From A to Zena

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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? …