Center for Children's Books
|The Big Picture, a
regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth
look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.|
Critical Angst, or, I Vent, Therefore I Am
When I first mentioned that I was going to write the August (Absentee) Big
Picture about what drives reviewers to distraction, I was cautioned by
some of the other reviewers at the Bulletin with comments ranging from
"well, everyone has unique responses" to "excuse me, but what drives you
crazy doesn't necessarily drive us all crazy" to "could you be a little
more specific, please?"
Allow me to be a little more specific: the following is a list of
characteristics about books received for review that make me,
specifically, develop a twitch, groan in heartfelt agony, and run around
the office screaming. Some of these things, I know for a fact, also drive
other Reviewers I Have Met to distraction as well. So it is with the
understanding that there is always an exception to the rule, nothing is
carved in stone, and I may change my mind tomorrow, that I offer the
following occasionally (mostly?) tongue-in-cheek list. Names have been
changed to protect the innocent, or at least the unintending, but I plan
to make no promises, take no prisoners, and indulge in the editorial
privilege of being as irreverent as I like. You have been forewarned.
- Music. Why is it that otherwise intelligent, competent authors have
strong urges to automatically make their work obsolete by including the
names of current-when-it-was-written rock groups that are not only no
longer current by the time the book is published but are no longer even
available in the $1.99 bins at Wal-mart? (The same goes for television
shows that are not even being shown in reruns.)
- Cover art. Come on, you guys, who is designing these things? Is
anybody reading the books first? A connection, however tenuous, to the
content of the book would be a plus. Young readers get downright testy
when the cover is misleading. (I keep trying to establish the Bulletin
Award for the Worst Cover Art of the Year but the reviewing committee
won't let me. Probably just as well.)
- Self-adulatory autobiographies of people less than 18 years old. I
- Cultural stereotypes. (I am getting particularly tired of Italian
hoodlums and religious fundamentalist fanatics.)
- Mysteries that aren't.
- AWOL source notes. There are some gorgeous folk and fairy tales being
published these days, both in collections and in picture books. They are
often compellingly retold, and more often beautifully illustrated. They
are being used for everything from reading aloud to storytelling to
creating bridges to other cultures to supplementing curriculums. Where
are the source notes? Readers, both adult and youth, have an inkling that
these stories did not spring fully grown from the head of the reteller,
they came from someplace. Tell me where. Why? It expands possible
curricular usage; it informs both librarian and reader; it pays homage to
the lineage of storytellers that have come before; and it is the ethical
thing to do. Oh, and don't try to pawn me off with coy little notes like
"under the winter moon I heard this tale from a travelling seanachie on
the winding and desolate roads of Ireland"- what, the guy didn't have a
name? Or, "I heard this from my grandfather/great-aunt/roving cousin
three times removed, and I've never found a written source for it." Sigh.
Ask a librarian. Chances are they'll be able to find a written source.
Then include a specific source note. "Specific" means telling me how to
find the story upon which this retellingis based- author, title,
bibliographic information. It would also be nice to include a teensy bit
about how the story has evolved. (But that's only if my blood pressure is
a personal concern.)
- Angel books. Of any kind. (Okay, okay, there are some good ones. And
just for the record, if there is a genre of book that I don't like, I give
those books to someone else to review. Every book deserves every chance
for a positive review.)
- Imagined/created dialect for any ethnic, cultural or economic group.
- Clueless picture books. A lot of small press (and big press) picture
books are submitted to the Bulletin for review. I look at all of them. I
select a small percentage of them for review. I get lots of phone calls
asking why didn't I choose this or that picture book for review. I am
polite. In a valiant effort to maintain a certain level of polite
discourse, I wish to offer some polite advice to anyone interested in
writing, illustrating, or publishing picture books. Do your homework. If
you can't sit in on a year's worth of successful storytimes with a gifted
librarian to see how young children interact with books and stories, or
spend some time in a classroom observing how inspired teachers at all
grade levels use picture books in their curriculums, than at the very
least look at the last ten years of Caldecott honor and medal books. Line
them up on several long tables. Put the books I have chosen not to review
next to them. Now you tell me why I did not choose to review them. (This
is not a trick question.)
- Non-fiction, info-byte style books with lots
of tiny pictures, very little information, and indexes done by computer
- Deadly Earnest (Insert Minority and/or Oppressed Group
of Choice Here). Excuse me, but do all (see above) characters have to be
so blessed noble? And since when does being (see above) mean you have no
sense of humor?
- Photographs without captions or notes.
- Fictionalized biography- that is, retelling someone's life story and
playing fast and loose with the known facts. Now that I mention it,
conversations that neither the author nor anyone else living was privy to
(the kind not included in journals, letters, or any other documented
source) deserve a category of their own, as do such statements like "And
then the Famous Historical Personage thought, 'Oh, poop. I'm going to
have to learn how to read/drive a tractor/dance Swan Lake and I don't even
like books/motors/tutus.'" I have never quite understood the extrasensory
ability of biographers to read minds...especially dead ones (minds, not
- Grammatical errors in forewords, prefaces, and author's notes.
- Plotless fiction. I am going to get a button that says "Plots. I
- Characters as plot devices. I am going to get another button that
says "Three-dimensional, fully-developed characters. I like them, too."
- Non-fiction without references. This goes back to number 4- where did
this information come from?
- Current Headline Fiction. These are books built around the latest
scandal/tragedy/survey of behavior among youth today, instead of being
built around characters or story.
- Slang. Street slang, school slang, gang slang, any slang. Unless it
is sheer poetry, it's dated, it's precious, and it makes kids laugh out
- Earnest message books. These are the ones in which the stated purpose
is an attempt to change the lives of the (apparently unconscious) reader,
usually by stating the obvious in some momentarily trendy, soon to be
- Faith without joy. Doesn't religious faith make anybody happy?
- Non-fiction on complex topics watered-down for primary graders or easy
reading. Sometimes it is just not possible to explain
genocide/racism/capitalism in 32 pages with words of two syllables or
- Simplified retellings of classic novels for youth. The most common
reason put forth for the ever-increasing number of these is that they will
inspire children to read the originals when they get older. How can
mediocre, watered-down, vocabulary emaciated retellings inspire anybody to
- Lack of humor in both books and book reviews. I understand that life
is nasty, brutish, and short, but do we have to dwell on it?
- Media tie-ins disguised as books. Even my seven year old, while
reading the latest lavishly illustrated story from a current animated film
about a Chinese heroine that shall remain nameless said, "This is so
boring- and it doesn't even follow the movie."
So that's my list. Feel free to agree or disagree;
in fact, feel free to make a list of your own. I guarantee you'll be refreshed, renewed, and ready to tackle the new publishing season with a willing
mind, an open heart, and a critical (but not cynical) eye.
-Janice M. Del Negro, editor
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This page was last updated on August 1, 1998.