A magazine article changed my life.
Admittedly, that sounds like a bit of hyperbole, but it’s true. There I was in New York City, with my shiny new MLIS degree, working at my very first children’s librarian post. I was still experiencing that first flush of excitement people have when they start a new job in an occupation they love, and I was reading every article in every children’s literature–related periodical I could get my grubby little hands on. When I opened the August 1, 2005, issue of School Library Journal (SLJ), I wasn’t expecting anything extraordinary, and, indeed, the article that would rock my world wasn’t necessarily eye-catching. Eric Oatman’s feature “Blogomania!” wasn’t aimed at me, a public librarian: it was written for media specialists who work in school libraries. Yet the former SLJ editor inspired me to try my hand at blogging, and, in doing so, I discovered an entire world of online children’s literature enthusiasts.
Oatman’s article appeared at a time when blogs written by children’s librarians were few and far between. And blogs solely about kids’ lit? Fewer still. This was back when every article about blogging had to include the explanation that the term “blog” came from the phrase “Web log.” Since blogging sounded like so much fun, I decided to start my own, A Fuse #8 Production, named, for no particular reason, after a naughty car part. Initially, it seemed like a low-stress way to talk about one of my favorite topics in what, for a while there, felt like a vacuum. Four scant years later, the world is a different place. The children’s and
YA literary blogosphere is now a well-organized, influential unit. There are yearly awards (the Cybils) conducted and bestowed by bloggers. There’s a Web site (Kidlitosphere Central) directing people to current issues and bloggers and a Yahoo group (Kidlitosphere) where ethical and practical issues are discussed. Yearly conferences take place, and each week children’s literary bloggers of all stripes contribute to Nonfiction Mondays, Poetry Fridays, blog carnivals, blog tours, interviews, reviews of new titles, and more.
It all begs the inevitable question: To what end? Sometimes I wonder if this is just a case of bloggers reading one another’s posts, commenting on one another’s blogs, contributing to an insular community that doesn’t have much impact on the outside world. Do kids’ lit bloggers influence publishing decisions? Are library systems basing their purchasing decisions on our recommendations? Should they? And to what extent is a blog about literature for youth a reliable source of information?
Born to Blog: (from left)
What I have come to love about the Kidlitosphere is its sheer variety of blogs. Some review, while others like to spark debate. Some dig deep into historical facts and legends, while others are consistently finding the latest trends and titles. They haven’t a single unifying goal aside from the wish to contribute something to the conversation about the best literature out there for kids. Children’s literary blogs are more than just review sources. They can sound the alarm of outrage and provide in-depth analysis of hot-topic issues, as with the recent controversy surrounding Bloomsbury’s decision to put a white girl on the jacket of Justine Larbalestier‘s novel Liar in spite of its black protagonist (which may have led to the jacket changing soon thereafter). They can also shine the spotlight on deserving authors and illustrators, raise money for good causes (like author Grace Lin‘s auctions on behalf of cancer research), highlight subjects that are ignored by the publishing industry (such as the lack of contemporary black and Jewish characters in children’s literature), and generally contribute to the professional children’s literary conversation. Scholastic children’s book editor Cheryl Klein, who has blogged at her site Brooklyn Arden since 2005, says, “Book blogs have created community—a place where we adults who take children’s literature seriously can discuss it seriously and at length, in a forum open to the whole Internet.”
The kids’ lit blogging community has grown strong over the years. And most of us read one another’s sites, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Of course, there’s always the danger that this community may become too closed off from the rest of the world. That’s why it’s wonderful to take note of the new blogs, like the delightful Jacket Knack, that pop up all the time. The Kidlitosphere needs new bloggers and fresh perspectives to remind us that there is always more than one way of looking at an issue or a topic.
