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Confessions of a Sensitivity Reader

Trying to make children’s books more authentic and less stereotype-ridden isn’t censorship

Marjorie Ingall
March 08, 2019
Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock

As a children’s book critic and a fairly clueful Jew, I’ve been asked several times to read non-Jewish and non-Jewishly-observant friends’ book manuscripts to make sure they’ve gotten the Jewish stuff right before they’re published. And I’m happy to do it. Nothing burns my matzo brei like seeing easily fixed mistakes in books aimed at an impressionable audience. And such mistakes are sadly common. A recently published picture book about Passover mentioned macaroons, but the artist painted a lovely stack of pastel macarons. (Tastier! Yet wrong!) Another Passover book depicted the Seder plate being carried triumphantly to the dinner table mid-meal, as if it were an entree. (The Seder plate is a ritual object that’s in use before the start of the meal.) A popular middle-grade fantasy novel set on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century mentioned butcher shop signs in Hebrew. (Nope. Hebrew was the language of prayer; Yiddish was the language of daily life and commerce.) A much-acclaimed young adult novel, when discussing the weekly Torah portion, called it a parshat rather than a parsha. (The latter means “portion”; the former means “portion of.”) A board book about hats of different cultures made errors about kippot. (They’re not just worn by men, and not everyone calls them kippot.)

These flaws indicate a lack of familiarity with the particulars of Jewish life, but they’re not toxic. Some authorial choices, however, are. The picture book Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf posits that Jewish children would be better off with some intervention from Santa and a Jew-pitying North Pole elf. (The way to deal with small Jewish children’s feelings of being left out at Christmastime is not by having a goyish elf rescue them and show them that Santa loves them.) A dystopian young adult alternative history by a Christian writer spins a fantasy about a Jewish teen shapeshifter who escapes a concentration camp, falls in love with a hot Evil Axis boy, and enters a cross-continental motorcycle race on a quest to kill Hitler. It was utterly trivializing about the Holocaust and got a starred review from Publishers Weekly. So that was nice.

Lately, conservative thinkers have been expressing horror and outrage over the notion of “sensitivity readers”—an unfortunate term for people like me who read manuscripts, at an author’s request, to make sure the author hasn’t inadvertently written something ill-informed or wrongheaded. Sensitivity readers (other, better terms include “expert readers” and “authenticity readers”) are representatives of an oft-marginalized group who try to ensure that the portrayal of the group—be it Jews, people of color, LGBTQ people, or people with physical disabilities and mental-health issues—is not dimwitted. Sometimes a sensitivity reader is a friend of the writer’s; sometimes it’s an academic; sometimes it’s a person of a given background who’s paid $250 to $500 to read a manuscript and provide feedback and advice. Authors need not take the advice of their sensitivity readers. No book contract has ever been canceled on the advice of a sensitivity reader. Sensitivity reading is not censorship.

“I’ve always asked experts to read my work before it’s published,” said longtime mega-bestselling young adult author (and my good pal) Gayle Forman. “Alisa Weilerstein was my reader for Where She Went [a novel about a teenage cellist]. For I Was Here I had the American Society for Suicide Prevention read it, because when you’re writing about suicide you have to get things exactly right or you’ll do serious damage.”

Of course, cellists and mental-health experts aren’t what people think about when they think about the dreaded sensitivity reader. What they’re thinking about is people of color and self-righteous, woker-than-thou white people screaming at innocent, well-meaning authors to get bent, and getting authors’ contracts canceled if they don’t bow to the ravening online rabble. Let’s be clear: I know of precisely one children’s book that was pulled from circulation because of its depiction of racial issues. A Birthday Cake for George Washington created a joyous narrative out of the true story of our first president’s enslaved chef, relegating the fact that he ran away and never saw his beloved child again to an afterword. It’s not hard to see how this book could be misleading and harmful to young readers … but it’s also worth pointing out that this book—the only one that actually, undeniably has been “censored”—was written, edited, and illustrated by people of color. (Trinidadian-Iranian, African-American, and African-American, respectively.)

When ill-informed people write ominous stories about nasty left-wing social media hordes attacking books for their portrayals of minority groups, they ignore a crucial fact: There are also nasty right-wing social media hordes. This is because people are assholes on social media. No one should be an asshole, no matter where they are on the political spectrum.

