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Editorial: Everybody’s Talking

Along with our perpetual mission concisely originated in Bertha Mahony Miller’s first editorial in October 1924, to “blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls,” each of The Horn Book Magazine’s seven editors in chief has had to address the world around her or him. Bertha guided us through the establishment of children’s books as a publishing category; Ruth Hill Viguers kept watch through the Space Race; Anita Silvey presided over the Magazine during a baby boomlet and concomitant rise of big-box retailing.

I had long thought that the phenomenon that would most notably mark my tenure here — twenty years next month — would be Harry Potter, who changed pretty much everything in publishing. But the real difference between twenty years ago and now is digital media. When I came to the Horn Book in 1996, our digital connection was an AOL mailing address. As our electronic boundaries have extended, so have yours, with more people exchanging more views in more venues more often than ever before.

The most recent big debates about A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington — with The Hired Girl also in the mix — were absorbing and educational, maddening and intemperate, and everybody was in on them: authors, librarians, teachers, civilians; all responding volubly and passionately. Looking back on a similar discussion about stereotypes and harmful depictions of African Americans upon the 1982 publication of Margot Zemach’s Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven, the main players in the debate were librarians, the Council on Interracial Books for Children, and the book’s publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux. After the Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Francisco libraries announced their decisions not to purchase the book, librarians across the country took sides, backed respectively by the Council and by FSG. While we disagreed about whether the book had a place in children’s library collections, we were all speaking the same language in the same context, agreeing on the definitions of selection and censorship, for example, even as we defended different positions. The discussion took place in the pages of CIBC’s Bulletin, School Library Journal, The Horn Book, the New York Times, and in libraries and at library conferences. Can you imagine how that would have gone nowadays, what with email and Twitter and blogs and Facebook and Tumblr? It’s not just that the conversation is so much faster and hotter, it’s that it involves all comers — writers and students and activists and enthusiasts, along with the aforementioned teachers and librarians — here at last speaking to one another in one enormous commons. Is this glorious? Yes. But we all need to get better at understanding where everyone is coming from, to use a phrase begat when the internet was still science fiction.

After reading (on Read Roger) my criticism of Scholastic for pulling A Birthday Cake for George Washington, the YA novelist Daniel José Older, who supported Scholastic’s decision, asked on Twitter if I was “cool with” kids reading Little Black Sambo, Mein Kampf, and Story of O. He was asking rhetorically, as if of course I would not allow children to read those titles, so was it not a contradiction that I would allow them A Birthday Cake for George Washington?

The fact that I would allow children to read any and all of the above titles does not make my position any more correct than Mr. Older’s. It just means that I’m a librarian for whom the Library Bill of Rights, guaranteeing the right of all readers to read what they will, is professional and philosophical bedrock. When librarians talk only among ourselves, one can forget just how radical a position this is, as radical as the demands made by Older for the elimination of what he sees as racist books for children. Do we hear each other? Incompletely, I suspect, and mainly because we insist on talking about different things. Now that we are talking to everybody — and everybody is talking back, with passion! — we have to learn to explain and defend our premises, and so, everybody, do you. This, too, can be glorious.

From the March/April 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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.

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Comments

  1. Roger, This reminds me of your brilliant piece, “What Mean We, White Man?” that appeared in VOYA in the 1990s. I sit at your feet. –Ann

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