There’s a little bonbon of a book that’s been kicking around my office for months now, ever since I received it from publisher New York Review Books, which has been bringing a lot of old classics back into the world. When I say little, I mean it literally: It measures about 5 ¼ by 6 ¾ inches. Written and illustrated by M.B. Goffstein, was originally published in 1967. It’s not got much of a plot, which Kirkus’ reviewer observed in a rather dismissive review at the time: “About as slight as a book can become.”
In the story, a young girl named Brookie dotes on her lamb, teaching him to sing and to read, but his repertoire is limited in both activities to “Baa baa baa.” No matter. Brookie prepares a comfy room for him, with pillows and a standing lamp, and she brings him some books. “All his books said / Baa baa baa / so he liked them very much.” Kirkus’ reviewer sniffily concludes, “oh so evanescent.” I have to wonder, though, what’s evanescent about both the unconditional love Brookie and her lamb so clearly share and Brookie’s sensitivity in finding her lamb just the right book.
I’ve kept the book around much longer than I normally would a reprint of a title Kirkus reviewed 54 years ago. It’s not a book I read and loved as a child, so I’m not hanging on to it out of nostalgia. I think I am having a hard time parting with it because I love how it captures what we who work with children’s books try to do, day in and day out: connect young readers with exactly the right books for them.
I began my career in young readers’ literature as a children’s librarian. I have thanked my lucky stars for decades that my first job was in Memphis, Tennessee, where I got a crash course in how very poorly so many child readers in America were being served by the people who made books for and shared books with them.
Thirteen years ago I left librarianship to take the position of children’s and young adult editor here at Kirkus. I have made it my personal mission—and again have been lucky, so lucky, to have bosses and colleagues who supported me—to help ensure that the librarians, teachers, booksellers, and caregivers looking for exactly the right books for all America’s child readers could find them. Even 13 years ago—decades after a paper-white Brookie found the right book for her lamb—the volume of books by and about Black, Indigenous and people of color; by and about LGBTQ+ people; by and about disabled people was vanishingly small to nonexistent.
The world of young readers’ literature has changed, and that’s a damn good thing. There are more books about characters of traditionally marginalized identities, more books by creators whose voices haven’t been heard, and more gatekeepers who know what it’s like to grow up reading books they aren’t seen in. To the extent that I have been part of a movement to claim the shelves for all the children who need to find themselves at home among them, I am grateful.
Now I’m going back to librarianship. After 27 years, the right position at my hometown library has finally opened up. I am ashamed to say now that I didn’t notice when I was growing up that the vast majority of its books didn’t include kids who weren’t like me. The children of my hometown are now far more diverse in just about every way than when I was a kid, and I’m so very glad to know I’ll be able to find just the right books for all of them, even the ones who only read Baa baa baa.
Vicky Smith was a young readers’ editor at Kirkus for 13 years.