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Are we doing it white?

whiteladiesMartha and I are teaching a class–that is, we are trying to teach a class, which has thus far been cancelled twice due to snow–on reviewing, and we’ve just assigned the students Malinda Lo’s provocative series of essays about reviewing and diversity. You all should take a look, too.

It’s reminding me of a too-brief conversation I had with Nina Lindsay at ALA; while we (reviewers) work as if guided by some kind of objective (as far as possible) criteria, in fact, we’re (essentially) educated middle-class white ladies reviewing for other educated middle-class white ladies.  When we knock books for being “didactic,” for example, we do so as if everyone agrees that didacticism is a bad thing. But that’s not true; it’s simply a critical standard that holds sway on anyone who has studied children’s literature in a graduate library school. The “everyone” who “agrees” is a smaller circle than we pretend. Is it, Nina asked, time to shake up our standards? Thoughts, class?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. It is long past time to do that, but perhaps before that can happen, we have to talk about why it hasn’t happened already. At the Day of Diversity, Midwinter, several speakers talked about how this conversation about diversity is not new.

    You, Roger, have seen this conversation before. I’d like to know your thoughts on why there’s no sustained change.

  2. Nina Lindsay says:

    Debbie, I’ll take a stab at why it hasn’t happened yet, and why I keep my fingers crossed that the conversation *might* actually be shifting. At least it is for me.

    You cannot underestimate the depth of insulation on the insular view of white people. That includes me. I’m white, very “progressive” (from the bubble of the Bay Area), from a long line of white people working for civil rights…and I feel like every day I am still picking wool from my ears, my eyes, my brain. I feel like every day I’m still just start to get it, and just the last few weeks/months, in fact, I feel like I’ve learned as much about the world as I did as a very young child.

    For me, a big shake-up was finally reading Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN, recently. Nothing in there I don’t think I didn’t know already, but I don’t believe I consciously understood much of it until I read that book. (You are all allowed to roll your eyes at me. I am.)

    It actually provides a useful comparison to this discussion. It was shortlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry, but didn’t win…Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night did. Gluck’s is a fully unique and life-changing work, and I think her best ever. It’s incomparable. It is also…while “provocative” literature emotionally…not at all provoking the (white) establishment of American poetry. Rankine’s is (because she is writing in prose poems, and because of her subject matter.) I am not saying that Rankine’s work is more deserving, or, that in an alternate universe, the committee wouldn’t have selected hers. I am saying that I’m not surprised that in this world they didn’t. Both highly deserving, Gluck was a safe choice, Rankine’s never was.

    As mostly white ladies, we of the children’s lit establishment are *never* forced to question our assumptions about what makes good literature for kids. Never. Why are there so many spunky female protagonists? Why is she mostly, always, white? Now, take any trope in children’s lit and ask the same question. How much are we basing our reactions to that trope on real knowledge of the readers out there (and not just the ones we know personally), and how much are we relying on our *own* reading experiences? There’s no right answer here, but the point is that white people are *never* forced to ask the question as white people.

    This is what I was getting to in my comment with Roger. Debbie, you said it well in your post about THE LONG WINTER…it’s about “status and nostalgia.”. Whose status and nostalgia? White ladies nostalgia, we give it status, end of story. I’ve known it, but I’m rarely asked to confront it, point to it, talk about it. We (white people) usually leave that to non-white people: a little easier to dismiss that way. It’s easy for white people not to confront it unless we say it ourselves, and I think (I hope) that more of us are doing so.

  3. Also, Malinda gives many varied examples in this series of actual reviews from trade journals. It’s an evidenced-based critique that can’t be easily dismissed. There can be no long-time reviewer, librarian, teacher, or reader of children’s and YA books who won’t read these examples and ML’s critique and realize, “I’ve thought and said and written these same kinds of things. I am on the record with them! It could have been my review and my journal she points to.”

    Paradoxically, the dispassionate evidence of the many very different examples, and the structure of the critique into categories, makes the discussion quite personal.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    Nancy, I agree with you. At the saame time I want to emphasize another level, which is that there *are* reviewers/librarians who have not “gone on record” with the kind of statements that Lo details so well…. who have, however, relied on the place of safety (for white people) that perspective creates, when talking about books.

    For instance, I’d ask white colleagues to imagine themselves at a group book discussion. Is everyone there white? (This is usually the case, so just picture it, but also think about whether you assumed it to begin with.) Does that affect how you are thinking about the books? Now imagine the group with non-white people….does your perspective shift? Why did it need to shift? Why did the first situation feel “normal,” when it was actually limited?

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Debbie, I think things *have* changed, if not as much as some would want. THE LONG WINTER would be different if written and published today. (This is not to say, at all, that stereotypes are done with, merely that consciousnesses have been raised.)

