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Getting to know you

One of the perks of my job here at the Horn Book — and I suspect for any of you working in publishing — is meeting and sometimes really getting to know some of my favorite illustrators and authors. Often, committee members attend dinners and other events featuring some of what may be their favorite authors and illustrators. So, what does this do to our critical abilities when we need to evaluate books created by these same people?

Salley Mavor visited the Horn Book office and joined us for lunch in 2011 when she delivered the art for her January 2012 cover.

Salley Mavor visited the Horn Book office and joined us for lunch in 2011 when she delivered the art for her January 2012 cover.

One experienced and respected critic I know makes a point of never meeting book creators because she doesn’t want to fall into the potential trap of being soft on someone in order to not hurt their feelings. Or, I suspect, of seeming to be soft on someone because she knows them.

I don’t feel that way, but I admit it has made things tough sometimes. When I was younger and more concerned about what people thought of me, I would occasionally opt out of reviewing a book by someone I had met and admired, but whose current offering seemed to fall short. Now I just suck it up and do my job. I’m guessing a few people have “unfriended” me over this, but frankly I am not much of a Facebooker, so ignorance is bliss.

The flip side of this is something that all publishing marketing departments know well: getting to know an illustrator and learning more about their process pretty much always results in us appreciating their work even more. We have a better understanding of their medium and their process, as well as the seriousness and commitment they bring to each new book. What’s not to love?

But this doesn’t mean that their books are better than those by people we haven’t met, and whose process or medium we don’t know as well. I remember when the first Knuffle Bunny book came out. Hyperion wisely realized that people might mistakenly believe that Mo Willems’s photograph backgrounds indicated that he had taken a shortcut to save time. So they had him in their booth giving demonstrations of how he created the art: all the Photoshopping required to get rid of trash cans, logos, and other detritus of Brooklyn streets that he didn’t want upstaging the main action in the foreground. I was on the Caldecott committee that year, so I really can’t elaborate except to say that it worked.

When Linda posted that great video of Yuyi Morales explaining her process when creating Viva Frida, I felt that a similar kind of education was going on. Of course there were going to be questions about her process. Most of us understand watercolors, gouache, oils, even collage. But throw something like this at us — puppets, metalwork, carpentry, set design, photography by someone else — and our lack of experience may go either way. We could be overly awed or skeptical. What would happen if EVERY picture book had a YouTube video revealing the details of its creation? I think we would become even more enamored of each book, even the ones we think we already “get.” But at least it would level the field a bit.

What do you all think? Does meeting a book creator make you appreciate their work more? What does it do to your critical abilities? For critics and evaluators, does it ever limit what might have been a partly negative response?


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. I have, more than once, stopped reviewing books by people whose work I loved and respected, because I got to know them so well and liked them so much I figured I could not possibly be fair. I hate that. I mean, I love knowing what great people they are, but I hated no longer being able, in my own mind, to review their books honestly.

  2. Barb Outside Boston says:

    Seeing what goes into creating makes me appreciate the work more, but it doesn’t affect how I judge the final product.
    For example, the more I know of how Michelangelo created the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the more I am fascinated by it and amazed at what he went through and even invented, but I judge the works by how they appear.

  3. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I love it when illustrators make a video or slide show to show their process, especially if it’s a new or esoteric technique. Of course, it doesn’t really matter if the illustrations aren’t excellent…

    “Knowing” the illustrators? Well, I know that people think that makes a huge difference, but I don’t think so. First of all, what are we talking about? Hearing them speak, eating a meal together? That hardly constitutes “knowing” anyone. I follow a bunch of folks on Facebook, but I cannot believe any of those artists say to themselves, “I wonder how Robin is tonight? Is she over the flu yet? Let me check in with her.” When artists or writers cross over to my personal Christmas card list (and that might be two people), then I would not feel comfortable reviewing them. It’s not that I could not do it honestly, it’s just that it would look bad to others. So I don’t.

    I will say that when I get a book from an artist whose work I really love, I am personally saddened if the work fails on some level. If I had to review a Bob Graham book (for instance) that was not good, my long attachment TO HIS WORK would make it hard to review. But I would do my job and review it anyway. (I have never met him, by the way.)

    So, I think every artist should take a moment to explain his or her technique. It deepens the understanding of the work. (and makes my job as a reviewer easier)

    Reviewers review books, not their creators. It’s a good thing too, because a very small percentage of them are annoying divas…and a diva’s books have to be evaluated aside from the personality of the creator. Reviewers are professionals and should be able to just look at the book.