Yes, authors have withdrawn manuscripts after being yelled at on social media for displaying half-baked notions about marginalized cultures. (Not the Jews. As I’ve written before, no one in kidlit stops to consider us a minority group.) Often the loudest yellers about insensitivity are yellers who have not read the manuscript. This is evidence of assholery, but I’m not convinced it’s the end of the world. Publishing is experiencing growing pains as it tries to be more inclusive, and times of transition are challenging for everyone. Of the thousands of children’s books published every year, a small handful attract pre-publication outrage. Yet that handful gets way more ink than the fact that a character in a picture book is four times more likely to be a dinosaur than a Native American.

It can be discomfiting to be confronted with historic bias and prejudice; some people respond by feeling that their own voices are being silenced; they reject the goal of amplifying new voices that haven’t in the past been heard at all.

It’s vital to point out that for generations, depictions of people of color in children’s literature were few and far between. The publisher Lee & Low, which tracks diversity statistics, notes that “37 percent of the U.S. population are people of color, but only 13 percent of the children’s books published in the last 24 years contain multicultural content.” In 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison began counting the number of kids’ books written or illustrated by African-Americans. That first year, of the approximately 2,500 children’s books published in the United States, only 18 were created by African-Americans. Things are a bit better now, but not much. According to the CCBC, African-American, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote 7 percent of the new children’s books published in 2017.

It’s also vital to note that white writers can still write characters of color; writers without disabilities can still write characters with disabilities; straight and cisgender writers can still write LGBTQ characters. They just have to be … well, sensitive. When they get it right, in my reading experience, they rarely attract opprobrium.

“When I started writing I Have Lost My Way,” Forman told me, “I knew immediately that Freya was Ethiopian and white and Jewish, a combination of my daughters. Haroun was the big surprise—I felt I knew him the best, even though you could say I had no business writing him because he’s Pakistani, Muslim, and queer. And I am none of those things.” Forman worked with two Pakistani sensitivity readers, as well as an imam (“I read the Quran, but as a Jew, you know what it’s like to read scripture—there are varying interpretations, and you want to be sure not to misuse prayers”), and a young, gay, Muslim writer. “His input made the book so much better, emotionally,” she said.

A reporter before she was a novelist, Forman said, “The journalist and fact-checker in me makes me terrified of getting anything wrong. I want to get things right even when the stakes are low: We don’t have a history in this country of cellists being denied the right to tell their own stories; it’s not as if the trombone has been telling the cello’s stories for generations.”

Heidi Heilig, author of the middle-grade time-travel fantasies The Girl From Everywhere and The Ship Beyond Time (both beloved by my own 14-year-old) has used sensitivity readers and acted as a sensitivity reader for others. She’s helped fellow writers with depictions of biracial characters (“I’m half Chinese—my family immigrated to work in the sugar fields in Hawaii in the late 19th century, so we’re very connected to American and Hawaiian Chinese culture, but not Chinese-from-China culture”) and with depictions of mental illness (“I’m bipolar”). She told me in an interview: “When you have science or math in your book, people understand that you’d call your scientist friend and say, ‘Hey, does E=mc2?’ But when it comes to depictions of race, it’s HOW DARE! HOW DARE ANYONE! I think it’s obvious that some people don’t want to examine their own internal bigotries and flaws and ignorance.” (I was suddenly reminded of a line I saw on Tumblr: “Civility” means treating white people with respect; “political correctness” means treating anyone else with respect.)

“I was reading for a mixed-race character in a middle-grade novel by a white writer,” Heilig continued, “and the character was talking about wanting her dark hair to be a different color, and it turned blond magically, by fairies. I told the author, ‘You know, Asian people are told that blond hair is better than dark hair, and it’s kind of a thing—nonwhite readers recognize that Western beauty standards are upheld as the ideal across the world. It can be devastating for kids to think, ‘why is my hair so ugly?’ when it’s not ugly; it’s just not blond!” The author of the novel in question told me in an interview she was happy with the feedback. She rewrote the scene so that the character’s hair turned a harvest orange color and took pains to make clear that the character hated the change; she wasn’t attempting to fit into majority culture or whitewash her own looks. The reworked context made it clear: Fairies gonna fairy.

Julie Berry’s new book, Lovely War, is a sweeping story with a diverse cast, set during WWI. It came out this week to universal, rapturous acclaim, and I am unsurprised, because her rigorously researched last book blew me away with its beauty, brilliance and humanity. One of the four main characters in Lovely War, Berry told me in an interview, is a member of the Harlem Hellfighters. “Their history is so rich, and their story is so powerful, I wanted to get it as right as I could,” she said. “I did reading and research, but I also wanted perspectives from people who could directly identify. So I worked with a few different readers: One was an expert in African-American history and musical history; another gave me a black woman’s perspective, and then there was Kyle.”

