Heart of the Matter

I am not going to get into the relative merits of American Heart, because I haven’t read it. But I do want to speak to the questionable wisdom of revising a published review or removing a star from a published review, both of which Kirkus did in the case of this book. (Vulture has just published a good summation of the whole controversy, if you need catching up.)

True story: We once gave a star to a book by mistake. Something slipped up between editorial and production and no one spotted this stray star prior to publication. But we lived with it—the book was one we liked well enough, and we had discussed starring it, and it simply would not have been fair or even quite doable to try and take it back. So as far as the author and publisher and Horn Book and our readers go, that book got a starred review. Because that's what we said.

Fine, we gave the benefit of the error to its subject and never told them. (Yes, I feel so strongly about this that my grammar is overcome.) And in a case where we make a factual error, we'll run a correction. We try to avoid those here by fact-checking every review and sending those slated for the Horn Book Magazine to the publisher of each book. Sometimes they will spot a misnamed character, for example, and sometimes the name of a character has been changed, or an error we spotted has also been spotted internally and corrected in the finished book. We are happy to make these kinds of corrections prior to publication. (And never does a publisher come back with, "Um, could you maybe like it a little more?"). And once it's published, it's done.

But to change a review or pull back a star because you changed your mind, or your readership disagreed, or you’re being dragged on Twitter? No, no, no. I can’t think of any hypothetical instance where I believe this would be a good idea. Any review represents a particular moment in time for the reviewer and reviewed. If public outrage or moral awakening has prompted you to a new way of seeing the book, go and sin no more, taking what you learned in the instance to shape your reviewing in the future. But don't try and walk back what everyone knows you said. And review editors:  for God's sake, stick up for your reviewers.

Reviewers and review editors all have regrets. Sometimes the reviewer has changed, sometimes the world has changed. But to rescind a declared judgment is to betray a premise of book reviewing itself, that any review is a snapshot of its moment. No backsies.
Roger Sutton
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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Sounds like journals and magazines need to crowdsource all reviews and opinion pieces that are not by acknowledged thought leaders. This will also help alleviate the professional liability associated with being the solo author of a piece that has a wrong note, or that doesn't exactly capture the zeitgeist. But all past work should remain available for viewing - it's a crucial part of the edifice of our current self-esteem. Plus, most of us - if thrown back on thinking only about the future - would not have much to say.

Posted : Oct 24, 2017 03:24

Rosanne Parry

Rodger, thanks for illuminating the fact checking part of your book review process. Horn Book has always seemed to me to be among the most deliberate and careful of reviewers, but they are also commonly the last of the major review magazines to publish a review. Kirkus, in my observation, is often among the first. I would assume they gain some prestige and influence by being the first review out of the gate. But now I'm wondering if that might have been part of the problem. I know a few freelance reviewers. They are underpaid and over-pressured to deliver reviews on a tight deadline. I wonder if the initial reviewer had been given more time and money, would she have delivered a more nuanced review? I wonder what would have happened if Kirkus had waited another month and looked at the book more carefully and perhaps called for a second in-house opinion or commentary by a panel of recognized experts. They might have decided that the star was not warranted. Or perhaps, based on more thorough research, they may have decided that the book was in fact on solid ground even as it explored uncomfortable territory. And had solid evidence to back up their review. Mistakes get made in publishing all the time and rushing magnifies those mistakes every time. If one of the results of this incident is a willingness to take publishing both books and reviews at a more deliberate speed, I think everyone--most of all readers--will be well served.

Posted : Oct 24, 2017 04:47


I'm a woman of color. I don't have social media accounts, but I've followed the discussion about American Heart -- which hasn't been a discussion -- on Twitter. What disturbs me the most about Kirkus' decision to alter the review and to revoke its star is that it was not done because the anonymous reviewer had a change of heart on their own, but because of pressure applied by others. Because, as you wrote, Mr. Sutton, they were "being dragged on Twitter." On Twitter specifically I see authors and others with large Followings declare that certain books are "problematic." They demand that the books, which, too often, they themselves have not read, not be published or not be purchased by libraries and bookstores. They claim to speak not for themselves, but for the world of Children's & YA Literature, as arbiters of what is acceptable, safe and harmless for all readers, especially young ones. Such books as American Heart, A Fine Dessert, and A Birthday Cake For George Washington will hurt children, they say. We must protect the children. This is exactly the same argument I heard during my nine years in a children's library, from parents who demanded that the library pull Charlotte's Web, A Chocolate War, Heather Has Two Mommies, and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. It's what's said today about George and This One Summer. They don't want their children to read these books, so the books should be removed so that no children can read them, in order to protect them. There is no difference between those books and American Heart. None. If American Heart is problematic -- I don't know if it is, because I haven't read it, and if you haven't read it you don't know, either -- then the solution is not to demand that others dislike it, but to discuss, with others and with its intended readers, whether it is problematic. To have one's class or reading group ask, "What makes it problematic? Why? Quote specific examples. How would you have revised it? Does everyone share your opinion? If they don't, do you accept that? If someone liked this book, what would your opinion of them be? Why?" We none of us have the right to tell others what they can or cannot read. If we don't want to buy, see or read the work, we can choose not to. We don't have the right to prevent others from reading, in this case, American Heart. But this is just what the social media pressure on Kirkus wanted to do, by refusing Kirkus' original starred review and demanding an unfavorable one, which of course would influence bookstore and library buyers' decisions about whether to purchase it. And I've witnessed, on Twitter in particular, a backlash against anyone who says they plan to buy, or just read, American Heart, as I did against those who liked A Fine Dessert. Kirkus was cowardly. They caved under pressure, so from now on any group can expect the same response if they pressure Kirkus about any book review with which they don't agree, from Rush Limbaugh's godawful fake histories -- my opinion -- to Sparkle Boy.

Posted : Oct 23, 2017 06:13

Debbie Reese

Anon at 1:18 PM, With Allie Jane Bruce. We learn from each development in a book discussion. That's why I did not delete my first review of THE SECRET PROJECT. Both are still there. The second one is an effort to be more comprehensive but it is still causing confusion for some, so I am thinking about how I might address that confusion.

Posted : Oct 22, 2017 09:14


Debbie Reese, is your position regarding revised reviews in line with Kirkus, that the old review should go away forever, or with Allie Jane Bruce, that the old review should remain for posterity as well as the new review?

Posted : Oct 22, 2017 05:18

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