Looking Like a Wonton and Talking Like a Fortune Cookie

(from The Horn Book Magazine, March-April 2002)

When legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael died last year, it prompted reviewers of all different media, not just movies, to reflect on what they do. She was the gold standard for many of us, and we realized it would take some serious alchemy to elevate our work to her level. Writing in the New York Times Book Review eight months before Kael’s death, in a wistful and forthright critique of the book review industry called “Remember When Books Mattered?” novelist and reviewer Walter Kirn praised her genuineness. “She wrote like an actual person, and she was moody” — not a flaw, in Kirn’s view, as he believes that “the best critics needn’t be right, just interesting.” For Kirn, Kael’s zeal conveyed that movies were exciting, that they were worth getting worked up about. They were worth, as Kael recalled in the introduction to her book For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, getting spun in the air at Lincoln Center by a giddy Tennessee Williams and having to stop eating at Elaine’s because, every time she did, a fight broke out at her table.

Do reviews of children’s books ever provoke such a muscular response? Well, all I can say is that I’ve been reviewing for ten years now, and never once has Richard Peck lifted me over his head.

Not that I delude myself into thinking I could ever become the children’s literature version of Pauline Kael, or even the new Anne Carroll Moore. Still, Walter Kirn’s article gave me pause. He claims that book reviewers today have felt pressure to “lower the volume and blunt the tone” in their reviews “so as to blend with the general muted hum,” trying to protect an arguably tenuous literary world. Judging from, among other things, the way newspapers across the country have cut book review space to make room for ads or more in-depth coverage of the Backstreet Boys, one realizes that books don’t carry much clout with the general public. We in the children’s literature industry have long witnessed our precious volumes running last in the popularity contest against television and computers, Harry Potter being the exception, of course. Despite having Oprah on their side, the folks on the adult literary front are embroiled in an equally unwinnable siege. But Kirn asserts that reviewers don’t help the cause by playing nicey-nice. Blandly evenhanded reviews, according to Kirn, give the impression that books aren’t worth arguing about, “and if they’re not, why read them in the first place?” Perhaps the most worthwhile thing someone in my field can do these days is to resist the “general muted hum” and try to make more noise.

Children’s book reviewing on the whole has always seemed more gentle than its adult counterpart. It’s almost as if we reviewers equate the books with their audience: i.e., it’s a crime to treat children harshly, thus it must be a crime to treat their reading material harshly as well. I certainly understand what Walter Kirn means when he describes reviewers “blunting any hard edges in their pronouncements with strings of ‘neverthelesses’ and ‘howevers.’” I do it myself, probably because my parents brought me up right. When I reviewed Karen Hesse’s novel Witness (Horn Book, November/December 2001), which I didn’t like at all, I couldn’t bring myself to be completely ill-mannered. So I stuck in a craven bromide in the end about the book having a “compelling story,” basically going against everything I’d said thus far. Of course most books fall somewhere between absolute gem and complete dud, so admitting their flaws and strengths in reviews isn’t just about being polite. It’s about being accurate. But when a reviewer feels obligated to always find a bright side, it’s the readers who lose — the readers who, based on the reviewer’s apparent recommendation, expect an enjoyable reading experience and end up with the opposite.

Both journals for which I currently write, The Horn Book Magazine and The Riverbank Review, publish few negative reviews. Not every journal operates this way, of course, but, for the ones that do, the if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice policy is usually justified with the observation that since there are so many good children’s titles out there, why waste space picking on the weaklings? For the most part, I agree. An overworked librarian, teacher, or parent using reviews to decide her purchases doesn’t need page after page telling her why certain volumes don’t work; she needs to hear about the ones that do.

I worry, though, that the utilitarian mandate for children’s book reviews leads us to assume they needn’t be provocative. If I believe my main function is to provide an easily recognizable “yay” or (the occasional) “nay,” it’s easy to fall into a kind of bloodless reviewer-speak, which reads like proclamations from the mountaintop rather than opinions from a human being. One might compare it to the all-knowing drone of Yoda, who, as Pauline Kael said in her review of The Empire Strikes Back, “looks like a wonton and talks like a fortune cookie.”

What’s missing from so many children’s book reviews, my own included, is voice. Granted, Pauline Kael had thousands of words per review in which to express herself, whereas I’m generally expected to clock in at three hundred or less. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. The problem isn’t the lack of space. (A colleague of Kael’s said she “could take a movie apart in a paragraph the size of a shot glass.”) It’s the disingenuousness of trying to pretend that passing judgment on a book is as detached a process as the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the bad nuts get separated from the good. A reviewer may have a lot of professional expertise, but, like it or not, she also has her own taste and personality. Allowing more of that personality to escape into print, along with the carefully measured prose one usually finds there, might make reviews a little messier, a little harder to interpret at a glance, but a little more true and a lot more entertaining.

