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I Never Do Anything Twice

For an op-ed related to the drama surrounding Blood Heir, the New York Times asked two previous Twitter storm centers, Keira Drake (for The Continent) and Jonah Winter (The Secret Project) for Lessons Learned and their takes on the current debate. I have no take beyond warning people of the folly (and unfairness) of criticizing a book they have not read, but I do want to clear up one point.

Winter writes that “one journal amended its starred review with a new assessment stating that the controversy surrounding my book effectively put it out of contention for a Caldecott Medal, the prestigious award for illustration,” and the links imbedded show that he was talking about the Horn Book. But this is not true. The Horn Book gave the book a starred review (which I had written); six months later Lolly Robinson gave her take on it for Calling Caldecott (our blog about the annual race to the Medal), citing criticisms that arose after our initial review was published. Lolly was writing about what she thought were the book’s chances with the Caldecott committee, but the initial review still stands as the Horn Book review, because that was the review printed in the Horn Book Magazine.

I read Debbie Reese’s assessment of The Secret Project after the Horn Book review was done. She made some extremely valuable points about the setting that had not occurred to me, asking, for example, about the inclusion of the 300-mile-away Hopis as the Native American presence in the book while overlooking the Pueblo, who live right in the neighborhood where the book takes place. Having visited both Hopi and Pueblo lands I should have known better, and I don’t mind admitting that in reviewing the book I did the whole white tourist thing of seeing the Southwest and its inhabitants as a single entity.

But I didn’t change the review. Unless you’re Kirkus, you just don’t. Like any kind of journalism, a book review is the product of a moment. It’s not fair to the books or your readers if your reviewing judgments are going to be conditional. What if I had at the time of writing been afforded  the insight Debbie’s essay gave me? Would I still have starred the book? We can’t know, which is why you don’t want to mess with a review after it’s been published. And we also can’t know how a review (or a book, for that matter) is going to look a year, a decade, a generation later. I will tell you that it spooks me sometimes to look at old Horn Books and see ecstatic reviews or star-strewn advertisements for books I’ve never heard of, but everything is always moving on.

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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  1. Martha Parravano says:

    As a Horn Book Magazine reviewer and a co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog, I’d like to clear up any misconceptions about the relationship between Calling Caldecott blog posts and Magazine reviews. Unlike Magazine reviews, Calling Caldecott posts look at picture books through one specific and limited lens: “If I were a member of the Caldecott committee, what might I find distinguished (or not) about this book?” The blog exists to discuss and celebrate Caldecott-eligible picture books as art forms and to model book discussion and ways to look at picture books. Blog posts are not reviews per se, and they have no bearing on the official Horn Book Magazine reviews.

  2. Jules here. (I also blog at Calling Caldecott.) Calling Caldecott is also unrelated to the actual committees and the choices they make. We simply don’t have the power to take a book “out of contention.”

  3. Martha Parravano says:

    Exactly, Jules, and we wouldn’t want to! (have that power.) That’s not what we are there for, at all.

  4. Debbie Reese says:

    Good morning, HB folks!

    True enough that you aren’t THE committee. Same with the Heavy Medal blog. It isn’t the Newbery committee. Jonah’s remarks echo what Deborah Wiles said to me (about Heavy Medal) in 2015. She was angry about discussions on Heavy Medal. She felt they have too much power.

    I wonder how much that conversation happens, privately?

    Winter and Wiles both seem to view critical (in their eyes, negative) public discussion of books as “dangerous” (that’s what Wiles said about Heavy Medal). In the NYT piece, Winter makes an argument that the only way a book could cause pain is if it fell out of a window and hit someone on the head. That’s laughable. The inverse would also have to be true: a book cannot cause joy unless it comes into physical contact with the reader. How, I wonder, would Jonah imagine THAT? It really does seem to me that some authors want us to just be quiet. “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” Who said that? It gets said a lot and I wonder who was the first person to say it and what was said that prompted them to say it. Probably someone who didn’t like being challenged.

    Social media is a tool. Blogs, twitter accounts, Facebook… all are part of a new form of communication, a new tool that more people have access to than ever before. I like it. It IS hell sometimes but still, it is useful.

  5. It is true that readers of the New York Times might have had a misconception about The Horn Book; it is important to point out that the magazine did not remove a star from its review. However, the Times article linked to the Calling Caldecott blog, which clearly stated the opinion that the book had not deserved its initially favorable reviews due to alleged racism. I understand that the two assessments of the book are not strictly connected, but there is an association between the blog and the magazine/website. I appreciate the fact that The Horn Book does not subtract stars from its reviews.
    Having said that, I think that Jonah Winter’s piece was about much more than the star. He made excellent points about intellectual freedom which seem to become more evident every day. Pressuring authors or publishers to renounce their work, remove it from libraries and stores, or rescind contracts to publish it, is wrong. We can dislike, even condemn, books, and still believe that people have the right to read them.
    The Secret Project is a 32 page presentation of the Manhattan Project to picture book readers. It is not a comprehensive history of the bomb’s development or the area where it took place. The text and illustrations are striking and innovative. The author certainly attempted to present the Native Americans of the area with respect and dignity. Of course, readers and authors should welcome corrections and new information about everyone represented in the book, including Native Americans.
    There is also a mythic element to some of the background scenes. For example, a picture of a woman painting is clearly Georgia O’Keeffe, but the text reads “Outside the laboratory, in the faraway nearby, artists are painting beautiful paintings.” Is this line intended to minimize O’Keeffe’s work by omitting her name? Obviously not.
    As for the comment asserting that twitter “IS hell sometimes, but still, it is useful,” I find that chilling. Commenting critically on authors’ and artists’ work should not need to be hell. Jonah Winter has dedicated much of his career to writing about social justice and inclusiveness. That doesn’t make him perfect, but it does call for a respectful, even if critical, response to his work.

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