Reviewing the book that's in front of your face

One of the cardinal sins of book reviewing is evaluating a book for what it is not. Perhaps it is not the book the reviewer would like to be reading, or is not about a subject the reviewer finds of value or interest, or does not take an approach to its subject that the reviewer would prefer. I had to think hard about these caveats when I was editing the review, forthcoming in the January Horn Book Magazine, of The Circus Comes to the Village by Yutaka Kobayashi. Originally published in Japan in 1996, the book is set in wartime Afghanistan and is about a circus come to town, and a boy, young flutist Mirado, who realizes an archetypical child’s dream: “The circus people loved my music. My grandma says I can go with the circus!”

It’s a gorgeous book, a series of double-spread paintings that show the beauty of the landscape and the fun of the circus in tidy, child-pleasing detail. The plot is fairly incidental, but the wish-fulfilling conclusion, however unlikely, will probably make many young readers and listeners happy. But I couldn’t stop thinking of bacha bazi, an old and now ostensibly illegal Afghani custom of boys lured or purchased or kidnapped from their homes to serve as entertainers and sexual partners for adult men (see this fascinating documentary). I worried for Mirado and was not encouraged when his friend Yamo says to his father “Mirado is so lucky. He is going to have fun every day. Right, Dad?” To which “Yamo’s father just smiles.” Yikes. Viewed in this way, Mirado’s sudden departure with the circus seems rather more plausible.

But that is all me. We don’t know what fate Mirado will meet. That’s not what the book is about. While nothing in the story excludes the possibility of such a fate, neither is that possibility inherent. But we can’t review what a book is not about. In the case of this book, I cannot take it to task for soft-pedaling the story as it lives in my head. Nor can I insist that the story the book does tell is the wrong one, that the real story lies elsewhere, in another book or a book not yet written. "One book at a time," Edna Vanek told Betsy Hearne, who in turn told me.

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.
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Amy Beitzel

Your review of reviews is on point: Reminiscent of "The Farmer and the Clown" when Caldecott Committee members suggested that the farmer was an unwholesome man who possibly preyed on children.

Posted : Nov 28, 2019 03:54

Penelope School Librarian

I see that kind of review so often in our era of social justice warriorship.

Posted : Nov 13, 2019 10:58

Rusty Browder

Yes. You can't. But you have. Thank you.

Posted : Nov 13, 2019 03:25


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more