A New and Original Venture

by Ann A. Flowers

It is a pleasure to present the first issue of The Horn Book Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Books, a periodical based on the entirely new premise of including short critical annotations of all hard-cover trade children’s and young adult books published in the United States in one season — a six-month period — and arranging them in order of quality.

It is far from my intention to depart from the course set for The Horn Book Magazine in 1924 by its founder and first editor, Bertha Mahony Miller, whose aim was “to blow the horn for good books for children.” But as Anita Silvey, the present editor of the magazine, says in her first editorial in the January 1985 issue, “With an honest reverence for the past but with my eyes focused directly on the problems of the present, I have begun…my own version of stepping away from tradition.” In this very frame of mind, The Horn Book Guide is launched to present complete, thorough coverage of all children’s books in a briefer form, but using those same critical standards so notably maintained over the past sixty-six years. It would seem to be, considering the present explosion in the number of children’s books published, a timely publication.

Some years ago, I wrote a personal profile for The Horn Book Magazine reflecting my views on reviewing children’s books. I said, “As a reviewer, I think it is important to be reasonably sure that children will read and enjoy a particular book. I am . . . interested . . . in quality of imagination and style. I hope to reflect the author’s intentions and success in achieving them — so that a child or those who choose for him or her can find the way to the most wonderful, fascinating, perfect books. Nothing can be too good for children.” I still think this way, and it is my hope that The Horn Book Guide will be of substantial use in reaching these goals.

Every effort has been made to include all eligible books by checking catalogues and by contacting publishers. All books that arrived in these offices through the second week of January 1990 have been reviewed in the Guide. It is interesting, not unexpectedly, to examine the complete output of books published for children in one defined period. Some of the statistics bear out the commonly accepted beliefs about present-day trends in publishing. By far the largest genre is picture books, making up about twenty per cent of the total. When preschool books and easy readers are added, the percentage of the total begins to approach thirty. And these figures do not include the nonfiction — folk tales, poetry, and simple natural history books — often targeted at the younger reader. Clearly publishers are paying special attention to the growing, frequently affluent, group of parents of younger children. In nonfiction, the largest number of books published is in the sciences, closely followed by history, social sciences, and technology. Many of the nonfiction books deal with animals — dinosaurs being, to nobody’s surprise, a particular favorite — and much concern for the environment is shown by the number of books about endangered species, pollution, and ecological problems.

As to quality, the nearly sixteen hundred books reviewed range from the splendid to the abysmal. In our rating system of one to six, with one being the highest rating and six the lowest, only two per cent of the books receive a rating of one. More than fourteen per cent receive a rating of six, or not recommended, and more than half of the books fall below the midpoint. Either it is a remarkably difficult feat to publish a first-class book, or much publishing is careless, thoughtless, and unskilled. Probably both are true. Some of the worst offenders are books in series, sometimes packaged and imported from abroad, written by a stable of mediocre writers, poorly edited, and showing all the earmarks of indifference and inattention. Children deserve better.

A project of such magnitude could not have been undertaken without the help of many people. One of the major problems was setting up a database capable of keeping track of the mass of information that was required to produce the Guide. Much trial, error, tinkering, and troubleshooting finally resulted in a customized system that enabled us to collect and sort the information contained in the following pages. The reviewers for The Horn Book Guide have been recruited from among the best known and best informed specialists in the field of children’s literature. They have been outstanding as reviewers and patient with changes as the database was developed.

It is a special pleasure to thank the reviewers; the editorial, marketing, and circulation staff of The Horn Book Magazine; the computer consultants; and many friends and colleagues for their help, advice, and support. Now I hope that you, our readers, will be willing to share ideas and criticism on any and all aspects of The Horn Book Guide.

From the Spring 1990 issue of The Horn Book Guide

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