- Journalistic Reviewing and Children's Books:A Personal and Professional Perspective
Once a month, for almost four years now, I have written a column reviewing recent children's books for the Sunday Chicago Tribune. The review appears on the color page of the "Book World" section, which is folded, somewhat ingloriously, I feel, upside down in the "Arts" section. This experience makes me, on quite a regular basis, excited, overwhelmed, and thoughtfully frustrated, about what it means to review children's books in a popular, journalistic medium, about where children's literature is situated in our culture, and where journalistic reviewing fits into our discipline.
First, let me explain some of the constraints of my own writing situation—not because this is "My Article About Me," but because dealing with them makes me very aware of the larger issues of interest to readers of this journal.
The choice of which books to review is entirely my own. I consult the catalogues, the bi-annual Publisher's Weekly issues on children's books, and I scan both The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and Horn Book to see which books have received starred reviews. I am very careful not to read the reviews in either journal before I write my own, but, since they regularly receive more material in galleys than I do, I can use them as a check on my own scanning. Many publishers send selections to the Tribune. Occasionally books come with a post-it or a letter indicating that someone else on the Tribune staff knows the author. Some of these I have not reviewed, some I have. The choice was mine; pressure has never been exerted on me by the paper. Actually, the paper works as a shield for me from outside pressure. Because I do not have an office at the Tribune (where the amount of space and privacy available to any writer is so meager as to reveal academic offices as paradisal), and because they do not pass on my phone number or address without my permission, the "Book World" editorial staff receives the mail and the fevered phone-calls from authors or publishers begging for special attention.
There are, however, two constraints which do come from the "Book [End Page 83] World" editorial staff. Let me say before noting these that my working relationship with the editorial staff is excellent, and that I recognize that the constraints they impose come from pressures exerted upon them, and not from their own personal choice. The first constraint is space. Five-hundred words a month is what I have, and those five-hundred words must include the biographical citations as well. The November issue is a more generous allotment, but even that usually comes in around fifteen-hundred words. Further, the editor wants four or five books covered in that space. My genre becomes review-as-haiku, requiring evocative compression, perfectly chosen diction, and a word-counting function on my software. The primary factor curtailing the space the editor can offer me is the journalistic bottom line. The average "Book World" section runs from eight to sixteen pages, and is supposed to be pulling its own weight in advertising revenue, an area of special concern during a recession economy. There is only one journalistic venue where expansive coverage of children's books is featured—The New York Times Book Review—and it is a much larger document, and has, after all, its own independent subscription list helping to finance its expansive articles. Of the 161 citations listed for "children's books" in the Newspaper Abstracts Ondisc (University Microfilms) file for 1989, for example, 56 were from The New York Times Book Review. Slightly more than one-third of the discussion appearing before the American general public came from that one journalistic site. Of the remaining seven papers indexed by the service, the three leaders (The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times) had 29, 26, and 24 citations respectively, roughly less than half of the space allotted by The New York Times Book Review. In addition, in each case the citations for the other newspapers also...