Episode 26! Conversation with Roger Sutton: PART 1

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Welcome to episode twenty-six of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday). 

This week’s episode is different as well as more time-specific. In this 2-part interview Grace Lin talks with editor Roger Sutton about a specific concern about the fall issue of the Horn Book. This is Part 1 of the interview, please come back on Wed to hear Part 2.

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Last month, Linda Sue Park tweeted.

Fall’s publishers preview feature, kids books Sept/Oct Hornbook: 7 out of 8 are men AND I am blinded by all the white. 

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Just in case you don’t know, the Horn Book Magazine is a highly respected publication about children’s books with reviews and essays (they’re the ones that publish the Newbery and Caldecott speeches every year). The Horn Book also has an advertising supplement titled, Publisher’s Previews. In this section, publishers choose an author whom they’d like to draw attention to and the Horn Book magazine interviews them with five questions. (See an example of one of these HERE). These five question interviews have been conducted for many years in the Horn Book, so what was going on in in this Sept/Oct issue?

In the introduction to the section, editor Roger Sutton wrote, “Welcome to the Horn Book Magazine’s Publisher’s Previews, an advertising supplement that allows participating publishers the chance to each highlight a book (or two) from its current list. They choose the books, we ask the questions. Half the books featured this time are nonfiction, which is unusual and seven-eighths are men…”

So, that meant that out of the 8 author interviews, only one featured a woman. All of them seemed white as well.

When women and people of color criticize publishers for promoting white men, many believe that they (or we) are just a disgruntled lot, blaming others for our shortcomings. So this feature was, of course, perfect kindling for ire. That said, there were many layers to this specific incident that make it complicated. Past issues of the Horn Book show that this feature has been better balanced- the Horn Book Archive shows that out of the 83 authors, 46 were female, 37 male and 21 were visibly POC.  

This of course, begs many questions. Is this just a coincidence? Even if the past features are better balanced, is it still enough?  To help answer those questions, Grace Lin talks with Roger Sutton—the editor of the Horn Book in this 2-part interview. This is Part 1, please come back on Wednesday to hear Part 2.

Read all the kidlitwomen* essays shared in March

Subscribe to the kidlitwomen* podcast on ITunes

 

On today's podcast you will hear:

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Roger Sutton has been the Editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., since 1996. He has advanced The Horn Book Magazine‘s superb reputation for book reviewing while expanding its coverage of the cultural and social significance of children’s and young adult literature. Under Sutton’s direction, most notably in special issues published annually, the magazine has joined lively debates on such topics as religion and politics, the value of identity-based awards, and the boundary-blurring phenomenon of crossover titles for children and adults.

A librarian by training, Mr. Sutton is widely recognized as being among the country’s leading experts on children’s literature. Appearances on television and interviews on radio and for newspapers confirm his quick wit and his assured mastery of the field. He has taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, and has served on virtually every major American children’s book award committee (the Newbery, Caldecott, Batchelder, National Book, and New York Times Best Illustrated) and chaired the 2007 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal committee. He has chaired the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction committee since 2010.

Mr. Sutton is the seventh editor of The Horn Book Magazine, which began in 1924 and is considered the foremost journal on children’s and young adult literature. He is the second editor of its sister publication,The Horn Book Guide, a semiannual review journal. He blogs regularly at Read Roger and can be found on Twitter at @RogerReads.

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Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.  Grace's new picture book,  A Big Mooncake for Little Star is now available.

 

TRANSCRIPT

 
Grace:                       Hello, this is children's book author and illustrator Grace Lin and today I am talking to the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Roger Sutton. Hi Roger.

Roger:                       Hi Grace, how are you?

Grace:                       Good, I'm really happy to have you on. So in the intro to this podcast, I've given a brief overview of what the Publishers' Previews are and what the issues raised about the fall's Publishers' Previews in The Horn Book.

Roger:                       Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Grace:                       But I thought maybe it'll good if maybe in your own words you could tell us what the Publishers' Previews are and in case I misconstrued anything. 

Roger:                       Sure, Publishers' Previews is an advertising feature we do, gosh I think now four times a year, so four out of six issues, we've been doing it for three to four to five years. What these are, it's a series of double spreads, you know maybe if you could link to this or something so the people can see what I'm talking about, but it's a series of double spreads each of which is paid for by a different publisher. Although a publisher could also purchase two spreads or three spreads if they wanted to. And on the spread, on the left hand sign is a brief five question interview, well more like a questionnaire with an author and then on the right side is an advertisement generally for that book or a sort of group advertisement from that publisher that includes that book. And these range in length, in the November issue coming up there are three and in our now notorious September issue there were, I think eight or nine.

