Book Expo America, which was held last week in New York City, was a typically kaleidoscopic event for me. I shook hands with Jerry Pinkney, Caldecott-winning illustrator of The Lion & the Mouse, and then, starstruck, lost all powers of speech. I chatted with Printz winner Paolo Bacigalupi, author of Ship Breaker, about a couple of essays he wrote for Kirkus last year about “The Invisible Dystopia” and “Straight-Laced Dystopias,” on the absence of LGBTQ characters in the current glut of dystopian romances. I listened to a fascinating conversation between distinguished illustrators Paul O. Zelinsky and Étienne Delessert about Maurice Sendak.
But what I think I will value most from my time in the Javits Center was a speech by Veronica Roth, author of the phenomenally popular Divergent and Insurgent. She spoke from the heart about losing her love of reading in high school “at the same moment I started to say ‘I already know’ instead of ‘I’m here to learn’ ”—when it became “risky to be enthusiastic, [as] only a loser enjoys something wholeheartedly.” (In a move that was no doubt completely uncalculated but nevertheless had to hit many of us, er, older people in the audience hard, she recounted stifling her excitement over the new Harry Potter when faced with the cultivated ennui of her boyfriend. Fortunately she got over it and him.)
Roth went on to talk of the importance of humility in both reading and writing, recounting her responses to critical reviews of a sexual-assault scene in Divergent. One critic accused her of using the scene to delineate character and move the plot along, appropriating a deeply personal and traumatic experience as a matter of artistic license. She described her process of pulling back, “get[ting] over my pride” and acknowledging the truth in that—a process that, she hopes, has made her a better writer.
Now, it’s always gratifying for reviewers to hear that a writer has listened to them, though the specific review she spoke of was not Kirkus’. We like to know people are paying attention to us just as much as everyone else. But even as I accepted the borrowed pat on the back on behalf of all reviewers, I had to reflect on how much we reviewers have to learn from her experience.
My colleague at the Horn Book, Roger Sutton, has spoken of the dangers of reviewers’ becoming “jaded”—that an “I’ve seen it all before” attitude can jeopardize our relationships with the books that we evaluate. If you believe, as I do, in the value of professional reviewers, you also have to understand that an inescapable side effect of professionalism is our overexposure to plots, motifs, characterizations, themes, etc. The very process of honing our skills to recognize the very best of a type also threatens our ability to approach the next book fresh and unbiased. I think this is a concern in any kind of criticism, but it is particularly perilous in the reviewing and criticism of books for young readers.
The children and teens on whose behalf we read these books and write our reviews do not bring years or decades of reading, do not bring classes in literary history and theory, do not bring a comfortable familiarity with tropes to the next books they open. Even the most ravenous among our child readers have had a lifespan-limited exposure to their literature. As Veronica Roth did before she hit that threshold of reading experience, they greet each book they open with enthusiasm, with the expectation that it will bring delight.
I will never forget my initial reading of Gregor the Overlander, the first book in Suzanne Collins’ tragically underappreciated Underland Chronicles. I had, I felt, seen it all before: the prophecy, the strange fantasy landscape, the questing band made up of disparate species, the character dynamics that signaled incipient friendships and betrayals—and, of course, I had. I was ready to dismiss this book out of hand. Thank goodness I was at that time serving on a committee with Beth Guldseth, a veteran librarian from the D.C. area, who waxed enthusiastic about Gregor. She helped me see that this book was not the retread the adult reader in me found but training wheels for readers new to classic heroic fantasy. Those tropes I found stale are fresh and thrilling to children and will teach them how to read an entire genre.
Beth was the first to teach me reading humility, and Roger helps me remember. I am deeply grateful to Veronica Roth for continuing to school me and my fellows in the imperative to greet the next book, whether it’s the 10th or the 100th or the 500th of the year, with an open and generous mind: “I’m here to learn.”
Vicky Smith is the childrens & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.