Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What makes a good magazine?

One of my favorite Horn Book features is their recurring short feature, "What Makes a Good . . .?" in which they pose a question about children's literature. This inquisitive focus began in the Sept/Oct 2006 issue in which the question "What Makes a Good Book?" formed the spine of the entire issue, dealing with it both generally in long essays ("Finding Literary Goodness in a Pluralistic World") and in shorter pieces which defined good thrillers, beginnings, translated books, poems, holocaust books, second grade books, bookstore books, fantasies, and endings. On that last one, Virginia Euwer Wolff says "If I give myself over to a book and let it absorb me, I want its ending not to let me go back to the self I was before I read it." Think on that, writers!

The answer to the posed question usually forms a short article, as the one below, "What Makes a Good Read Aloud for Middle Graders?"

I love author Christine McDonnell's choice of Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three as a stellar read aloud. As she says, "Alexander's Prydain series has language that flows like a song and characters whose speech is wonderfully idiosyncratic." Indeed.

But even if she hadn't riveted me by citing my favorite book of all time,  I would've read the entire article with attention, respect, and delight. Because if I had to answer the question, "What Makes a Good Magazine?" I would answer "The Horn Book"---while gleefully flinging open my closet doors to show you the stacks of back issues I've hoarded through the years.

But as Horn Book readers know, there is no assertion like the one I just made without backing it up with well-chosen, linguistically honed, and tightly woven reasons.  So here you go:

What Makes a Good Magazine?

1) It asks questions---continually---of itself and of its readers.

As Parker Palmer says: "Each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. But that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference. The function of the Clearness Committee is not to give advice or "fix" people from the outside in but rather to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out." (Source)

I hesitate to call The Horn Book a "clearness committee" because it sounds creepily like Doublespeak, but I do think the questions posed in its pages help remove some of the fuzzy thinking that creeps into any group of people devoted to A Good Thing (even children's books.)

(Furthermore, occasionally, as in the current issue on color, The Horn Book models its own proposed answers:  "Color is not just decorative but elucidating." I agree. The full color interior of the refreshed Horn Book makes it much easier to read and enables readers to experience illustrations and cover art as they were meant to be.)

2)  It does not bore. Everything now seems to be blandly academic (if not frozen-cheeked, cheerily PC) or louder-than-thou personality driven without regard to reason or facts. (Think cable news. And yes, I do think raving without facts is boring.)

Rather, The Horn Book conducts the conversation about the topic at hand---be it "retro" picture-book art as considered by Leonard Marcus or an ode by artist Melissa Sweet to the particular shade of pink dubbed "Opera" or (to cite a piece from an older issue) a matter-of-fact discussion of "bad language" in “The Pottymouth Paradox,” by Patty Gauch --- with style and good manners. There is no dull writing here. But neither is there any hair-pulling.

3) It reviews books that I want to read.

I guess that's simplistic. And personal.  And it may even be a flaw, at least in relation to my book buying budget. But if I didn't consistently add to my To Be Read List after finishing each issue, I would be looking for a different review source.

From the current issue, I fell in love with Geraldine McCaughrean's new novel, The Death-Defying Pepper Roux, entirely upon the basis of one image-laden quote the reviewer cited from the book:  Pepper's mother and aunt "leaned in against [his] childhood like a pair of bookends---big, ponderous women, and so full of tragedy they could barely hook their corsets closed." (Okay, and because I loved McCaughrean's The White Darkness.)

I also noted the thoughtful review of the Hilary McKay sequel to A Little Princess ---still making up my mind as to whether to read it but the reviewer's perspective was clearly helpful---and the intriguing description (and full color, hot-pink book jacket) of How to Say Goodbye in Robot.

And that's it. Three good reasons why The Horn Book is a good magazine. And why, if you ever visit me, I might send a sample back issue home with you. (I have to clear out my closet somehow.)


  1. And I'm so glad you like it! Thank you for the very kind comments.

  2. No! How could you ever give up a back issue? I covet them!

  3. Man, I have GOTTA renew my subscription already.

    That's a lovely, very true tribute.

  4. I always feel like I'm getting away with something when I take the time to read my Horn Book magazines here at work. I think *that's* probably the sign of a good magazine, too.

  5. So true, Adrienne. Of course, you get away with Magic 8 Balls in your library, too...


R-E-S-P-E-C-T (or you will be deleted)

You can receive followup comments to this conversation by checking the "notify me" box below the comment window.