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My teacher Zena

Behold, in the photograph at left, an embodiment of the phrase dimples of iron. If Louise was the one who led me to children’s librarianship, Zena Sutherland gave me my focus on children’s books. I hadn’t even intended to take her class, but my friend Marybeth convinced me it would be fun to take together. It certainly was.

While the structure of Zena’s class was boilerplate–we went through her Children and Books chapter by chapter while she would lecture about landmark titles for each age in each genre–each meeting was considerable enlivened by Zena’s discreet but informative gossip about the authors and editors and rival reviewers: “The Horn Book is known as the little old lady from Boston. And it’s run by a little old lady, too.” She knew, it seemed, everybody. While together touring an exhibit in 1982 at the Rosenbach of the Where the Wild Things Are original art, Zena told me “when Ursula showed me these paintings in her office, she said that she was going to kill herself if Maurice didn’t win the Caldecott.”

Zena had rules. Never, she said, translate within text, as in “‘Hola,’ said Diego. ‘Hello.'” Science fiction is a different thing from science fantasy, she lectured (while chain-smoking Carlton 100s, a different era indeed). Virginia Hamilton and Paula Fox were the two greatest stylists in contemporary books for children. Didacticism is the worst literary sin. David Macaulay can do no wrong. Always accept the first invitation to the Newbery-Caldecott Banquet, “I don’t care if it is from Carolrhoda.” So, yes, she had favorites–when I was down in D.C. interviewing my former classmate Carla Hayden last month, Carla teased me that Zena always had “The Chosen One” among her students and that I was it in 1980. True enough.

But while Zena had favorites and could be dogmatic (she once told me that I was too smart to believe in God and that I only said I did to piss her off), she was an enthusiastic participant in the Great Unbuttoning that took place in children’s books during the 1960s and 70s, her heyday. She loved books that shook the place up. Her reviews for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books were sensible and smart and written with brio, one of her favorite words. She showed me that a person could be enthusiastic and irreverent about books for the young, and that being a grownup could be fun. I owe her pretty much everything.



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. Kiera Parrott says:

    I would really like to hear more about this “Great Unbuttoning” of the 60s and 70s.

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Mainly, the call for diverse voices and stories not in the white suburban “mainstream”; freedom to publish books about formerly taboo topics; greater acceptance in schools and libraries of what children themselves wanted to read.

  3. Kiera Parrott says:

    Ah, ok. I definitely studied that history in library school, just never heard (or didn’t remember) the term “Great Unbuttoning.” Thanks!

  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I either coined it or stole it from Lillian Gerhardt.

  5. Karen Breen says:

    I was lucky to have worked on two different projects with Zena. The first was a Newbery Committee where she stayed quiet unless she really needed to say something important. I don’t remember anything else that was said during those discussions, but I do remember her saying about one title, “Don’t you think it’s a bit overwritten?” And that was that, of course.
    The other project was for SLJ when I’d been asked to put together a team to pick the 100 books of the century. Two things from then, the first when she accepted my invitation, “Right, you need a dinosaur on this committee.” The second was when she told me that if we even considered Nancy Drew books, she would resign. Well, okay then, she was definitely the more important ingredient. So smart, so witty, so important to our world.

  6. Amy Kellman says:

    Zena and I would always visit the local art museum in whatever city ALA was held. We’d talk about books and people and all sorts of things. I miss her.

  7. Julie Corsaro says:

    She didn’t suffer fools, that’s for sure. But she had always had time to talk and answer my questions, no matter what she was doing or whatever deadline loomed — cigarettes always at hand, as you note (and a good bottle of wine ready, if the discussion took place in her Hyde Park pad).

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