A convenient way for children’s book reviewers to blunt their personal reactions is by using kids as a shield. You see this all the time in newspapers when, say, a history professor or national correspondent is asked to critique the latest overview of the American presidency for eight- to twelve-year-olds. The reviewer doesn’t really like the book, but he knows he isn’t the prime audience for it. So he mentions the simplistic descriptions and inaccurate illustration of President Clinton putting local dressing on his taco salad, then waves them away with a “this is a book for children, after all, so these flaws don’t matter.” Such a backhanded endorsement obviously benefits no one. But even we well-meaning professional reviewers duck behind the children on occasion, as Roger Sutton noted here in his May/June 2000 editorial, “Fans of Editorials May Enjoy This One.” Do phrases like “kids will welcome, girls will enjoy, readers will be standing in line, etc.,” carry with them unintended condescension? They do if the writer doesn’t include herself along with the kids/girls/readers. If I love a book and I think twelve-year-old boys will love it, too, then fine, I should say so. But too often I think these words are code for “Well, I can’t find much to commend here, but people who don’t share my superior judgment will probably enjoy this.”

A recent event reminded me why I became a children’s book reviewer in the first place. A reporter for the Simmons College alumni magazine called to interview me about the twenty-fifth anniversary of the college’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, from which I received my master’s degree. During the interview, I kept emphasizing how wonderful it is that the Simmons program isn’t affiliated with a library or education department, that it looks at children’s literature as literature, not as curriculum fodder. I could tell the interviewer didn’t understand. She said she couldn’t imagine not taking the books’ intended audience into consideration. I started to feel sheepish, as if admitting I read children’s books for my own enjoyment, without keeping the kids in mind, was akin to admitting I still played with dolls. I joked that maybe all the students in the program were in a state of arrested development. Then I realized that, in the best possible sense, this was true. I’m generally fond of children, and I adore my daughter, but I’m not doing them any favors by reviewing children’s books. I review children’s books because I love the books and always have, even before Harry Potter came along and semi-legitimized my feelings.

This doesn’t mean my job requires only that I emote all over the page. In a 1986 School Library Journal article called “Review the Reviewers?” Avi called for, among other things, reviewers to consider their work “a literary art.” He decried the unfairness of an author spending years writing a novel, only to have it evaluated in a few hasty sentences with standards that are vague at best. “Above all, I hope no reviewer will ever think that writing reviews is easy,” he declared. “It’s hard. Demanding. It should, at its best, be equal to the literature we all want to foster.” To return to Pauline Kael, she didn’t forge her reputation just by being “moody.” She also knew her stuff.

Let me say that reading the title of Avi’s article made me immediately want to send him some of my reviews so he could give it to me straight. (Just e-mail me your address, Avi, and the clippings will be on their way.) It isn’t fair that everything a children’s book author publishes passes under the reviewer’s knife (unless it fails to get treatment at all, which is worse), while we reviewers don’t have to endure similar inspection. As long as we can convince our editors we know what we’re talking about, we get to say what we want without repercussion, save for the occasional angry letter, which, if it’s from the author or publisher, we can dismiss as spite.

Nevertheless, I don’t go along with those who extrapolate from this unfairness — which Avi doesn’t do — to command, “Doctor, heal thyself.” I don’t believe a reviewer needs to have written a book herself to have authority. As Walter Kirn knows firsthand, someone who wears both author and reviewer hats gets whispered about at cocktail parties. Did she write that negative review to attack her competition? Did she write that glowing review of so-and-so’s novel because she wanted an “in” with his editor? Better to stay pure, I say, and remember that I don’t need to have stomped on the grapes to tell if the wine is sour.

So what standards of criticism should we require? I tend to agree with the one listed in Roger Sutton’s 1986 response to Avi, printed in SLJ: “The reviewer’s job is to convey the experience of reading a particular book.” Will that response be the same for every reader? No. That’s why I’d like here to seize upon the word particular a little more strongly than Roger did back then. Yes, as he says, “a good review starts with the book, and the book imposes its own criteria,” but every reviewer will interpret those criteria differently. Why not use this fact to enliven our arguments instead of playing it down? To me, the best reviews are loud in their ebullience and in their dismay. They show that children’s literature is important enough to be opinionated about. Start speaking in hushed or woodenly cheerful tones, and readers will conclude that the patient doesn’t have long to live.

(COPYRIGHT 2002 Horn Book Inc.)

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