Horn Book Magazine Review – C. Vidmar
In the November/December 2011 issue of the Horn Book Magazine, 22 authors and illustrators of children’s literature took out a full-page ad that declared: “PROCLAMATION! We are tired of hearing that the picture book is in trouble, and tired of pretending it is not,” (Sutton 2011). Two years later, authors, illustrators, and Horn Book contributors are still wrestling with these issues. At its best, the content of the Horn Book Magazine is engaging, probing and exploratory. However, it can also come across as nostalgic, defensive and tired.
Based on its appearance, the Horn Book Magazine is accessible and inviting. It’s two-thirds the size of an average magazine or journal, but heavier. Published six times per year, the Horn Book Magazine includes one editorial per issue, several feature stories and dozens of reviews. Stories range from personal narratives to reflections on the history of children’s literature. Once a year, an awards issues features acceptance speeches from authors recognized and honored, as well as reflections on what could have won but didn’t.
Several topics appear in almost every issue. Most striking is the Horn Book’s love for picture books. Again and again, contributors seek to answer the question: what is a picture book? “Here at the Horn Book, we’ve been asking that question for almost 90 years, and it never gets tired,” said editor Roger Sutton in an editorial. “I’m afraid of the day—may it never come—when I think we have it answered,” (Sutton 2012). Descriptions of the illustrations in picture book can go on for pages. Writers seem determined to let readers know that illustration in a serious art form that should command respect.
Over the past two years, practically every issue of the Horn Book Magazine boasts at least one article about young adult literature, or “YA lit.” This conversation is not surprising considering the YA publishing boom of the last few years; though they are considered young adult literature, Twilight and the Hunger Games seem to have infiltrated every aspect of pop culture. “What kind of world is it when a novel for teenagers (Twilight) inspires smut for adults (Fifty Shades of Grey)?” asks Roger Sutton in one editorial (Sutton 2012). Horn Book contributors sometimes use the phrase “trashy books” interchangeably with YA literature, but their appreciation for the genre is obvious (Gershowitz 2013). YA love stories and YA coming out novels offer readers an opportunity to “recognize their own romances (or tragedies) and find their experiences validated,” (Hedeen and Smith 2013). It might strike adults as over-the-top, but Horn Book contributors argue that there is value to YA lit.
Another oft-mentioned topic is the Common Core State Standards and the impact they could have on what’s being published for children. According to Jonathan Hunt, “the Common Core State Standards mandate that, by fourth grade, students will read a balanced ratio of fifty percent fiction and fifty percent nonfiction…this shift portends dramatic changes in the way that nonfiction is written, published, marketed and taught,” (Hunt 2013). In a 2013 editorial, Sutton calls the standards “weirdly specific and uselessly generalized,” (Sutton 2013) and Robin Smith worriedly mentions them again in the next article, a reflection on the 2013 Caldecott Awards. Hunt offers one of the only hopeful (though vague) references to the Common Core: “we need a gateway drug for nonfiction…something that becomes a pop-culture phenomenon,” (Hunt 2013). However, the broader discussion of the Common Core is unhopeful.
In addition to the topics explored in the Horn Book Magazine, there are common threads in the tone of the articles and the themes explored, as well. Many of the articles are deeply personal, bordering on confessional, such as Katherine Applegate’s Newbery Medal Acceptance speech in which she discusses her career as a Harlequin romance writer (Applegate 2013). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Horn Book’s personal narratives are often sarcastic and self-deprecating. Jon Klassen’s description of the Caldecott committee as “a group of cloaked and hooded figures…murmuring about in a language they reserve for these proceedings,” shows a refreshing sense of humor (Klassen 2013).
One of the recurring themes in the Horn Book is the idea that reading leads to discovery. As children read, they discover that they are not alone and that dreams can become reality. Reading validates their emotions and experiences. Furthermore, this process of discovery gives children the ability to sort out fact from fiction. Eugene Yelchin describes his own discovery of the “thunderbolt of truth” as critical to his reading experiene (Yelchin 2013).
However, authors and illustrators present conflicting opinions on the most effective way to guide readers to this truth. Mo Willems suggests that truth should be presented explicitly. “Writing for kids means you can’t exploit genres and fads and fashions. The only weapon left in your arsenal is truth,” (Willems 2011). But Jon Klassen suggests that writers and illustrators have a responsibility to leave books open to interpretation. “The less explicit a story is, the more it counts on us to bring our unique experiences to it,” (Klassen 2013). Although their approaches to storytelling differ, these ideas are all part of a larger conversation about the discovery of truth in children’s literature.
Multiculturalism is also a common theme across many Horn Book articles. Children should be able to relate to characters presented in literature, but should also be presented with a wide variety of characters and experiences unlike their own. Kathleen T. Horning suggests “distinguished art should inspire these sorts of exchanges and should encourage disagreement and differing perspectives, even if they make us uncomfortable,” (Horning 2013). Recognizing diversity of all kinds seems part of the mission at the Horn Book; at least one entire issue is devoted to “the marginalized, the independent, and the nonconforming among us,” (Sutton 2013). The Horn Book Magazine also includes frequent discussions of nontraditional families and LGBTQ community.
