THE NOTED CHILDREN'S BOOK REVIEWER REFLECTS ON A LIFETIME OF GOOD READS
For more than three decades, children's authors, editors, and educators have admired both the taste and taut prose of preeminent children's book reviewer Zena Sutherland. One-time editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, as well as children's book reviewer for Saturday Review and the Chicago Tribune, she is seen by some as having opened the eyes of specialists and laypeople alike to children's literature as a legitimate art form through her polite, no-nonsense review style.
In January, Sutherland spoke with American Libraries Senior Editor Beverly Goldberg about children's books and the nature of childhood itself.
AL: To what extent do award-winning books for children reflect what adults think kids should understand, like, and be exposed to?
ZS: Let me answer that by deviating from your question. I don't think authors write books with these precepts in mind. They write as products of their own society. And every author, every parent, every librarian, every teacher, has ideas on what children ought to be reading and why - and what they ought not to be reading. To some extent, that accounts for the great variety of books that are available for children today.
The judgment of adults is also working with the people who read the manuscript, the editor to whom they pass it on, the reviewers who comment on it, and the librarians who read the reviews and make a decision.
AL: How should the Newbery committee go about its deliberations?
ZS: I would hope that every member of the committee, first of all, takes the job very seriously. There are hundreds of books. There are books of different genres. There are books for different age groups. And it's very difficult to compare a book of poetry with historical fiction or fantasy.
So, people need to read carefully and really need to keep notes, as I discovered the very first time I was on a Newbery committee. I had little jottings and they were quite inadequate. I did remember some books very well. The next time I was on a committee, I had very full notes so that I had reasons for what I was saying.
[Committee] members have to be prepared to spend long hours reading, long hours discussing. To keep the faith and never say anything about what the discussion was, both at the time of the decision and afterwards. I think that there are good reasons for that standard procedure.
AL: Can you give me a reason or two?
ZS: For several years something different was tried, and that was publishing the list of books that were considered worthy nominees. That aroused so much dissension and so many hopes that were not satisfied on the part of authors, illustrators, and editors that I don't think it was worth the amount of extra interest it generated. People just hearing that a book is being considered will use that as a "buying guide."
AL: How has the teaching of children's literature changed? Or should it change?
ZS: Well, I think that one of the ways it's changed is that very few teachers of children's literature today would say, "All you have to do is get all the Newberys." We discovered later in life that there are a lot of other children's books.
AL: The idea was to recommend all the Newberys and the rest will take care of itself?
ZS: What "rest"? This thing called Charlotte's Web?
If I can judge by the young librarians I meet, there is an understanding today that children's literature is part of the mainstream of literature and there's a passing on of the belief that children's literature should be analyzed critically. And [an understanding] that you cannot do a good job teaching children or children's literature without knowing something about children.
AL: Are the characteristics of childhood constant, or do they change with the times? Are the perceptions of adults that kids grow up too fast really a function of society changing?
ZS: Yes, and no. [Laughter.]
First of all, it doesn't matter which developmental psychologist you trust, the fact is almost all children have the same developmental needs at approximately the same ages, certainly allowing for individual variation. Children are curious, children need affection, children want to achieve. Those things are constants.
The fact is that because of television and perhaps other influences of contemporary life, children are learning about, and at least seeing - even if they don't understand them - some very sophisticated things at an early age that children of the same age didn't see even 25 years ago. So in some ways they are always the same and in some ways different, just as the children of different cultures are different because they have a different environment.
AL: What are your feelings about series books such as Nancy Drew and the Babysitters Club? Are they better for reluctant readers than nothing?
ZS: Why is the alternative to reading series books reading nothing?
Series books satisfy children in certain ways. You know what to expect. And so most series books demand very little investment on the part of the reader. They tend to be plot and action, primarily. There are exceptions.
For people who are professionals, the challenge should be to find a book, or more than one, that satisfies some of the needs that series books provide. We have books with a lot of action in which there are wonderfully developed characters.
