Of course it is apples and oranges (and lets drop that particular image for the duration, shall we?), but that’s the nature of the contest. Engle writes beautifully of the strengths of Titanic and Verity, but she never engages the books with each other nor finds any faults (not even the cheap-assed paper Titanic is printed on) in either, thus making her choice of Code Name Verity simply an implied declaration of personal taste. That’s not judging, that’s choosing.

While Oppel never compares his two books except to say that “you would be hard-pressed to find two books with less in common” he does find one, Wonder, to be flawed: “My only general quibble is that Wonder’s characters are all perhaps a little too wise and noble, and exude so much emotion that I felt relatively little of my own.” In the generally genteel environs of the BoB, this is harsh, although kindly put. With “quibble” and “perhaps a little too . . .” he uses  weaselly phrases familiar to over-polite reviewers everywhere, but at least he’s making a criticism. I wonder if he found any fault with Bomb–as the Battle goes on, it will be instructive to see if any of the judges can dispense praise and criticism  to both books in their bracket while still naming one the winner. I mean, while we know the BoB brackets contain no ringers, it’s not like they’re all masterpieces, either.

So Oppel for the win, by a hair but decisively. Next!


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. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Love the Batman and Robin graphic!

  2. Heather J. says:

    I am so glad that you are critiquing the BOB critiquers! Thank you! I’ve never understood the utility or appeal of reviews that follow the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” adage. I think it takes more kindness and generosity to acknowledge, and parse out, what doesn’t work in addition to articulating what works and why. Good criticism does the book (and the author) the honor of paying attention. Attention equals time, one of our most precious resources. I fall in love with books, sometimes despite their flaws, maybe even sometimes because of their flaws. Sometimes I dump books instantly because their flaws are too numerous or too irritating. If we can’t, as readers, talk honestly about our perceptions of the beauties and failings of a book, then we’re like a family gathering in which everyone acts as if the drunk relative is just fine, thank you. And, if we can’t talk frankly about the strengths and weaknesses of a book, how can we recommend or write “the right book for the right child”?

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Heather, it’s certainly a problem that affects children’s book discussion and review generally. I’ve noticed that when Kirkus, for example, says something mildly disapproving about a children’s book, people are all “OMG they’re so MEAN!” when it’s simply a case of someone violating our “if you can’t say something nice . . .” general rule.

  4. This is so great, Roger. I can already tell that I’m going to enjoy the meta-BOB even more than the contest itself.

    For some reason, as a blogger, I feel even more pressure to be nicey-nice about books than when I’m reviewing for a publication (though the publication I used to review for always toned down my critical reviews). Maybe it’s because I don’t have a masthead to hide behind. In any case, I’m trying to toughen up.

  5. I don’t feel that “If you don’t say something nice…” has been the traditional flavor of BoB, but perhaps my memory is being influenced by commentator Jonathan Hunt’s beautifully smart and honest Heavy Medal. Things are certainly never boring over there! I have been surprised by these first two judges’ reluctance to compare the two books in their charge, but it looks as if Kathi Appelt is breaking that trend with Round 3.

    Rachel, I too find that my critical reviews are softened…. our readers (and publishers, authors, illustrators etc) need honest feedback to work with!

  6. I think part of the reason why we are so “nice” as reviewers is that the children’s book world is very very small — the reviewers, the authors, the publishing folks, and the librarians and teachers tend to know each other personally — and much of the time, we are all friendly (or even close friends.) I have even found myself rewording and reshaping my reactions to books on my non-professional critic’s (borrowing Roger’s definition) blog which isn’t widely read like an SLJ or Kirkus or Horn Book “professional” review is. The final musings can be a bit blend when you are worried about hurting a person’s feelings. I try to be honest and write about every book I read even when I did not like it. See if you agree that I don’t mask the flaws…

    And, yes, authors need to practice and have thicker skins and hopefully can learn from honest and respectful criticism, but…. they should not have to bear certain criticism wrapped in clever wording just to show off the critic’s ability to make sharp analogies or withstand the too often holier-than-thou assumptions. (Plenty of critical/negative reviews come with one or two summary sentences that also do not shed light on exactly where/how the author failed.)

  7. Heather J. says:

    For me, books reviews written by Daniel Handler that I’ve seen in the Sunday New York Times are models of the type of criticism I’d like to see more of. He’s fair, respectful, and discusses both what he thinks works and what doesn’t and why. Plus, he’s funny. Here’s an example:

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind