"That's funny, you don't look like you have fangs," said Pat Cummings as she sat down by me at a conference we both attended last fall. This may not be a conventional salutation, but I knew where it was coming from. As the current face of Kirkus Reviews in the children's-literature world, I represent a publication that has a reputation for cruel (if youre an author), honest (if you're a review reader) reviews. When many authors think of Kirkus, they probably imagine someone with fangs, horns and a barbed tail.
"You should come to the party at the SCBWI conference in New York," she went on. What? Take my fangs into a room full of authors? As it happens, I was not able to make the party at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference, but not because of cowardice-I had a previous commitment. But I do confess that it's not always easy to wear the fearsome Kirkus persona in certain circles.
Whenever I go to a conference or any gathering in the children's-literature world, chances are good I'm going to bump into somebody whos received a negative review from Kirkus. Sometimes these reviews were published decades past, but still the author remembers them. Sometimes the wound is more recent. And it tends to be awkward. How can it not be? A total stranger has just passed judgment in a 225-word miniessay on a book the author has poured countless hours of craft and emotion into. It's a little like calling somebody's baby ugly.
But BEA and library conferences are one thing; a conference of nothing but authors and illustrators of books for children and teens is something else. It's not exactly Daniel in the lions’ den, but it’s definitely a place where I don't feel entirely welcome. As it happens, though, I had been invited to speak about reviewing at the annual conference of the New England chapter of the SCBWI, and I confessed to Pat that I was a little nervous. "Oh, it'll probably be fine. Probably," she reassured me.
(I'm not entirely sure where Pat's bad Kirkus experience came from; shes written and/or illustrated a number of books, and the Kirkus reviews are by and large quite positive. Of Carousel, we wrote: ”Cummings's depiction of the disappointed child…is refreshingly true to life, while the nuances of her emotions are also warmheartedly portrayed in the Coretta Scott King Award winner's vibrant realistic art. At the end, Daddy and morning arrive like the restorative breeze blowing in Alex's window. A likable, deceptively simple story that provides a fine model of clemency strengthening an already loving relationship.")
In the end, the SCBWI experience was perfectly pleasant and entirely predictable. Checking in, I gave my name, and a volunteer helping at registration joyfully introduced herself as Ellen Booraem, whose books Kirkus has loved without reservation, starting with her first, The Unnameables. Then at supper, I shared a table with others who greeted me with rather more distance, acknowledging that a review is not about the author, it's about the book.
And that's completely true, though I think if I were an author, having poured so much of myself into a book, I would have a hard time separating the two. Which is why I so appreciated the entirely respectful attention of the room full of authors both published and not-yet who listened to me, Leila Roy (who brings her Bookshelves of Doom blog to Kirkus.com every week), Donna Spurlock (who as Director of Marketing at Charlesbridge manages the publisher side of the review process) and our facilitator, Laurie Flynn (an aspiring author and a Kirkus reviewer).
Pat was right-it was just fine. And I'm pretty sure no one saw fangs.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.