But I do understand that for reluctant readers or occasional nonreaders, series books may seem more interesting than something that starts out with a slow pace because the author is subtly establishing setting or character. For some kids that's dull, especially given the fact that so many of our children are doing so badly in our poor educational system. So, to say "better to read series books than nothing" is true. Better they should read anything, well almost anything, than nothing.
AL: What "almost anything" shouldn't they read?
ZS: Books with a lot of violence and gore, or explicit sex. That's my line in the sand. That would be more harmful than series books like Nancy Drew, which fail to give children an appreciation of good literature.
Having a good knowledge of children's literature and an understanding of how to work with children that are reluctant readers demand time a lot of teachers and librarians don't have. So, if you have a child who's a reader and not thought to be the class nerd, use him or her.
Almost every one of us have seen this. Someone comes in whose reading patterns we know and requests a book that's uncharacteristic of them. And by discreet questioning, we find that a popular student has told the other kids, "Oh, this a good book. You must read it." Make use of peer pressure. Use every weapon at your disposal.
AL: What do you think of the modification of classic stories such as Little Black Sambo and The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle to soothe today's more sensitive readers? For instance, should Hugh Lofting's editor have given him firm editorial direction to eliminate the racial stereotyping in The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle?
ZS: Well, very few editors were doing that at the time. This doesn't mean we enjoyed reading this sort of thing.
Most librarians will remember the comments Michael Dorris made about rereading the Little House books he had loved as a child when he wanted to read them aloud to his children, and finding the slurs against Native Americans. So can we say that Laura Ingalls Wilder or Carol Ryrie Brink were anti-Native American? What they were saying was a reflection of what many people felt at the time: that this was a vast and empty land. We are more sensitive today to the fact that there was a large population of people who were native to this land who were being displaced by these wonderful, brave settlers.
So, for Hugh Lofting's editor to have said "This denigrates people of color" would have been very surprising. Now whether or not it should be changed is something else. If it's a good story, and somebody will tell it in an edition that isn't going to offend anybody, why not?
I can remember Charlemae Rollins, when she was telling stories at [Chicago Public Library's] Hall Branch, saying that when she was a young librarian and told Little Black Sambo, everybody loved it. But as she got older, the young mothers heard some of these words, like the name Sambo, [and] were much more aware, much more sensitive, and really resented it. So, the way it's received makes a difference too.
AL: Could you comment on the controversy that came out over Smoky Night several years ago? Do you think there is an age of innocence during which children oughtn't to be exposed to some subjects in children's literature?
ZS: It depends on how the story is told. Is it obviously told for titillation? Is it meant to shock? Has a subject been dragged in even though it's not really pertinent to the story movement or the development of the character?
Part of the controversy over Smoky Night was whether this violence was appropriate. When you think about what children see on television, not only about riots in Los Angeles but in programs that are standard on television - the shootings, the car chases, the burning buildings - I can't see that seeing the violence of an actual event is going to harm them.
Part of the controversy over that book was that this had never been presented before. And when you think of some of the other picture books that have been controversial - In the Night Kitchen, Where the Wild Things Are - those books were controversial partly because they were boundary breakers.
AL: How would you describe the evolution of children's literature in the years you've been following the field? Would today's books, dealing with the hardships in some children's lives, have been better for children of 70 years ago to have read than the literature available to them then?
ZS: At one point when Ellen Grae was published - I had been a child of divorce and this was long before divorce was as prevalent as it later became - I thought of what it would have meant to me as a child to see something of my own problem reflected in a children's book, i.e., it's acceptable, not so awful you couldn't mention it.
If a child is separated by "stigma of omission" let's call it - which I felt that I was and that other children of divorce were - then, given the fact that this is a good book, well-written, appropriate in vocabulary and concept for the age of the reader (and I'm not talking about subject matter), I think many children years ago would have benefited from reading such books.
That is not to say that every book that deals with a pressing social or personal problem that is written today would have been a good book for any child 70 years ago.…