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From Cover to Cover

An Interview with Kathleen T. Horning

by Tana Elias

Kathleen T. Horning is a librarian and coordinator of Special Collections at the Cooperative Children's Book Center and a youth services librarian at Madison Public Library. She is an active and nationally recognized reviewer of children's and young adult literature, and has served on numerous book award committees. Most recently, she chaired the American Library Association’s Newbery Award and Batchelder Award committees.

She spoke about her recently published book, From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books (HarperCollins, March 1997) at a public lecture sponsored by the Friends of the CCBC on June 12, 1997.

TE: From Cover to Cover was the book I looked for when I was in graduate school, and again when I began to review books professionally. I was never able to find a book which discussed the publishing process, explained different things to consider when thinking about books, and described the different types of illustrations used in picture books. All the practical things I wanted to know didn't seem to be published anywhere, until now. Is that part of the reason you decided to write this book?

KTH: Yes, in part. Actually it was suggested by Ruth Gordon, whom I knew through the American Library Association conferences. She and I served on the Notable Children's Book committee in the mid-1980s. Ruth kept reminding me, when we would meet at ALA, "there really isn't a book about book evaluation and book reviewing, and there should be one." I'd agree. She decided I should be the person to write this book. This went on for several years, it almost became a running joke between us. Ruth compiles anthologies of poetry for teen readers; you are probably familiar with Peeling the Onion and Time is the Longest Distance. Her editor, Robert Warren at HarperCollins, was a speaker at our conference four years ago and a UW-Madison graduate. She suggested her idea to Robert and she also told him that she thought I ought to write it. Then Robert started asking me about it. Finally, I agreed to write the book, because Ruth was right and Robert was right--there really wasn't a book of it's kind.

A lot of the book's content is based on the sorts of things that, over the years, Ginny Moore Kruse and I have been asked to speak about when we're talking to groups of university students, teachers, or librarians about how to evaluate nonfiction. The chapter about books of information, for example, developed from a CCBC workshop we presented nearly ten years ago on evaluating non-fiction. The chapter on picture books stems from my belief that librarians and teachers are good at evaluating children's books, but that not everyone has the precise vocabulary they need. What I tried to do in the picture book chapter is to give people definitions of common terms; words and concepts they can use to write stronger reviews and help them to think about what is actually going on in picture books, rather than only responding on a vague personal level. In that respect, it is also an extension of what we do at our monthly discussions at the CCBC--trying to encourage participants to articulate their impressions of a book. If people have the framework and the vocabulary to think about the books, then our discussions move beyond a personal response and into professional criticism.

TE: Who was your intended audience?

KTH: At the CCBC, the audience we typically speak to is large and diverse, but usually falls into the same category when we speak to a particular group. By "category," I mean that any given audience has something specific in common professionally, such as being social studies teachers or graduate students interested in children's literature. I wanted the book to be accessible to and appeal to all of the audiences that we come into contact with at the CCBC. I knew that some people who would be using the book would come to it not knowing anything about children's literature at all, and some would have worked in libraries for a long time and would be very familiar with children's literature, and some would be teachers who would know a lot about a particular subject or perhaps a particular type of book and who would also know a lot about children at a particular grade level. Writing something that would fit all of these people was a big challenge. I decided to aim it at the people who were starting at square one. I didn't want to presume a lot of knowledge on their part. For that reason, I began each chapter that deals with a different genre by providing a capsule history of that genre in American twentieth-century publishing. I hoped it would give readers a sense of how we came to this place even if they had no familiarity with the body of children's literature that already exists. I hoped it would help people to evaluate whether a book was truly a unique publication, or whether it was just the first time they had ever been exposed to a particular type of book or topic. It was tricky to get a tone that didn't sound condescending and didn't sound too academic. I had to keep asking my editor, "How is this tone?" I tried to focus on how I would try to get something across when speaking to a CCBC audience, so I ended up writing in a tone that was conversational.

TE: In your book, you discussed the increase of "visual" books, especially nonfiction. Other than changing technology, why do you think that is?

KTH: Oh, you mean "because we can?"

