The world is full of danger, and so, when you think about it, are children's books. In Whistle for Willie, Peter's little dachshund roams the streets of New York unleashed (and so does Peter, for that matter). When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry, she runs away from home and climbs a tree. And Max gets into that boat and sails to Where the Wild Things Are all by himself, without a life jacket!
Get a grip, you say, rolling your eyes. The first book is a period piece, the second is an emotional tone poem, and the third is a metaphor, for heaven's sake. They shouldn't be seen as prescriptions for behavior. And goodness knows, millions of children have read these books and managed not to kill either themselves or their dogs.
Nevertheless, what kids take away from the books they read is something a lot of people are concerned about, both within the industry and without, and what goes into children’s books often responds to these concerns. Take bike helmets, for example.
Where once it was common to see children riding bikes with their hair flowing behind them, it’s now remarkable if they are not helmeted, as are the little girl in Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle, Mole in Will Hillenbrand’s Off We Go! and (eventually) Bonnie O’Boy in James Proimos and Johanna Wright’s The Best Bike Ride Ever.
Interestingly, the titular lad in Matt Davies’ Ben Rides On survives his 32-page odyssey with no helmet—though of course, for much of it the bike is in the grubby hands of Adrian Underbite. This no doubt causes waves of nostalgia to wash over adult readers who remember the joy of biking with the wind in their hair—goodness knows, it did for me. Ben just looks like he’s having so much fun jumping all those school buses, Evel Knievel style….
So what is the role of the reviewer when he or she bumps into something in a book that seems problematic? I’m not talking about literary concerns—the reviewer who can’t abide poor scansion or clumsy characterization has carte blanche to say so. I’m talking about extraliterary qualms ranging from breathing exercises to prepare for free diving to the depiction of a child atop a horse, bareback.
In the first case, the reviewer of a book for teens called Taken by Storm, by Angela Morrison, worried about its description of the breathing techniques used by a teen to prep for free diving. My reviewer was a Navy wife and had worked for years as a nurse before changing careers; she knew a thing or two about drowning deaths. She sent a review that took strong issue with the teen’s “venting,” bolstered by a number of links to websites detailing the danger inherent in hyperventilating before diving. I spent quite a long time looking at the book and engaging in a parallel exchange between author and reviewer about whether or not the book described hyperventilating or a completely different type of deep breathing.
In the second case, another reviewer saw red flags in the illustration of a small child perched happily on the back of an untacked pony in a picture book for preschoolers called A Day at the Farm, by Séverine Cordier and Cynthia Lacroix, with illustrations by Cordier and E.H.R. Schober. Apparently her whole community had been scarred just a year or two earlier when a little girl hopped on the back of a pony that threw her; she died from her injuries.
What to do with them? In each case, I decided to allow a line expressing the reviewers’ respective concerns. Let people in communities on the water or with horses decide whether or not to buy the books, but let them do it fully informed.
I’m still not entirely happy with that, though—as I wrote to my nurse-reviewer, “Kirkus [is] a literary journal, and I'm not sure we have the authority to talk about unsafe diving practices. If…you were able to establish your [medical] expertise it would be one thing, but pretty much our only expertise is in lit'ry judgments.”
I receive reviews that range far beyond scansion and characterization on a near-daily basis, and each individual review requires independent cogitation about how to handle it. Sometimes I consult a third-party expert; sometimes I just have to go with my gut. Every time I decide our reviews are going to stick strictly to the literary, I am given a reason not to.
But you know what? I’m really happy we decided not to carp about bike helmets in Ben Rides On.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor of Kirkus Reviews.