Grace:                       And these previews are labeled as such so people know that these are paid advertisements.

Roger:                       That's right, there's a banner that runs along the top and bottom of each page indicating that it's advertising, and it's in a section, in its own section.

Grace:                       Okay, so let's talk about what happened in the September edition of The Horn Book.

Roger:                       Uh huh.

Grace:                       Can you walk us through what happened on your end, obviously in the intro I talk about how there's seven out of eight are men and how there seems to be a lack of diversity in the issue. Can you walk us through what happened, when did you notice the discrepancies between the genders of the [crosstalk 00:02:28].

Roger:                       We noticed, as soon as Al, Al Berman is our advertising director and he's the one who gets all of these, and he would send them as they came. Like he would say, you know Little Brown has signed on with the new Grace Lin we're sending you a copy. And these come in over a period of about a month, and then Katie Bircher in my office and I, assemble them all together, make sure we have copies and I read them and start thinking about questions for each one. So, when Katie and I finally had the eight, I'm like oh my god, this is all white people and seven out of eight of them are men. So we were horrified but I don't know what you can ... I thought I don't know what I can do about this. It's advertising I don't have control over it, Al doesn't have control over it. It's what each participating publisher chose to spotlight from their fall list. 

Grace:                       Did you ever think about maybe going back to the publishers and saying, hey these are all white guys, do you want to-

Roger:                       We do now, we do now, I didn't think that it was appropriate for me to do that because you don't want the editor of a magazine telling the advertisers what they can and cannot advertise. Especially when you're a review magazine because it gets too close to sort of, we want to make sure the publishers' opinion of a book is separate from The Horn Book's opinion of a book. That's why it's advertising, that's why they pay for it. So I felt uncomfortable interjecting myself to say, wait a minute, I don't want to see all these white people in the advertising section. But when this all sort of blew up, which Linda Sue Park started on Twitter, God bless her, Al and I talked and then I talked with some of the publishers represented and they said, totally, anything like this or a parallel situation happens again, tell us and we'll either choose to change or not, right? Because it is still up to them and then I said, well I'm not comfortable having that conversation I'll have Al call you because he's the advertising guy so that's where we've left it. That Al will, if I flag something in my head, the danger, danger signs go off, I call Al and then Al will be in touch with the people who place the advertising.

Grace:                       Have you ever pushed back on publishers for other reasons?

Roger:                       Well only in terms of our reviews, is that ... what do you mean? In terms of advertising, no. I don't know if you know Talks with Roger which is another advertorial product we have? Which is a telephone interview between me and a sponsored author or illustrator? And sometimes I push back on those because I don't have enough sympathy with the book to really make it, it's not fair. If I really don't like the book, it's not fair to say, here give us $5,000 to advertise it. When because it involves me, right I have to talk about this book and it's not fair to the author if I don't have enough sympathy with them to have a conversation that could be published. 

Grace:                       I was reading your bio from The Horn Book and this was added in your bio, it says "Under Sutton's direction most notably in the special issues published annually the magazine has joined lively debates on such topics as religion and politics, and the value of identity based awards". So correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that under your guidance The Horn Book has embraced more social issues in the past, would you say that's true?

Roger:                       I think so, and it's certainly when that was written because Anne Cork wrote that, you know Anne, who used to be The Horn Book publisher. But she's been gone for eight or nine years so that's a pretty old piece of copy, and I would say it's only become more so since then.

Grace:                       Why do you think you've gone in this direction or guided The Horn Book in this direction?

Roger:                       It's a question of guidance but it's also a question of push back that people say they want The Horn Book to be, you know The Horn Book has ever since it's inception, fought against this kind of ivory tower reputation that it has. And each of the editors has fought against that in a different way, and I would say with the advent of social media and it becoming so easy for subscribers and other people to communicate with me and for me to communicate with them. I feel just more responsive to the kinds of things people want to read about and a lot of what they want to read about now is social issues in books for children and teens, so we do a lot more of that. 

Grace:                       So you would say that you think that the industry in general has become more political as well, and that's you're just reflecting that?

Roger:                       No I think that it's not the industry so much as the people who work with children and books, I'm not talking about publishers. I'm talking about librarians and teachers and parents and writers. They've become more politically involved.

Grace:                       But you wouldn't say that about the publishers?