TE: Yes, because we can, because photographs and images are easier to reproduce now than they have been in the past.

KTH: I think there is a general belief that children are more responsive to visual images in this generation than they have ever been, and that interests me a lot because I don't know where that idea came from. I haven't looked very hard, but I'm not aware of any major study like we had from Nancy Larrick in the mid-1960's that pointed out the small number of African-American books for children. I think the notion stems from our concern about children watching so much television and being bombarded with visual images. Our society witnessed an overall shift in the mid-1980's as all media became more visual. The newspaper USA Today is a good example--someone pointed out to me once how even the vending machine that sells USA Today looks like a TV set. With "knobs" and a "screen," it looks different from other newspaper vending machines. Since I come from a family of newspaper people, I also know what was going on at that time in the newspaper industry. Everyone at the newspaper was very excited about the advances in color printing. I remember my dad bringing home a newspaper with a color picture and we couldn't get over the reproduction and its possibilities. At the same time, newspapers were changing over from old typesetting methods to computerized ones. So I think much of the shift toward visual presentation is "because we can," and then we try to think of reasons why we find it necessary to do so.

Working in the public library, I haven't really noticed that children are more visual than they have been in the past. I still think that children respond better to words, more than adults give them credit for. I think adults are more visual, because everything is so crowded in their world; they want short cuts, they want sound bytes. Some children want short cuts and want pictures, but others, particularly children who want information about a specific topic, seem as open to having information come through words. I think, also, that it can be a kind of misconception on the part of adults to think that because children can look at pictures, they are able to interpret and understand them. Children who sit in front of a television set can watch it, but that doesn't mean they're absorbing anything or understanding anything. Whereas with a book, we put it in front of them and they either can or can't read it, and we assume if they can read it that they can understand it. If they can't read it, they can't understand it unless someone reads it to them. So it seems it's an area that is ripe for further study. I would like to know if children are more visual than they were in the past or if it's just another short cut that adults are taking. I think books are becoming more visual, not just for children, but for the adults who buy the books for children.

TE: Statistics seem to show that individuals are buying more trade books, in addition to the traditional market of teachers and librarians. And it seems there's a new breed of books that are being marketed to adults as having "bright colorful pictures children will enjoy," similar to the trends you discuss in your recent article about board books. Are children or adults the audience for these books?

KTH: I think books are often marketed to adults. When you talked of flashy books with lots of pictures, for example, I thought of the Dorling Kindersley books that are marketed to adults. To me, that's an example of another short cut. If adults aren't familiar with children's books and they go to a bookstore of library to pick one out, I think a lot of people find it easy to pick out books that are visual. But when it comes to chapter books, if the buyer of the bookseller or the librarian haven't read them and can't recommend them, I think the adult gravitates more toward the visual book which they feel they can evaluate. One reason award-winning books become so important is because the award is another short cut. Once you put that medal on the book's cover, the "seal of approval," a lot of adults feel comfortable buying it. For the same reason, a lot of adults buy classic books for children, because they feel they know what Tom Sawyer is about, even if they haven't read it. We all feel we know what the classics are about and can make a judgement about whether a certain child may like them.

At the public library, what I always encourage adults to do is to be responsive to the individual child. What are her or his interests? Is their baby responding to bright colors? Even small children have individual tastes. In the best of all worlds, an adult will have the opportunity to expose each child to a lot of variety and see what the child gravitates toward. Do they like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom? Do they like More, More, More Said the Baby? Parents will find their toddlers have specific books that they like. The same is true of older children. A good way to start is to identify what their current interests are, and what kinds of things they've liked in the past. That is one reason that older children get so caught up in reading series books. It's another short cut, but it often becomes a short cut for adults rather than children, because adults don't have the time to find other books that aren't in a series that the child might like. If we marketed non-series books the same way we market series books, I'm sure that kids would be reading them as well. Instead, it is just easier for the children and for the adults--especially the adults--to pull out the newest Goosebumps book when their child is clamoring for something to read. Everyone knows right where they are in the library, and then we don't have to think about it. We don't have to think, "Let's see, what has Diana Wynne-Jones written that this child might like?" "What qualities in a chapter book would appeal to this child?" or "What level is this child reading at?" All of these questions are hard questions, but they can be answered.

