The Horn Book Magazine has been publishing for 61 years, but for most parents I suspect it remains a well-kept secret. I didn't discover this fine guide to children's literature until my son was close to adolescence. Then, perusing past volumes, I was struck by two things: how many books I would have liked to introduce him to, had I known they existed, and how little I knew about children's literature. Who are the best children's book illustrators? What makes a good picture book good? How is history best fictionalized for children? What is considered children's literature in Britain, or in Australia? Such questions, which I had scarcely thought to ask, are explored in the Horn Book, which gives children's literature the critical attention usually reserved for adult work.
The Horn Book was founded in 1924 by Bertha Mahony Miller, who had earlier established the Bookshop for Boys and Girls in Boston. (A hornbook, by the way, is ``a child's primer consisting of a sheet of parchment or paper protected by a sheet of transparent horn,'' says Webster.)
Early issues were delightfully whimsical, with here and there an item for children or a short story, perhaps by Sarah Orne Jewett. But fairly quickly, the Horn Book settled into a format similar to the one it has today: Its articles about the role of children's literature, its interviews with authors, its examination of illustration, and its concise reviews of dozens of the best books for children and young adults made it indispensable to librarians, who are still its main audience.
That the Horn Book has changed so little through the decades is both its strength and its weakness. On the one hand, it provides a voice we can trust, as we seek to identify the best books for our children. On the other hand, it has seemed in recent years somewhat out of touch. An article on ``Chesterton and Children's Reading,'' for example, seems esoteric to teachers and parents confronted with the problems of television, computer games, and illiteracy.
How to retain an emphasis on literary quality and yet achieve relevance? The Horn Book's new editor, Anita Silvey, believes it can be done, and she seems to be succeeding.
Ms. Silvey has opened the magazine to new columns representing a variety of voices in the children's book world -- booksellers and publishers, for example. She is placing new emphasis on picture books for the very young and board books (printed on very heavy cardboard for toddlers), which are not reviewed elsewhere and which she considers the ``most exciting area in publishing today.'' And she is running articles like a recent one by James Howe (``Writing for the Hidden Child''), in which the children's author addresses the problem of writing for a ``cool'' audience and penetrating that coolness to reach the real children beneath.
Not all parents will want quite all the information that the Horn Book provides. But this is not a specialist's magazine. Its articles are accessible; its reviews are succinct and useful. Those who want to involve themselves more fully in their children's reading should find the Horn Book a heartening guide to the traditional and a practical guide to the new.
Gail Pool is currently writing a book on magazines.