With diversity and multiculturalism in mind, several contributors present a call to action for authors and illustrators of children’s literature. Claire Gross writes “coming out stories featuring teens of color are still few and far between, and representations of gay and lesbian teens far outpace depictions of bisexual and transgender protagonists,” (Gross 2013). Yolanda Hare calls for more stories about “regular middle-class black people” in a world where “the existing body of African American young adult literature focuses on the urban poor and the issues they face,” (Hare 2013). It is refreshing to read these forward-thinking perspectives from writers who are thinking about meeting the needs of readers.
However, several topics are noticeably absent from the Horn Book’s conversation. In “Reading: It’s More than Meets the Eye,” Elizabeth Burns enlightens readers about resources available for print-disabled youth, and how to access and request those resources. This article is one of few to mention access to book and other library resources for children in the United States. Where is the discussion of access for children from low-income neighborhoods? What about the students who fall behind every summer, whose parents can’t read to them for hours every day, who can’t afford to buy picture books for every season? The topic of access to these children is absent from the Horn Book discussion.
With the digital age upon us, change is inevitable for children’s literature. But what that change will look like, we’re not exactly sure. “Everybody’s driving and the headlights are out,” said publisher Jason Low in an interview with Roger Sutton. What do e-readers mean for booksellers? Should children’s and young adult authors and illustrators be working to develop online components to accompany print? It is difficult to find much discussion of those changes to the business of children’s publishing in the Horn Book Magazine. Many articles reminisce about the picture books of the past, but very few suggest solutions to the challenges facing picture books in the present.
The articles that do address these questions are more abstract and emotionally driven than fact-based. For example, Mo Willems compares “real” books to “real” friends and argues that e-readers can’t compare to print for that reason: “after we turn them on, they don’t need us. Turn it on and leave the room, and the book will read itself,” (Willems 2011). Elizabeth Bluemle offers a soulful personal narrative about opening a successful independent bookstore in a small town. Bleumle spends more time urging readers to shop local than offering solutions to booksellers about how to stay in business (Bleumle 2013). Unfortunate and difficult though it may be, writing and publishing must change as digital tools continue to spread. Refusing to change threatens the vitality of children’s literature.
Over the past two years, each individual issue of the Horn Book Magazine offers a range of content. Contributors are all concerned with how their work touches readers; they are invested in bringing the right book to the right child at the right time. Issues from 2011 and 2012 in particular cover a wide variety of stories: for-profit children’s libraries in China, font design in picture books, books about space and books about manners, to name a few. However, as we move into Horn Book issues from 2013, the content becomes repetitive. Contributors pose many of the same questions, over and over. For the most part, contributors seem to agree with each other and assume that readers will agree with them, too. The 2013 issues focus on what has been important and successful historically, rather than opening up a conversation about innovation and change. This rejection of new trends and technology can render the content dated and tired.
Applegate, Katherine. “Newbery Medal Acceptance.” Horn Book Magazine 4 (2013): 31-37.
Bluemle, Elizabeth. “When Pigs Fly: The Improbable Dream of Bookselling in a Digital Age.” Horn Book Magazine 2 (2013): 59-63.
Burns, Elizabeth. “Reading: It’s More Than Meets the Eye.” Horn Book Magazine 2 (2013): 47-53.
Gershowitz, Elissa. “What Makes a Good ‘Bad’ Book?” Horn Book Magazine 4 (2013): 84-90.
Gross, Claire “What Makes a Good YA Coming Out Novel?” Horn Book Magazine 2 (2013): 64-70.
Hare, Yolanda. “Beyond The Friends.” Horn Book Magazine 1 (2013): 42-44.
Hedeen, Katrina; Smith, Rachel L. “What Makes a Good YA Love Story?” Horn Book Magazine 3 (2013): 48-54.
Horning, Kathleen. “Arrow to the Sun and Critical Controversies.” Horn Book Magazine 5 (2013): 35-41.
Hunt, Jonathan. “The Amorphous Genre.” Horn Book Magazine 3 (2013): 31-34.
Klassen, Jon. “Caldecott Medal Acceptance.” Horn Book Magazine 4 (2013): 11-18.
Sutton, Roger. “Common Core Ready?” Horn Book Magazine 4 (2013): 7-8.
Sutton, Roger. “Core Publishing.” Horn Book Magazine 5 (2012): 7-8.
Sutton, Roger. “Jack and Jill Be Nimble: An Interview with Mary Cash and Jason Low.” Horn Book Magazine 2 (2013): 30-38.
Sutton, Roger. “See, It’s Not Just Me.” Horn Book Magazine 2 (2013): 7-8.
Sutton, Roger. “The Sign on Sendak’s Door.” Horn Book Magazine 6 (2011): 7-8. Willems,
Mo. “Why Books? The Zena Sutherland Lecture.” Horn Book Magazine 6 (2011): 11-17.
Yelchin, Eugene “The Price of Truth.” Horn Book Magazine 2 (2013): 41-45.