Editor Interview: Roger Sutton on The Horn Book

Roger Sutton on Roger Sutton: “I’ve been working with children’s books for about twenty-five years, beginning in 1980 as Zena Sutherland‘s assistant at the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. After getting my M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago, I worked in a variety of public library youth services positions and began book reviewing and writing about children’s literature and librarianship for a number of journals. Since 1988 I’ve been working full-time as a book reviewer and editor, first at the Bulletin and, since 1996, at the Horn Book, working in a number of adjunct teaching jobs along the way.”

How did you come to devote your professional life to literature for young readers?

It was really Zena who got me into this. While I came into library school with an idea that I wanted to be in youth services (inspired by one Louise Bailey, now a respectable library director in Mansfield, Connecticut, then a hippy-chick children’s librarian at the Pomona Public Library in California, where I spent a year as a security guard), Zena Sutherland led me to see what kind of possibilities there were for a “life of the mind” in children’s literature.

What led to your becoming the Editor in Chief of Horn Book Publications?

They asked.

What do you love about it and why?

I love the variety of the work, from book reviewing to soliciting and editing articles, planning Magazine issues, writing the blog, figuring out how to keep going in a changing publishing environment.

What do you wish you could change about it and why?

I wish we could afford to print in color, and I wish we could get more subscribers. And advertisers.

For those new to the Horn Book Magazine and the Horn Book Guide, could you outline the mission of each and how they complement one another?

The mission of the Horn Book, Inc, was set down by Bertha Mahony Miller in the first issue of the Magazine: “to blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls.” The Magazine reviews very selectively–about 800 books a year, I think, and they are mostly the ones we think are truly “fine” (or if NOT fine, then worthy of comment for one reason or another) and also includes other features–articles, columns, interviews, the editorial, etc.–that we hope readers can use to think about children’s literature in a larger way, not just one-book-at-a-time.

The Guide is our effort to, one, provide comprehensive review coverage of children’s trade books, and, two, to provide reliable reviews that are short and workable in electronic as well as print format, thus allowing us to slice and dice (and sell) ’em digitally: you can go to the Horn Book Guide Online, for example, to find reviews of all hardcover picture books about, say, fish, published in the last three years.

How do you select the books to be reviewed in the magazine?

The other editors and I look at everything that comes in–more than 10,000 books a year, easily, quickly reject and assign some, either to magazine or Guide, read others more thoroughly before making a decision, and the whole process refines itself again after books are read by the reviewers. When it comes to books being reviewed in the magazine, the operative question is “Do we have something we want to say about this book?”

How do you select your reviewers? What credentials are necessary, preferred?

Our reviewers have a mix of backgrounds and areas of expertise. Good reviewers have an instinct for the short form and understand that reviewing is a kind of service journalism, giving people information to make informed decisions about book selection.

What opportunities exist for writers to contribute to the Horn Book? Could you offer examples of articles for study?

I’ve started a series on the blog regarding our various columns and what we look for in features. I would recommend that any would be contributors to the Horn Book (or any other periodical) thoroughly browse at least the most recent two years’ worth of issues.

When I think of the Horn Book, my mind goes first to the debates it’s fielded. As a writer, I enjoyed the conversations surrounding Jennifer Armstrong‘s “Blood from a Stone” as well as Nancy Werlin and Jane Yolen‘s responses. I also closely followed the debate between Marc Aronson‘s “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes” and Andrea Davis Pinkney‘s “Awards That Stand on Solid Ground.” It’s clear that the Horn Book is willing to delve into controversial subjects and offer competing opinions. Are these features generated from outside the Horn Book? Or, in the alternative, do you ask writers to address certain topics?

That goes both ways–sometimes the author gets the ball rolling, as did Marc with his article on prizes, and then Andrea called to see if we would publish a rebuttal. Sometimes I’ll suggest a project–like Kimbra Wilder Gish’s piece on fundamentalism and Harry Potter [“Hunting Down Harry Potter: An Exploration of Religious Concerns in Children’s Literature”] some years ago. Kimbra had been posting on the topic at child_lit, and I thought it deserved sustained consideration.

More recently, you’ve started a blog, Read Roger. What do you see as its mission? Is it Roger’s perspective, the Horn Book’s, or is there a difference?

The Horn Book has really brought out the (to paraphrase Carson McCullers) editorial “we of me.” If I’m speaking for the Horn Book, it’s we; if I’m speaking for myself, it’s me. Both voices show up on the blog.

Read Roger allows comments. Do you moderate them, or just let readers post?

In either case, why or why not? They are not moderated because there aren’t enough abusive or off-topic comments to make that necessary. I’ve only removed a (non-spam) comment once.

More globally, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in children’s-YA publishing over the course of your career, and why do they matter?

The biggest change has been the rise of the retail market over the school and library.

Which trends are you inclined to celebrate? Which do you abhor? In each case, why?

I don’t think this way.

With regard to craft, what are your pet peeves?

Opening paragraphs that Use All Five Senses to Pull the Reader In.

What are the five books you wish every author would study?

I’m less concerned about what authors read than I am that the editors and reviewers who go on to engage with their manuscripts/books have a strong understanding of the history and possibilities of children’s literature.

Looking back, what were the funniest moments during your tenure?

The time we almost reviewed the book Magid Fasts for Ramadan (Clarion, 2000) as Magid FEASTS for Ramadan.

The most poignant?

It’s a sad week here–Thomas Todd, who hired me and whose family has published the Horn Book since its inception, died.

But I’m also reminded here of another funny moment: when we moved our offices from downtown Boston to Charlestown some years ago, Mr. Todd reflected to me that it was like coming home again, because Charlestown was where his family first lived.

When I asked when this was, he replied “1647.”

I’ll miss him.