“It has come to this: werewolves on The Titanic.”
Favorite first lines of novels make great discussion fodder, but book reviews rarely begin with sentences as memorable as that one, which led off a review of Claudia Gray’s Fateful in the curmudgeon of professional book review journals, Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus is so notoriously grouchy there is even a Tumblr blog dedicated to its crafty disses, Sick Burns: The Best of Kirkus Review’s Worst.
To my great good fortune, it is part of my job each year to read hundreds of book reviews, which provide librarians and booksellers advance notice of publication, and an idea as to whether a particular book is a good candidate for purchase. Alongside the vibrant, grassroots book review scene online, the editorial voices of Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Horn Book, and School Library Journal are as present in my hearing as those of my human coworkers, and like them, each has its own personality.
Kirkus is prickly, but can be pretty funny, a lot like Statler and Waldorf up there in the balcony on The Muppet Show. At least it’s no Pollyanna like Booklist, which loves everything. And it’s always fun to see Kirkus’ old frenemy, Publishers Weekly, take the opposite viewpoint, or better yet, squirm when it must agree.
Selecting children’s books gives me a special appreciation for Kirkus, for surely no one would turn a keen critical eye on picture books about parents’ unconditional love for their children, as represented by fuzzy bunnies, kittens, and chicks, right? Actually, Kirkus is happy to do it. “Leave those penguins on the ice,” it recommends in a recent review of Ten Playful Penguins, by Emily Ford. Those considering Marianne Dubuc’s The Animals’ Arc are advised to “sail past this one.” As for Anna Pignataro’s Our Love Grows, in which a mother panda offers a poetic ode to her cub, why not nitpick? “The line about stars being ‘just a few’ does not take into account astronomical reality. Skip.”
Much has been made of the link between Kirkus’ negativity and its policy of maintaining the anonymity of its reviewers, including a rant by veteran novelist David Lubar, who accuses the magazine of bullying, and reminds readers that Kirkus, too, “is subject to the laws of gravity, grammar, and decency.” In defense of its practices, Kirkus cites its hardscrabble history as a Depression-era startup founded by Virginia Kirkus, who, fearing a snub by the boys club of American publishing, made the savvy business decision to mask the fact that she wrote most of its reviews herself in the early days.
Is Kirkus too mean? As an experiment, I decided to see how it would play in real life if someone walked around saying aloud what its reviewers wrote.
“A cool idea poorly executed,” I tell my 5-year old son when he shows me a craft he made in school out of numbered pinecones (The Lending Zoo, by Frank Asch). “A big miss for both nature and math” (Outdoor Math, by Emma Adbage).
I’m suddenly counting his tears, but he gets over it, and soon enough resumes roughhousing with his 3-year old sister. Then she sinks her teeth into his shoulder, and things go south fast.
“A somewhat facile change of heart, guys,” I intone (Hoot and Peep, by Lita Judge). Their total surprise that I have not dragged them both to their rooms halts them mid-scream. Maybe I’m onto a new disciplinary tool: 1-2-3 Kirkus?
My wife asks me if I’d like another pork chop. “Sure,” I say, “here’s hoping the sequel is better balanced” (Shadow Magic, by Joshua Khan). She stares, then continues recounting an incident from her day.
“Wow,” I say when she finishes. “That was less and less interesting as it limped along to the final hollow surprise” (Set the Night on Fire, by Connie Dial).
Well, I won’t be trying that experiment again any time soon. As for Kirkus and its cranky anonymity, I’ll defer to the faceless reviewer who summarized my thoughts about Kirkus as she (or he) panned The Case of the Girl in Grey, by Jordan Stratford: “A tragically flawed premise results in a lamentable waste of excellent writing.”
-Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library.