Roger:                       But I don't know that I would ... no, you know I think you'd have to get someone in publishing to tell you, to get a read on that.

Grace:                       So, a reader noticed that the publisher of the School Library Journal is also the publisher of The Horn Book, I guess it's David Greenborough so they wanted to know-

Roger:                       Greenough, David Greenough

Grace:                       Greenough? Okay, sorry. So they wanted to know does the buck stop with you or the publisher when it comes to problematic advertisement and do the two of you ever talk about standards for equity?

Roger:                       No, David has, I'm trying to think, I've never involved him in any kind of an adverting issue or question, so no. And I don't know what he does with School Library Journal, I'm guessing they leave that to their advertising people as well.

Grace:                       I'm coming back to what I was asking about you guiding The Horn Book to being more socially conscious, what role do you think The Horn Book can or should play in bringing the quality to the children's literature community then?

Roger:                       I think it's tricky, I remember we had a comment come in that was critical about an article we had published and I'm not going to identify anybody here. It was a letter to the editor about an article and I wanted to give the author a chance to respond to this, and so I sent her a copy of the letter saying, let me know if you'd like to respond, you don't have to but if you want to you may. And the article itself was of a progressive nature and the author said to me, well why can't you be an ally and just not publish this letter? And I said, because really before we're allies we're journalists and if someone takes the time to have this response for a Horn Book article I can't just ignore them because I don't like what they said. I don't think social activism is at the front of what The Horn Book does, and has never been. 

                                    When I say we cover it, it doesn't mean that we are particularly advocates, a lot of people would say we're not 'advocational', I don't think that's a word but you know what I mean. We're not 'advocational' enough, but that's really not our primary role, as I see it.

Grace:                       As you see it, and you would say your primary role is more journalistic then?

Roger:                       I would say that, I mean our primary role as articulated in the first Horn Book magazine ever in 1924, is to 'blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls', is what Bertha Mahony Miller said. That is our mission, now if we're in an era as we are now where there is a lot of concern about social justice, social change, identity politics, we're going to cover all that and we do, but I don't know that's there's a Horn Book line, if you understand what I mean? 

Grace:                       Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roger:                       About those things. 

Grace:                       It's not like democracy dies in darkness or anything like that then?

Roger:                       No, not in the same way. But we publish plenty of political articles in the magazine and on our site and if you ask me to cite some of course, I'm not going to remember name right in the front of me, but take a look.

Grace:                       Well, you're talking about the articles you do publish, so do you plan to publish more of them do you take into consideration the diversity of article writers, and authors and illustrators?

Roger:                       Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Grace:                       How about as review books, does that come into play at all?

Roger:                       Yeas and that's something that's changed quite a bit, and that is an example of something where we got a lot of push via social media from people who said, gosh The Horn Book is awfully white in it's reviewing staff and so that's something we said, yes we are and yes we shouldn't be. I think it was Jason Louw who started this at Lee & Louw and so now we do have a more diverse reviewing staff.

Grace:                       So how do you go about getting a more diverse reviewing staff, is it something that you ... people often ask about, like sensitivity readers, how do you find a sensitivity reader, how do you find a more diverse reviewing staff, this is an interesting ... 

Roger:                       In lots of different ways, and mostly I've left that to Martha Parravano and Elissa Gershowitz, Elissa is the executive editor of The Horn Book and Martha is the book review editor. They're my two immediate deputies and they go to ALA. Martha's been on the Coretta Scott King Committee and so she met a lot of people that way and people, African Americans in that case. Elissa's gone to reformer meetings to get Latino people, to get to know them so she could find a new pool of reviewers to choose from. So it's a lot of that. I mostly stay at home.

Grace:                       At publishers, how much sway does an editor have in getting a book to The Horn Book's attention versus publicity and marketing departments, do you hear more from editors or marketing people?

Roger:                       For reviewing? 

Grace:                       For both. I assume advertising would be for marketing people, so I think the question is about reviewing?

Roger:                       Same place, and it's all a system. Because The Horn Book gets virtually every hard covered children's book being published which is about 7,000 books at this point a year. They're just sent automatically by the same library marketing departments that Al deals with for advertising. So Victoria Stapleton, a Little Brown, she's in charge of sending out review copies to us, she's also the one who makes decisions about advertising in The Horn Book and elsewhere, as far as I know.

 PLEASE COME BACK ON WED FOR PART 2 OF THIS INTERVIEW

GRACE LIN