Although those who write literary criticism probably never consider their task easy, compared with the job of someone reviewing children's books for a general audience the critic's work has real advantages. Critics can assume that their audience is familiar with the books they write about. They can deal with a limited number of books or even a single work. Critics can focus on one aspect of the works they analyze, limiting their discussions to the portrayal of women or minorities, for example. They have time to reflect about what children's books they will consider, to choose the "classics' or other works that have displayed on-going popularity. Above all, critics have space, plenty of words to expand their ideas, defend their viewpoints, or refute the claims of their opponents.
In contrast, a reviewer must assume that her audience has never read the particular book she is writing about and perhaps not many other children's books either. Stacks of books' confront her every season, demanding to be sorted, skimmed, shelved, read, thought about. Each book that is chosen for review has to be dealt with in its entirety, not merely subjected to single-minded scrutiny that determines how it handles one particular topic such as race or sex. The reviewer must decide quickly, not only about what books to review but also what judgment should be made about each book: Is it worth buying or not? And all the description, recommendation, and analysis must be compressed into a small number of words.
Given the limitations imposed by the book review form, is it possible for a reviewer to take a feminist approach to children's literature? Jane Resh Thomas of the Minneapolis Tribune demonstrates that it can be done.
Thomas' column about children's books is addressed to an adult audience that may know little about the subject. Faced with over 1000 books a year, she must decide which ones can be mentioned in her monthly allotment of 600 words. She tries to make each column an essay which groups book in some way that might draw more readers from among the Tribune's circulation of 600,000.
When she began reviewing for the paper almost ten years ago, she expressed a view that has been evident in her writings since that time. "Fine children's literature shares with literature for other audiences the characteristic of faithfulness to the sense and feeling of life. That sentimentality which denies all of the world's problems is no more valid—and children know it—than a horrific view of the world that refuses to acknowledge goodness and joy."1
The insistence that children's literature be judged on the same terms as other literature is central to her reviewing. She stresses that her judgments arise not from interest in child development but from interest in all literature. "Why isn't children's literature regarded as literature?" she wonders.
I've pondered this issue for years. It interests me and puzzles me. I think that it is a feminist act to treat children's books as literature, to take them seriously, as it is a feminist act, a moral act, to treat children seriously, to treat them as thinking, creative, capable people and not as toys or victims or as objects who will someday, somehow leap from their inferiority into being. The idea [seems to be] that they don't exist until they somehow become adults [or] they don't exist in a serious way. I think it's that kind of attitude toward children and women that accrues to children's literature and causes it to be scorned.2
One of the ways Thomas tries to change that attitude is by reviewing books for adults as well as those; written for children. Reviewing books for adults fills a need in her life to read about adult experience. But she hopes that reviewing books by and about Ernest Hemingway, Anne Tyler, John Updike and others will also draw attention to her reviews of children's books.
"Adults respect what I'm doing when I review adult...