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Very well stated, Robin!
    Just wanted to add one thing, which is that all reviewers have biases, and this is just one of them. If a reviewer is favorably inclined toward an author or illustrator (through enjoying their brief company at a publisher dinner or being impressed by a presentation) — or vice versa, UNfavorably inclined — he or she needs to acknowledge that bias and find a way to put it aside when reviewing the book. I do a lot of pretty automatic self-interrogating almost every time I pick up a book to evaluate at work, to make sure I’m not letting my partiality for or prejudice against a particular genre/style/topic/place/time period/voice/tense/mood affect how I see That Particular Book.

  5. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Both of these comments are great and deal with the subject in a more nuanced way than I did above. I’ll admit I oversimplified a bit. If a book comes along by someone I know REALLY well (like Robin, there are not many people in that category) I will opt out. But in general I’m lot more thick-skinned than I was 20 years ago.

    Like Martha, I self-interrogate before reading a book I will review, and I may even send a book back and suggest they find a different reviewer. The most common reasons for this tend to be some art styles that I have a visceral negative response to even though the analytical part of my brain understands there’s nothing all that wrong with the book. If I haven’t figured out what deep psychological problem I have with it, then I am not the right reviewer.

  6. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Yes on the biases. That’s actually one thing our Caldecott chair warned us about. She encouraged us to study the art we thought we disliked and try to figure out why curators had put it in museums. I love hearing people who love realism (especially when paintings look like photographs) explain why it’s remarkable to them–that’s the kind of art I need help to appreciate.

    I am in full self-examination mode here…

  7. Wow, this has been really interesting and instructive! This is something I definitely need to work on myself. I can’t think of anything new to add, other than how much you crack me up, Robin… and don’t worry, *I* care (and hope) that you’re over the flu!

  8. Dean Schneider says:

    I review for Horn Book and Kirkus. Since Kirkus reviews are unsigned, it’s not a problem with saying what I have to say, whether I know a writer or illustrator or not. Nobody knows who wrote it anyway. With Horn Book, where the reviews are signed, I don’t feel as if I’m pulling any punches or shying away from honest and forthright criticism, but I do have to be more self-critical and aware, to be sure knowing an author is not affecting my critical eye. After so many years, I like to think I’m professional and not prone to letting a friendship blind me in my writing. I do know a lot of writers and illustrators. I’m head of the visiting authors program at my school and have become friends with many of the writers and artists who have come to school. I attend conferences such as Children’s Literature New England and have come to know writers that way. I’ve been on award committees and always enjoy the dinners with award winners. When Robin and I travel, we see writer/illustrator friends along the way. We have lots of writer/illustrator friends over to our house for dinner.

    So, I am part and parcel part of that world of writers and illustrators through my work and friendships with them. However, I’m also a professional reviewer, and I take that seriously. Horn Book and Kirkus reviews are thoroughly edited; if biases show, they will probably be caught. If I feel I can’t objectively review a book, I can decline, but, again, I tend to separate the friendship side of my life and my professional life. If I have negative things to say about a book by someone I know, I will indeed find honest but non-snarky ways to phrase my comments, but I have learned to do that anyway. Knowing many writers, I know how devastated they sometimes are by comments made publicly, more often poorly considered comments on blogs, I suppose. They appreciate it when reviewers “get” their books, even if the books aren’t starred or if fault is found. I try to always remember there are real people behind books, and I try to write fair criticism without being mean-spirited about it. That’s a good thing whether you know the author or not.

  9. Lynn Van Auken says:

    I am new at reviewing and have only met a handful of authors and illustrators, most of whom would probably not remember me. But the bias I struggle with when I am thinking critically about a book is my tendency to first and foremost ask myself, “Would kids like this?” I spend my days in a K – 8 school library and read extensively with my own two children, now ages 16 and 19. If a book is published as a “children’s book,” shouldn’t children want to read it? What if a book is brilliant by all means but doesn’t sell or circulate? As a reviewer, I guess I try to balance the artistry of a book against its appeal, but sometimes I’m not sure I’m “doin it right.”

  10. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Lynn, the importance of child appeal may depend on who you review for. Since I only review internally (for Horn Book publications), we focus on the book as a book — does it succeed at its goal? — rather than how many children are likely to find it engaging. If it has specific appeal, e.g. for certain kinds of quiet introspective children, then I will mention that in my review. Personally, if a book is stunning but may appeal to only 1 out of 100 children, I still think it has succeeded. Should it be a book an entire classroom is asked to read? No. But kept in a classroom library for free reading? Absolutely! You never know when that one book will reach the right child at the right time.

  11. Lynn Van Auken says:

    Thanks, Lolly. Your response helps me understand the different lenses I/we look through as teachers, librarians, reviewers, parents, and bibliophiles. I guess the trick is wearing the right glasses at the right time!

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