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Encouraging a natural critic

Fall 2018 Horn Book GuideI’ve been writing reviews for The Horn Book Guide since 2005, long before my daughter was born in 2011. When I first started, the reviews were a hypothetical glimpse into what I thought would appeal to children. I was in and out of classrooms during those early years, sometimes sharing the books I reviewed with actual kids, but mostly, my ratings were theoretical.

Once I became a parent, my sense of what made a good children’s book shifted radically from the cleverness of the content and the beauty of the illustrations to the simple ability to read something more than a dozen times without wanting to scream. My new test for how to review a book became whether I would reach for it at bedtime or attempt to hide it when the kids weren’t looking.

Fast forward a few years, and my seven-year-old second grader reads well above grade level but, at home, she would rather do pretty much anything besides her assigned twenty minutes of reading homework. Last week, I sat on the couch next to her with a stack of picture books to review while she played video games with her five-year-old brother (a newly emerging kindergarten reader).

“What’s that?” she asked. “Let me see those.” Within minutes, she’d read half the stack. She leaned over my computer, correcting me as I typed, offering viewpoints completely outside my adult perspective. She told me which plot twists were unfair, which animals were aggravatingly unrealistic, and why the age ranges were off for all the selections. She’s a natural critic, and her insights were spot on.

Horn Book Guide shelves

The next night, at the prescribed time for homework, she said, “I want to help with your reviews. I want that to be my reading homework tonight.” She read the rest of the books and offered her critiques, pointing out details I’d missed and observations well beyond her years.

Or not. After all these years of my review-writing, I should have known that the most reliable critic was the one under my nose, the one who resisted reading despite her abilities, the one who can’t stand to be talked down to or underestimated, the one who found typos in this document as we composed it together. So, rather than speak for her, here’s what the next generation of book reviewers has to say about the process:

“It was fun because you get to say what you think about the book. A good children’s book has less words and some illustrations. You know what age a book is for because of how many words are on each page. Also the illustrations are more simple for younger kids. Like, you know, Elephant and Piggie books [her brother’s current favorite] are more simple and easy to understand, and it’s like the stuff younger kids would like, and it’s less detailed. It makes me mad when books have incorrect facts. I like nonfiction, but that’s just me. And I like chapter books. When it’s interesting, or I stop on a cliffhanger, I want to keep reading.”
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their two children. She works in the Jewish community and is the advice columnist for the Jewish Exponent. Miriam has been reviewing for the Horn Book Guide since 2005, when she was a student at Lesley University.

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