TE: Do you think that visually-oriented books have become more popular, too, since Russell Freedman's Lincoln: A Photobiography won the Newbery Award? Has that success affected the children's literature "market?"

KTH: It really was the first of its kind. We are still seeing books that imitate the style of Lincoln: A Photobiography; it influenced the way history and biographies are now designed and presented to children. The photobiography uses documentary photographs as illustrations, and the same technique is used for time periods such as the Middle Ages, where old prints, drawings, and maps take the place of actual photographs. I haven't noticed that those books are any easier to put in a child's hand than any other books of nonfiction. That surprised me. I loved Russell Freedman's The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane, but I've found that, although parents like the book, it has been hard to "sell" the book to children, even children who are interested in airplanes, the Wright brothers, and inventions. I will open it up and point out the photographs the Wright brothers took and discuss how they probably used the same photographs in their studies, which were all conducted secretly. Usually the parent expresses interest while the child wanders down the aisle looking for another book. Perhaps the size or the weight of the book are daunting to a child. I haven't noticed such books holding more appeal for children, but if they appeal more to the parent or teacher, he or she may be more inclined to share them with the child. As a result, I would say the photobiography technique has had more impact on the publishing process than the readers.

TE: With the many types of professional connections you have to children's literature, you're certainly aware of what is being published for children today. Do you see any trends or changes emerging in the field, or the books?

KTH: The influence of the world wide web is having quite an impact. In 1996, we witnessed the first complete cyber-book, The End of the Rainbow by Bjarne Reuter. It was produced by Dutton and made available, in its entirety, at their web site. If that sort of think--and it is too early to predict if it is a trend--happens more often, it will be a major change because books will travel directly from the publisher to the child reader. One of the greatest challenges for children in this century is that any children's book has to pass through so many adults during its trip from the author to the child. It must go through an editor and his or her publishing house, through a book reviewer, and finally through a librarian or parent or teacher who buys the book for the child. If web publishing of books were to become even a sideline, it would have an interesting impact because it bypasses many of those adults who can sometimes be barriers to books reaching children. Then again, the adults are sometimes bridges.

Also, anyone can publish on the world wide web. That has an amazing potential, because even children can put up a home page on the world wide web that looks professional. I've noticed how different the web sites created by children are from those written by adults, to the point that I can usually tell if a web site was designed by a child or an adult. Children have different standards, and information is presented less heirarchially on a child's web page and often more creatively. For example, I found one web site designed by a group of school children on Black history, and they used postage stamps as illustrations. I don't think an adult would ever think of doing that; an adult would think of going to the Historical Society and finding documentary photographs. Children, with limited resources, have done some incredibly creative things. Their pages also tend to be more interactive than pages created by adults. Some of these children, having grown up with these kinds of experiences, will become writers someday, and it will be interesting to see what kind of books they write.

Of course, these children must have access to the technology. It is exciting, because if world wide web access continues in its present form, we are going to see the first true "freedom of the press," or as close as we can get to it. The economic aspect of publishing has often been ignored: until recently, only an elite group of people have had access to the press. Our freedom of the press has always been an ideal concept we have never had to put to the test, but now that anyone with the technology can get their message across, we may see that concept fully realized. Once on the world wide web, everyone has an equal voice; the big challenge is getting children there. Once they're there, I believe they will have an incredible impact.

TE: So where does that leave librarians and children's book reviewers and maybe even children's book publishers?

KTH: It is hard to tell what the impact will be on traditional book publishing, reviewing, or purchasing. Web publishing may also change the way books are written, if publishers and authors are considering the material's electronic presentation. With small children, books will continue to be available in the same manner, as small children still need an adult interpreter to read text and manipulate the format. It will be interesting if we start seeing more books on the world wide web, but I do think words will always be the key.

Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 1997, Number 2 with permission of Tana Elias and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©1997 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.


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