[JM] Roger Sutton has been the Editor-in-Chief of The Horn Book, Inc., since 1996. He is widely recognized as being among the country’s leading experts on children’s literature. So it wasn’t without a little trepidation that I asked Roger for an interview in my new interview series trying to look at a wide range of fields of the children’s book publishing industry.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[RS] I grew up in suburban Boston but suspect that no matter where I had been you could have found me in exactly the same place: hiding in the library from the other children. I left after high school for college in California and then library school and work in Chicago, where I stayed until coming back to Boston to work at the Horn Book in 1996.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as a children’s book critic.
[RS] I knew I wanted to be a librarian since childhood, but I settled upon youth services after working for a year with two amazing children’s librarians, Louise Bailey and Fran Piatt, at the Pomona Public Library. And then in library school at the University of Chicago I came under the tutelage of the legendary Zena Sutherland, who pointed me toward a career as a book reviewer—part time at first, while I worked as a YA and children’s librarian, and then full time when the also-legendary Betsy Hearne invited me to come work with her at the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books in 1988.
[JM] You have been the Horn Book Editor in Chief since 1996. What changes have you introduced to HB in the last 19 years?
[RS] I guess I can say that I literally brought the company into the twenty-first century! When I came to the Horn Book, there was one email address for the whole company, and it was at aol.com; the biggest change I have overseen is our thus far successful transition to a digital publishing world. My first years here also coincided with the Harry Potter phenomenon, which had a huge effect on children’s book publishing and thus on the Horn Book. I guess I wish I enjoyed those books more than I do.
[JM] What has the rise of everyone-is-a-critic meant for professional book critics like you?
[RS] I believe that librarians, anyway, still rely on review journals like the Horn Book and our sisters at SLJ, BCCB, and Booklist because we all bring institutional decades to our judgments, a body of experience and knowledge that should not be lightly discarded. I confess to getting cranky about bloggers who exclaim over some new thing that isn’t very new at all.
[JM] The Horn Book reviews around 600 books a year. What are your selection criteria?
[RS] Correction: the Horn Book, in toto, reviews around more than 4000 books a year. If a book is a hardcover from a U.S. publisher included in LMP, we review it in the Horn Book Guide, a wonderful thing dreamed up by my predecessor Anita Silvey. The database of those reviews, which is available by subscription at www.hornbookguide.com, now includes more than 100,000 reviews of books published since 1989.
The Horn Book Magazine does review, as you say, around 600 books a year. These are, for the most part, those books our editors and reviewers deem to be the very best. I don’t believe in selection criteria, frankly, because I think they limit one’s expectations. I like a book that surprises me.
[JM] Thank you for the correction. Do you think publishers are taking as much of a stand these days, and if not at what cost?
[RS] Is this a loaded question or what? As far as I’m concerned, publishing has always been a brave venture and now more than ever. While it is true that children’s book publishing does more “commercial” books than it did twenty years ago (and you can thank Harry Potter for that) weird-ass little books that will only appeal to a (relatively) small audience still get published. I’m glad the Horn Book is around to help those books out.
[JM] Thank you, and think we sometimes need to be reminded of this. How has The Horn Book become a more diverse experience over the past twenty years?
[RS] It seems like this is a euphemistic way of asking what color we all are. While around 90 percent of our editors and reviewers are white, we are working to bring more reviewers of color into our fold. The Horn Book has always strived to bring good books from diverse—using the word in its traditional sense as well as its more recent definition–perspectives to our readers (see my editorial on this topic). Plus, I’m as gay as the Emerald City, if that counts for anything.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[JM] You must be invited to many award events/panels etc. each year. Do you have a favorite event?
[RS] Yes. Staying home.
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park (state, urban or national) in the world?
[RS] While the most beautiful place I have ever been is the Daintree National Park in Queensland, Australia, the park I love the most is the little one surrounding Jamaica Pond, down the street from my house. I take our dog Brownie there every morning, and we both love the way it changes across the seasons.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[RS] This is a portrait of Brownie by Harry Bliss, painted when we were all at the Sendak Fellowship a couple of summers ago.
[JM] What is on and in your nightstand?
[JM] First paid job after high school?
[RS] Oh, God. Babysitting for a young Evangelical couple who turned out to be secret swingers. I know this because I looked in their nightstand.
[JM] Talking of drinks, I just snorted coffee. Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[RS] The blood of interns.
Thank you so much for coming on Miss Marple’s Musings, Roger, and for your forthright responses!