“Kyle” is Kyle V. Hiller, an author and authenticity reader. “The word ‘sensitivity’ has in the past few years become problematic,” he told me in an interview. “To be sensitive doesn’t mean being a snowflake. But it’s become an attack word now. What I want is to help you be sure that what you’re writing is authentic and sensitive to cultures not your own. And when I think about my own characters, I’d still seek out authenticity readers, because our cultures aren’t a monolith.” (Indeed, Kokila, a brand new children’s imprint within Penguin Random House that focuses on “stories for and from marginalized communities,” plans on sensitivity readers for all its books. And why not? We Jews aren’t a monolith, so why should any other group be?)

Hiller is a co-founder of Angelella Editorial, a team of freelancers who provide editing, authenticity reading, and writing coaching. “I feel a responsibility about raising awareness, about listening to people from other cultures,” he said. “So there won’t be this Magical-Negro-Green-Book business all over again.” As a novelist himself—and one who writes characters from a variety of backgrounds—he’s aware of the potential pitfalls of misrepresentation for young audiences. “I tend to write women as my main characters,” he told me. “I’m not a woman, last time I checked. So I need to be careful that there isn’t evidence of the male gaze, even though I can’t 100 percent be aware of my own male gaze.” He continued, “People like to clap back as quickly as they can, but sometimes simply pointing out that the other person’s perspective is a problem helps.”

Hiller and Berry reflected for Tablet on Hiller’s impact on Lovely War. In one instance, Berry recalled, “A character is held at gunpoint and threatened with being lynched. There’s a scuffle and my character gets the upper hand. I thought in the moment of battle, gloves would come off verbally. But my ability to draw from my own experiences empathetically had limitations.” Hiller clarified, “The black main character is in an argument with a white character and they exchange racial insults with each other, and the black character said something like, ‘Let me tell you something, cracker—you don’t know what you’re wandering into.’ Now, I didn’t grow up during that time period, but I trust that’s not how black people interacted with racist white people. They kept calm; they had to. And it felt out of place for this collected character in general. Julie’s intent was to side with the black person, but it didn’t come off right.” Berry continued, “Kyle did a better job than I did in pointing out that’s not what this character would have done. There are all kinds of possible responses anyone might make to any provocation, but this character wouldn’t respond in kind and stoop to the level of his aggressor. Kyle’s feedback, I felt, made Aubrey a better character.”

Berry went on to explain how in another scene, Hiller helped her understand how a black character would respond to a nasty comment by a white soldier to a group of black soldiers in the mess hall of an army training camp. “Kyle made clear how the character would have learned to be conditioned to this kind of malice, and how it affects you in the body. It doesn’t just hit at a cognitive level of emotional pain or wounded feelings, but in an actual visceral way. And it stays with you. And you feel it again and again—it’s a wound that doesn’t resolve itself immediately. I was so struck and moved by that. Any experience I’ve had—it’s a partial analogy but inadequate as a basis for comparison, never having grown up being taught that the world would respond to me in this way because of what I looked like.”

Hiller also suggested that Berry change a line in which a black character said, “We’re slaves to our art.” He recalled, “The fact that it was said so casually—just, no. I’d never say I was a slave to anything. Because I’m not. Especially because this story takes place before the Civil Rights Movement. When you think about contemporary language bleeding into historical fiction you have to be mindful of that.” In another project Hiller worked on, he noted that the author “wanted to paint black characters in a positive light but using a backlight; the black characters were in the background. And that’s white saviorism. A white author might not even know it’s happening when they do it.”

I asked Hiller whether he thought social media made learning more difficult, and he laughed. “We looove canceling in our culture now. But people need to get the chance to learn, and people who do know better need to take the chance to listen. We have to be better at listening to each other, even if we really hate what the other person said. We all need to take a breath, talk it out, and mutually try to come to understanding.”

“There’s no weakness or cowardice in acknowledging that you don’t know what you don’t know,” Berry affirmed. “We all know how aggravating it is to see ourselves depicted in a way that’s just a little bit off—gender, race, religion. As an artist I’d like to cause that experience to others as little as possible. Why wouldn’t you want to be as accurate as you can and as reverent as you can be about the real, lived humanity of the people you’re depicting?”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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