Art Isn't Easy: An interview with critics Roger Sutton and Ilene Cooper, Part One

I interviewed Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book Magazine, and Ilene Cooper, senior book review editor of Booklist magazine, to ask them how they select the books they are going to review, and what trends they are noticing in the field.

Elizabeth Law: Tell us a little bit about yourselves, and who you the audience is for your reviews.

Ilene Cooper

Ilene Cooper

Ilene Cooper:  I’ve been an editor at Booklist magazine for 30 years, and I’ve seen quite the evolution in our readership.  Our magazine started out for librarians, but now we have a general audience, esp for Booklist Online.


Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton: I’ve been a full time book  reviewer since 1988, and Horn Book editor in chief since ‘96.  The core of our audience, say 70%, are librarians.  The other 30% is made up of publishers, authors, teachers, and parents.  (And the occasional child, like you were, Miss Law.)

Elizabeth: That’s right, when I was 12, I subscribed to The Horn Book.

Ilene: Oh, god, shoot me now.

Roger: The very, very, very occasional child.

Elizabeth: I feel like there’s the occasional Millicent Minn, the nerdy child out there in glasses who subscribes to Horn Book.

Ilene: You know who else did? Michael Cart! I believe he wanted to be a children’s literature expert when he was 12.

Roger: Ilene, did you know you were going to go into children’s books for a long time before you did?

Ilene: No, I thought I was going to be Barbara Walters.  My degree was in journalism, but it turned out I didn’t like to ask anybody questions.

Elizabeth: Well I have a question for both of you. Now that everyone on the internet has a microphone to post their reviews, with Goodreads, etc, has that changed what you do at all?  Why are you professional reviewers even still in business?

Ilene: I would say that with so many people giving their opinions out there, it’s even more important to have a consistent voice.  And that’s where review journals and Booklist come in.  People read books and love their books and want to talk about what they’re reading, and that’s great.  But they don’t see the whole world of books the way we do.

Roger: Exactly.

Ilene: It’s much easier for us to put a book in context, where it is on the spectrum of children’s literature.

At  Booklist , part of the early fall children's and YA galleys and books to be reviewed—more shelves around the corner and across the room.

At Booklist, part of the early fall children's and YA galleys and books to be reviewed—more shelves around the corner and across the room.

Elizabeth: What do you mean, putting the book in context?

Roger: We have, as book review editors we’ve seen all the children’s books published in the last quarter century first hand.  So when something comes in, it’s not coming into a vacuum, it’s coming into this mind’s library of something else that has already been there. It gives you a context for what you see, you don’t get over excited, but at the same time you don’t want to get over jaded because every new book is new book to the person who’s reading your review.

Ilene: And it allows you some way to be more surprised or enchanted by a book. Because when you’ve seen so many and something comes into your hands that’s really special, you get re-excited and re-energized.

Roger: Do you wonder if our standards are too high because we’ve seen so much?

Ilene:  No, I wonder if our standards are too low!

Elizabeth: Roger, that makes me think of Eragon.  I enjoyed reading it, I thought there was a ton of action and adventure, but it seemed like the same stuff that was already out there—nothing in it was new.  But to the kids who found it, many of whom read it as their first fantasy, they LOVED it.   It that a little bit of what we’re talking about?

Roger: I think that really speaks to the difference between Booklist and Horn Book.  I know that Booklist’s mandate for what they're going to review is “if a book has a home in a library, we’ll review it.”  Isn't that correct?

The Horn Book Guilde

The Horn Book Guilde

Ilene: Yes.  We want to be part of the discussion about a whole range of books, especially ones that are going to be best sellers.

Roger:  Where as we’re way pickier, we’re smaller.  Horn Book reviews around 600 books a year, Horn Book Guide reviews about 5,000.  

Ilene:  We review about 2500.  Booklinks, which connects books with the classroom, gives another venue. 

Elizabeth: Roger, why is there so much more caché to getting reviewed in the Horn Book Magazine than in the Guide?

Roger: The Horn Book Guide reviews all new trade hardcover books published—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The Horn Book Magazine reviews are more selective, more detailed, more enthusiastic, buzzier. But the Guide reviews, because they show up in a lot of databases etc., probably have more circulation.


Elizabeth: Authors and editors want you guys to review our books.  How do you select what you’re going to put in the magazine?

Ilene:  We have a little section of “high demand” books that would be like the next John Green, the next Veronica Roth.  Then our in-house reviewers take a look at the truck and pick what they want to review, then I send other titles to our outside reviewers.  Then there’s usually a reason why others don’t go out as quickly.

Roger:  Our magazine editors make preliminary selections.  With Veronica Roth, someone read that first book, laughed at it, and it just didn’t get reviewed.  You don’t have that luxury, Ilene, selecting just the best books to review is not part of your mission, which is to give librarians information about books their patrons are going to ask for.  

Ilene: Yes, and we also reach a much larger audience now with our online presence.

Elizabeth: Do you ever see a book getting stars from everybody and think “Oh, we missed this, we missed that this book would be such a smash?”

Ilene: Oh, all the time.

Elizabeth: And do you get to go back and re-review?

Ilene: Not really.  Over the course of time you might rethink, but not very often.  We stand by our opinions.  

Roger: Right, sometimes you think “people are crazy.” 

Elizabeth: Roger, I’m going to guess that you don’t second guess yourself, or change your mind about a review.

Roger:  Oh sure I do.  You keep reading, and you think back on something you read maybe a year ago and think “you know ,that book stayed with me, and it was pretty great.”

Elizabeth: Roger, didn’t you get a call from Simon & Schuster’s publicist at the time, Tracy van Straaten,  asking why you didn't review Olivia?

Roger:  No, that was a Scott Westerfield book.  We soon stopped reviewing Olivia, I got really fed up with those books. They became repetitive and self-conscious. Too much nudging the reader.

Ilene: I have an embarrassing story about how you can miss certain things.  I remember when Walk Two Moons won the Newbery, and those were the days when they announced and everybody ran for the phones, and I was sitting in the audience and thought “Walk Two Moons? Walk Two Moons?”  I called the office and Hazel Rochman answered, and I said “This book Walk Two Moons won the Newbery, did we review it?”  And she came back and said “We reviewed it, you wrote the review!”

 So with the amount of books you read you don’t always recognize greatness.  The other thing is, because Booklist has been around more than 100 years, we actually have the file cabinets with old reviews, because they used to be done on index cards.  So we have those reviews, like “The Great Gatsby, this is a terrible book!”

Elizabeth: What are you seeing a lot of these days, and you think “ I can’t believe how many ____ kind of books are being published.

  A few of the titles responsible for the Dystopian trend

  A few of the titles responsible for the Dystopian trend

Roger:  Books for the older, high end YA audience. Maybe there’s a demand for them, but I notice how high school-y YA has become.  Books about kids that are 16, 17, 18 19.    YA used to be the province of 7th grade girls and now it’s really high school and up who read them.  And I start to question “Why am I still responsible for reviewing these?”

Ilene: For me, it's dystopian.  I can’t believe they’re still coming! How many ways can the world end?”