The number of blogs has really increased dramatically in recent years. In 2003, you could count the number of children’s literature blogs on one hand. Today more than 280 children’s literary blogs are listed at Kidlitosphere Central, with many more out there independent and uncounted, with even more cropping up every day. Who reads these blogs? Well, there are the other bloggers, librarians, agents, editors, and folks who run both the marketing and publicity departments of various publishers, which means many a blog is reaching a core group of people already interested in the topic. Yet these blogs are also read by folks who do not work with books in any fashion, people who are not privy to the world of professional children’s reviews. As New Jersey librarian Elizabeth Burns of the blog A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy says, “Blogs have a different audience than SLJ, HB [Horn Book], etc. Parents don’t read SLJ; but they may read blogs. Ditto most YA readers—they weren’t ever going to be getting the latest Horn Book or Kirkus, unless their parent is a public librarian.”
The audience isn’t the only difference between blogs and professional journals, but it’s worth noting. Where a parent might not have access to an issue of The Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books, a simple Google search of a book they may have heard about yields a plethora of blog-based reviews. Knowing this, bloggers could easily become publicity engines for the marketing departments of various publishers. Certainly in this day and age of free galleys and interviews with favorite authors it can feel that way. As a result, the blogging community has been discussing ethical issues regarding advertising and the degree to which a blogger’s relationship to a publisher affects their professional opinion. On this point, Tasha Saecker, a Wisconsin library director who has blogged at Kids Lit since 2003, hopes “that our community continues to be strong, discusses tough issues, and focuses on being open and transparent about our relationships with companies of all sorts. It’s not very different from what I would hope for the library or book community in general, which I suppose is another large step ahead for bloggers. To have the same concerns and issues as larger media outlets shows how far we have come.”
Publishers like to use blogs as publicity conduits. With that in mind, is there a way to judge an individual blog’s effect on book sales? As it happens, trying to pin down whether or not blogs sell books is difficult. Writer Gregory Pincus runs The Happy Accident, a blog devoted to “using social media to create happy accidents,” and he’s given the matter some thought. “I really think trying to compare blogs to traditional media or marketing is a mistake,” says Pincus. “It is a different paradigm, with influence built on relationships and not pure numbers. Blogs can reach niches and bloggers can have a relationship with readers that is totally different than reviewers or magazines.” A reader may find a particular blogger’s style attractive and grow fond of that point of view, particularly as it pertains to literature. In this way, we find the bloggers that suit our individual styles the best.
Consider then the blogger and the library budget. Do bloggers have sway over librarian purchases for large systems? Certainly they might be able to drive a parent or a teacher into plunking down cold hard cash for an item. If you’re considering the pull a blogger has on a library’s buying power, though, it’s dangerous to think of blogs as little roving SLJs and Kirkuses. I’m sure that we bloggers would love to believe that there are entire library systems that crave our every word, only purchasing one book or another depending on whether or not we give such titles the yea or nay. As it happens, that’s not usually the way it goes. There are massive disadvantages to basing library collection purchases on blog reviews alone. For one thing, many blogs do not review books they don’t like. With no obligation to criticize the publishers, authors, and illustrators sending them books, bloggers sometimes don’t feel like biting the hand that feeds them. Others have so many books to read that they don’t feel that finishing a bad book, let alone reviewing it, is worth their time. Still others may prefer to avoid negative critiques of much-adored authors and illustrators so as to avoid hurt feelings. And, of course, as Burns has mentioned, these bloggers have a completely different audience to consider.
In the past, librarians relied solely on accredited children’s awards, professional reviews from reputable journals and newspapers, and word of mouth from trusted sources to purchase materials. That “word of mouth” hasn’t gone away. It has merely transformed itself into an electronic state. Blogs replace nothing and will never replace professional review journals. They supplement them instead. And if the publishing world happens to be listening that’s wonderful, but it’s not what’s driving these sites. Bloggers blog because they love literature written for youth, and they want to share that love with others who feel the same way. Take away the distractions of who might be reading and why, and what you have are people who love what they do and are consistently willing to hear what others have to say. It is a community of people open to anyone who wants to join in the conversation.
|To see children’s librarian Elizabeth Bird (email@example.com) in action, visit New York City’s Public Library on 42nd Street or her blog, A Fuse #8 Production, at www.slj.com.|