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Making room for the little readers

Meghaa Aggarwal | Updated on March 20, 2019 Published on February 15, 2019

Keep the faith: As other newspapers have curtailed their books coverage and especially their children’s books coverage, NYT has always held strong   -  ISTOCK.COM

Maria Russo, the children’s books editor at The New York Times, on the wisdom behind giving children’s literature its due in mainstream media

For over a hundred years now, The New York Times (NYT) has been reviewing children’s literature. Maria Russo, NYT’s full-time children’s books editor, says she focuses on books with literary and artistic values. “ That can mean funny, sad or mildly scary,” she tells BLink in an email interview.

What prompted NYT to review children’s literature?

When NYT started a weekly Book Review section back in 1918, the mandate was to offer readers informed critiques of all kinds of books they might be interested in, and children’s books were always included in that. I imagine the editors way back then knew that lifetime readers usually begin as readers of children’s books, and that parents are always looking for the best to offer their own kids. As other newspapers have curtailed their books coverage and especially their children’s books coverage, NYT has always held strong. With the recent boom in children’s and young adult books, especially after the Harry Potter series, this has proven to be a smart strategy. But as far as I know, I’m currently the only full-time children’s books editor at a news organisation in the world.

Maria Russo   -  IMAGE COURTESY: THE NEW YORK TIMES/EARL WILSON

 

What are some notable developments in children’s publishing over the years that may have impacted your approach to it?

I’ve been in this job for five years, and I’ve seen a lot of developments in the landscape of children’s literature in that time. Probably the two most significant changes are the drive to publish and promote more ‘diverse’ books — books by and about people of colour, people with disabilities, and women and girls, and the increasing acceptance and literary excellence of books inspired by comics, such as graphic novels and picture books that borrow from the sensibility and layout of comics. I’m excited about both these changes, which were long overdue, and I try to make space for reviews of such books.

What comes in the way of a dedicated space for children’s books in mainstream media?

I honestly have no idea, except the obvious explanation that children are powerless in society. Even well-meaning, child-loving people in power are all too ready to overlook children’s needs and well-being in favour of things that have been defined as ‘important’. And yet what could be more crucial to our shared future than the development of children as readers and thinkers?

Could you share some examples that reveal how your coverage has helped in the promotion of children’s literature?

My goal is to sort through the thousands of books I receive every year and pluck out the best, then present them to readers who may be looking for just that sort of book for a child — or will be inspired to try something they hadn’t thought of. We do receive notes from readers that tell us how much they appreciate a particular review or essay, and that the book we reviewed was enjoyed by their child. I also hear a lot from teachers and librarians that they use our section for guidance.

What are your key considerations when you’re choosing to review a children’s book?

I’m always looking for books with high literary and artistic values and a strong emotional impact. That can mean funny, sad or mildly scary. I try to offer a range of books in terms of genre — balancing fantasy and realism — as well as topic, setting, gender and race of the protagonists, format and so on. But because there are so many books, in the end, I have to rely on my instincts! I feel confident though that my instincts have been developed over years of passionate reading, both personally and professionally.

How has the digital age impacted the coverage of children’s publishing?

Just like the rest of journalism, children’s books coverage is heading increasingly in the online direction. We still print a weekly section, but offer much more online, from slideshows to Instagram posts. We are working on producing more digital content, and I actually feel we could do more to reach busy parents where they are reachable these days — through newsletter emails or other (online) products.

NYT recently launched a children’s supplement that has earned spectacular reviews and is almost being called a resurrection of print because it’s not available digitally. Could you shed some light on the importance of this supplement?

I am thrilled about The  New York Times for Kids! The idea behind it was to offer something special for print subscribers only, and I think along the way it’s shown that a big, well-designed newspaper section these days is a treat for children who live their lives on screens.

Meghaa Aggarwal works in children’s publishing and also writes features on education and environment

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Published on February 15, 2019
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