Thursday, August 17, 2006


We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to let you know that an amazing example of picture-book non-fiction has landed on the shelf! From the days before television comes the story of the radio broadcast that sent the country into a frenzy, believing that martians had landed at the Wilmuth Farm in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. What was to become of us? What did they want from us?! It wasn't until later, well after hysteria had enued and blood pressures had been raised, that listeners discovered they had actually been listening to a radio play orchestrated by Orson Welles, based on the science fiction novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. This wild bit of history is conveyed in beautiful black and white when the real-life situation is being described, and fabulous technicolor when the script is being read. What a great read-aloud to introduce kids to this bit of history, and to discuss whether or not we should believe everything we hear! I loved Megan McCarthy ever since her hilarious SHOW DOG (Viking), and her googly-eyed characters are just right for expressing the wide-eyed surprise about the whole situation. Break out the old audio recorder and use this book as a springboard to inspire kids to produce their own "radio" broadcasts before summer is over! (7 and up)

On a personal note

Dear Madame Esme,

How come you never really say anything mean or critical about books? Don't you ever come across a book you really don't like? You got really down and dirty in your diary, but you never bust on the books. What's up with that?

Elizabeth P., Syracuse, NY

Dear Gentle Reader (or Not-So-Gentle Reader, as the case may be),

Hey, are you calling me a Pollyanna? How refreshing!

I think criticism is overrated in our culture. Once upon a time, for instance, we had variety shows where everyone had their own unique talent showcased. Now everything is a contest, and people are perpetually judged and pitted against each other. Dangerously, depending on whose offering it, opinions are increasingly confused as some sort of overreaching fact, an attitude that is sure to continue as literacy and critical thinking skills decline. I would hope that in the world of reading, of all places, we can do better than that.

I understand that there is a certain skill to being a critic and I laugh out loud at the snarky, insightful, candid remarks in some blogs and review journals...these folks can do a much better job than I at dishing the dirt! But given the challenges that people have when it comes to sorting through the thousands of books published every year and managing time at a premium to decide what to share with children at home and in the classroom, I don't think people need help knowing what not to read, so I direct my energy towards recommending what I consider to be the cream of the crop. Though I certainly have opinions as strong as limburger cheese on most days, I try to limit these grunts and groans to a less public forum (as was the case with my diary, only it eventually made its way to a wider audience).

I read thousands of books and oh brother, I sure do come across books I don't like. But I feel that when someone writes a children's book, they are trying their best to create art. They are trying to do something peaceful or thought-provoking in the world. They are trying to share something with a child. Whether or not I consider the effort to be completely successful, I have to respect that effort and those instincts, and I have no desire to "bust on that." I also know from my own experience as a writer and as a listening ear to many writers and illustrators, that sometimes a book is an exercise, a step in pathway that leads to a larger work that can't be arrived at without a smaller, less celebrated work. I have to respect that effort as well, and try to view each book in the context of the artist's body of work. Even great authors like Joan Aiken, Maurice Sendak, Betsy Byars, Avi, they have all had big books and little books, loud splashes and quiet ripples in their proverbial ponds. We are grateful for the works that spoke to us, right? We are glad someone "introduced" them to us and probably don't remember the attacks on their individual works because we are invested in them as authors. But I bet they remember!

I try not to read reviews until after I experienced a book myself, and sometimes I just can't believe the critic and I read the same book, have you ever had that experience? Though it is only fair to admit to a book's shortcomings when in a position to help people make decisions, I notice a lot of "reviews" are just mean, full of careless, unnecessary jabs. But oh, a flippant unkind remark can be so discouraging and counterproductive to an author or illustrator, or worst of all, it can actually stand in the way of a book finding its audience. For instance, if I may use my own experience since that is the only one I am privileged to share, some stinker put in his two cents (or more like a generous seventy-four cents) about my book DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER in a public forum. Now, this person is entitled to his opinion. But the fact is, I wrote the story for girls ten and up, whose letters suggest that they like it very much, who like to draw funny pictures of all the little witches and who usually tune in the reason I wrote it: to show 'tween-age girls in a feminist-backlash world that they can still "be the one with the wand" and not wait for other people to make their wishes come true. I did not write it for middle-aged men who should perhaps stick to analyzing Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS or Emile's Zola's NANA to impress attractive grad students with a professorial command of literary devices and big words like "protagonist," sooner than railing on the story transitions and love-affairs of a skateboarding girl named Hunky Dory. (You see, dahhling, you don't have to worry. I still occasionally do have two cents of my own to spend!)

It takes about a minute to write something mean (or less than a minute, if what I wrote in the last paragraph is any indication), but it can take years to write a book and get it published. If I really don't like a book, I think the worst thing I can do is not to mention it at all. The bottom line is, I come across critics I don't like far more often than books I don't like. So I guess I'll stay in the suggestion business and continue to celebrate the wonderful, and leave the down-and-dirty business of criticizing children's books to the books' intended audience: the children.


E-mail your "ask Esme" questions to Esmeatripcodotcom. Feel free to post your "review gone wrong" or example of when your opinion strongly differed from a review in the comments section below!

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I think criticism is overrated in our culture."

How true!


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