These days, getting a letter of complaint—on paper!—is such a rarity that it can legitimately be considered an event, even if it’s not from James Patterson, one of the most successful authors of the modern era. But what makes his recent letter of complaint so special is that he’s not carping about a negative review (and he’s had opportunities) but rather taking issue with what we concentrated on in it.
Our review of Pottymouth and Stoopid, Patterson’s recent humorous middle-grade novel with co-author Chris Grabenstein and illustrator Stephen Gilpin, was a fairly routine one. The reviewer sums the book up as “An entertaining—but not particularly original—addition to the perennially relevant genre.” Patterson wasn’t stung by the faintness of the praise but by the fact that we did not hit harder on the book’s “vital anti-bullying message that could help teachers and librarians prevent damaging verbal bullying, particularly among young boys.” He was puzzled that Kirkus, “a publication that caters to educators,” glossed over the message to concentrate on how funny (or not) the book was.
It’s not entirely nitpicking to note that Kirkus’ traditional audience is of librarians rather than educators, though there is certainly overlap. Among children’s librarians, it’s a cardinal principle that a book should be evaluated as literature, not as message. It’s even in the criteria for the Newbery Medal: “The award is not for didactic content….”
But these days I find myself liking messages more and more. It may not be true of majority white American culture, but among many of the nation’s minority cultures, stories that teach are valued, not denigrated—Natasha Tarpley’s The Harlem Charade and Kwame Alexander’s Booked come to mind, and just look at the lessons embedded within every episode of the TV show black-ish. It seems to me that as we work toward a just, pluralistic society that is at ease with its manifold parts, embracing stories that teach can help us get there.
Patterson closed his letter, “I hope that in the future your reviewers give more weight to a book’s message and the good it might do in a child’s life.” We’ll try.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.