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The Bulletin
of the 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.

  1. 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make their work obsolete by including the names of current-when-it-was-written rock groups that are not only no longer current by the time the book is published but are no longer even available in the $1.99 bins at Wal-mart?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.)

  2. 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.)

  3. Self-adulatory autobiographies of people less than 18 years old. I mean, please.

  4. Cultural stereotypes. (I am getting particularly tired of Italian hoodlums and religious fundamentalist fanatics.)

  5. Mysteries that aren't.

  6. 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.)

  7. 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.)

  8. Imagined/created dialect for any ethnic, cultural or economic group.

  9. 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.)

  10. Non-fiction, info-byte style books with lots of tiny pictures, very little information, and indexes done by computer program.

  11. 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?

  12. Photographs without captions or notes.

  13. 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 biographers).

  14. Grammatical errors in forewords, prefaces, and author's notes.

  15. Plotless fiction. I am going to get a button that says "Plots. I like them."

  16. Characters as plot devices. I am going to get another button that says "Three-dimensional, fully-developed characters. I like them, too."

  17. Non-fiction without references. This goes back to number 4- where did this information come from?

  18. 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.

  19. 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 loud.

  20. 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 passe fashion.

  21. Faith without joy. Doesn't religious faith make anybody happy?

  22. 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 less.

  23. 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 do anything?

  24. 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?

  25. 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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