Blowing the Horn: A Doorway In

To think that I have been reading The Horn Book Magazine for half of its lifetime!

As a sophomore at the University at Albany about fifty years ago, I talked my way into a course in children’s literature offered by the graduate school of library science. The professor perched nimbly on her desk in the front of the room and chain-smoked cigarettes, waving her hands to dispel the miasma of roasted tobacco while thumbing through back issues of The Horn Book Magazine and other journals. She spoke as if all people mentioned in Horn Book pages, either the writers and artists being reviewed or the bylines on features, were her personal best friends. Très intime, don’t you know. I felt I was sneaking a peak at Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Back in the mid-seventies, the Horn Book featured articles by and about writers I knew from my own ­childhood — which had barely concluded.

The Horn Book Magazine seemed so assured of itself. To start with, its bookish trim size was easy to handle, comfortable. Solid, not floppy. Its color-free pages were tidy and, back then, the reproductions of illustrations and photos few and far between. Sober, well hewn, in its tight, neat black blocks of prose. One didn’t need to reread its mission statement: the magazine design was articulate enough. It said: we take books seriously because we take children seriously.

I read it like exegesis, like midrash, like oracular prophecy. It was my first clue that being a college kid who loved children’s literature wasn’t wholly an aberration, neither was it necessarily an early warning of a dubious and unsatisfactory adult life lurking ahead of me after graduation. The Horn Book proved that a professional milieu existed around children’s books. I might find a doorway in.

Authors Jill Paton Walsh and Gregory Maguire in Boston in 1978. Photo courtesy of Gregory Maguire.

When I moved to Boston three years later to study at the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College (now University), and soon thereafter to join the faculty, I came to know Paul and Ethel Heins, the past and current editors of the Horn Book at the time. Such wealth of literary knowledge from Paul, such ferocity of critical certainty from Ethel! Professors of mine and very quickly colleagues, they let me dawdle at the threshold of The Horn Book Magazine. Asked me to write a little, sometimes review a significant title. I was included at their household receptions for the parades of visiting authors who swept through Boston on book tours. It was a world. A whole world. It did not apologize for itself. It didn’t need to. Why is this?

What I want to say about The Horn Book Magazine, then and now, is this: I have seen it pivot and pirouette, changing with the times and holding fast against them, both. It remains a vital presence in the troubled crucible of our own heyday, this harsh and dangerous moment in which children still must come to know themselves, in which children yearn for something rewarding, consoling, challenging, and hopeful. Maybe from time to time there’s been a whiff of do-good-iness in the pages of the Horn Book? Sure. So throw open the windows, keep up with the times. But the gravity, the moral seriousness of the work of considering literature for children — that hasn’t diminished over the last century. The hard work of sharing good news about good books is more important than ever.

From the May/June 2024 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Our Centennial. For more Horn Book centennial coverage, click here. Find more in the "Blowing the Horn" series here.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

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Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is a founding co-director of Children's Literature New England and the author of novels for adults (including Wicked and A Winter Wild Swan) and children (including Egg & Spoon and his latest, Cress Watercress, illustrated by David Litchfield, both published by Candlewick).

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