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Riverbank Review History

Riverbank Review was a quarterly magazine about children’s literature. Based in Minnesota, it published 21 issues for an appreciative national readership between 1998 and 2003. The magazine’s founder, Martha Davis Beck, was previously children’s book editor at Hungry Mind Review (HMR), a quarterly book review affiliated with St. Paul’s Hungry Mind Bookstore.

As a rule, books for children are given scant attention in literary journals, but HMR was an exception. It treated children’s books as an important part of our literature and presented an annual children’s book award: the Children’s Books of Distinction. HMR’s children’s book section steadily grew, eventually jumping off to become the seed for a new magazine focused entirely on books for young readers.

Beck found a compatible artistic partner in Kristi Anderson, then art director for Utne Reader. She assembled an editorial committee that included Christine Alfano, Mary Lou Burket, Christine Heppermann, and Susan Marie Swanson, all writers who were passionate about children’s literature. In addition to writing about children’s books for HMR, Alfano had worked at the Wild Rumpus children’s bookstore and contributed to its newsletter, Burket had reviewed children’s books for The Five Owls, Publishers Weekly, and Minneapolis’s Star Tribune newspaper, and Heppermann, also a former Wild Rumpus staff member, had a regular column in The Horn Book Magazine. Swanson, who had preceded Beck as children’s book editor at HMR, worked with children as a visiting writer in Twin Cities area schools and had published a picture book and a book of poems for children.

For nearly a year, the group met to define the shape of the magazine and build the contents of the first issue while Beck negotiated a partnership with the School of Education at the University of St. Thomas (UST) in St. Paul. UST had emerged as a likely partner since their school of education hosted an annual children’s literature conference. (Someone there cared about children’s books!)

There is a longstanding division in the children’s book world between the institutional (school and library) market and general audience readers, including parents. Riverbank Review sought to speak across that line, addressing parents, teachers, librarians, friends of young readers—anyone who was involved with and cared about children’s reading. It sought to find places where the interests of those individuals overlapped and to encourage communication among the people who, together, nurture children’s interest in books and reading. To that end, the magazine included a feature called “The Teacher’s Art,” highlighting creative work with literature in the classroom, and the final feature in each issue, “One for the Shelf,” offered suggestions of books suitable for a home library.

Because the field of children’s literature gives writers and artists permission to be imaginative and playful, it’s a realm in which artistic experimentation is welcomed and widely evident. By taking an in-depth look at this work, Riverbank Review also spoke to readers who were more broadly interested in art and literature.

Key elements of the magazine, from the beginning, included:

  • original cover art commissioned for each issue from a children’s book illustrator, with the directive to incorporate a river and reflect the season
  • reviews of new books for children and young adults
  • interviews with and profiles of authors and illustrators
  • attention to backlist titles through essays and special features
  • a poem for the season
  • a detachable bookmark with ten great books on a given theme or of a particular genre
  • the Children’s Books of Distinction Awards

Choosing the artist to illustrate the cover of the first issue was tricky. It felt audacious to commission a piece of work for a publication that didn’t yet exist. The selection of Erik Blegvad increased the challenge, since he lived across the ocean in England. Nonetheless, a request was made to Blegvad’s editor, the legendary Margaret McElderry, and her supportive response was a decisive, positive signal that a new magazine was truly going to be born.

Emboldened, the group began to write features and reviews and select the year’s Children’s Books of Distinction. An issue’s worth of advertising was sold, and Beck made assignments to outside writers. School officials at UST were surprised when a professional-looking magazine appeared, fresh off the press, just days after the new partnership had been announced.

Riverbank Review was off and running. For three years it remained affiliated with UST, building its readership and earning respect from the literary establishment. The magazine exhibited at the annual ALA and BookExpo conventions and Beck served as a judge for the New York Times’ Best Illustrated Books in 2000. The magazine was hitting its stride.

Then, in 2001, budget challenges at UST caused the school to cut several programs and, not yet in the black, Riverbank Review among them. In the summer of that year the magazine moved into an independent space and took on the financial burden of rent and postage and the functions of accounting, payroll, and bookkeeping that had been seen to by UST until then. Beck assembled a board of directors, incorporated the magazine as a nonprofit, and actively sought grant support to help cover operating costs.

The timing of the transition to independent operation was unfortunate. In the months following Sept. 11, it was challenging to get anyone to pay attention to a small, struggling magazine with the mission of sparking children’s excitement about books—and it was also a time when fine and small-scale print publications were losing favor as attention shifted toward the internet. The fact that the magazine held on for two more years is testament to the hard work of its staff and the generosity of its readers and supporters.

In its final year of publication, Riverbank Review was in the process of negotiating a new contract with the University of Minnesota, recognizing that an institutional partnership was its best route to continued publication. While this relationship held promise, it soon became clear that there would not be sufficient financial support, at least in the short term, to cover costs. A decision was made to cease publication in the fall of 2003. That issue, with cover art by Jerry Pinkney—a subtle and powerful watercolor painting of a turtle climbing up a slippery riverbank—was never published. However, its Poem for Fall, “Something Told the Wild Geese,” by Rachel Field, was sent out to readers with the announcement of the magazine’s end.

The full contents of all issues of Riverbank Review are visible on this site. Individual issues are available by special order, for the cost of shipping. Request printed issues »