    The thing about Diversity Day that has stayed with me the most is the introductory warning that conversations were going to be difficult and emotional–we were even instructed to say “ouch” if someone said something somebody else found offensive. My feelings about the babyish instruction aside, I was still struck by how UNdifficult the discussions were–everybody played nice and safe and easy. The operating assumption seemed to be that the pie itself was fine, we just needed to share it with more people.

    I think Nina is right that status and nostalgia and comfort play large parts in maintaining the status quo; another aspect is disagreement among those who want change about just what change they want. You want us to “set aside” THE LONG WINTER. I want instead for it to be joined by more books like THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE.

    But the largest reason things have not changed more than they have is money, and the reliance by us on big publishers responding to a moral imperative rather than the demands of their stockholders. I don’t think that will happen. Self-publishers like Zetta Elliott and institutionally dependent publishers like Lee & Low are showing us another way, though.

  6. Day of Diversity was definitely a tightly controlled discussion. Many of us have been playing nice for a long time, with it’s not working.

    Roger, thanks for your honesty and this post. What I’m wondering is, what kinds of steps – steps toward systemic change – has HB taken to diversify and/or train its staff since your Nappy Hair episode, since I asked you this same question at ChLA several years ago? Maybe you have, and I just don’t know.

  7. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’ve never been to ChLA so that must have been some other dude 😉 While the Horn Book staff members are white, and most of our reviewers are white, I am proud of the work we do to bring attention to diverse books by diverse authors for diverse audiences. (Let me also point out, as I do in the forthcoming March editorial, that diversity goes beyond skin color.) Could we do more? Sure. Will everyone be satisfied? Never. Ever.

    In a planning meeting last summer, we discussed the possibility of having some kind of dedicated ‘diversity” column in each issue of the Magazine but decided we didn’t want to pigeonhole our articles in that way. Instead, we made an internal committment to honor diversity in deed in every issue. I’ll leave it up to our readers to decide if we are doing a good job, but I just proofread the March issue and, holy moly, it’s got a LOT.

  8. Roger, you were on a panel with Deb Stevenson and Kirkus re: book reviewing when ChLA was hosted by Simmons! I think you were there for just that panel.

    I’m also thankful for the work HB does in bringing more attention to diverse books, for continuing the discussions, and providing platforms for discussions, such as we are having here. We all need to keep doing this work together.

    That said, one of the things we keep talking about is systemic change, and one of the things many people have pointed out is the need to diversify the people working in the different parts of the industry. I may be asking you the same question again because, while I’m thankful for all that HB does, I hope for and expect more. Could you do more? Sure. Will we ever be satisfied? Should we? 🙂

  9. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sure enough. I got confused because NAPPY HAIR was twenty years ago and that conference seems like it was yesterday!

    Yeah, we’re still white, and at this moment, whiter than we have been in the past. We have had a few young women of color as interns in recent years, which gives me hope. But I also hope that people don’t believe that the Horn Book’s employment statistics about ethnic background should be the yardstick by which the fulfillment of our mission–‘to blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls”–is measured. Instead, I hope people look at what we do (or what we don’t!).

  10. Alec Chunn says:

    I’ll begin with a confession: I’m a naïve, white, male, gay, twenty-something graduate student. Perhaps my voice is too new, too inexperienced in the ways of the world. I don’t even work in a proper library. I’m all ambition with nothing to show for it. At least not yet.

    In my graduate program (which, admittedly, is mostly white and female) our professors ask us—demand of us—to question the status quo. To interrogate not only our own (mostly) white privilege but the power that we—as adults—have over the children we serve. I would like to think that my colleagues and I are asking the right questions, even when we don’t have answers. But maybe the problem is in the asking and not the doing.

    I think it is easy for people in my generation (or maybe just for me, since I really shouldn’t speak for everyone) to assume that we are the game changers, and that we need to wait for those who are in power now to be overthrown or replaced so we can have our liberal, progressive, all-inclusive way with the world. But it doesn’t work like that. The system doesn’t change overnight. But the more we—or anyone for that matter—waits to act and speak up, the less change happens. Many voices in the field are pretty loud these days. Or at least loud enough that fledgling librarians like myself not only hear their murmurs but participate in their conversations. I think that’s a good thing. Sarah asks if we should be satisfied. We can’t be. To be satisfied would be an admission that there is no remaining inequity in the world.

    I’ll show my age again by paraphrasing a young indie musician who spoke at Billboard’s Women in Music a few years back: the only way to bring about tangible change is to put the right people in positions of power. Let’s hope that these people are commenting on this thread, are working for HB and its sister publications, are attending library science programs like the one I attend. If we get enough people talking, how can change *not* happen?

  11. I am so thrilled you posted on this, Roger. Over at SLJ Reviews, we’ve been following this (and Malinda Lo’s blog series) with interest.

    Diversifying publishing and librarianship at large can seem like overwhelming goals. Worthy and important–but where do we start? Perhaps a first step is to make a personal commitment to diversity, to educating oneself and intentionally seeking out ways to strengthen one’s own cultural literacy–especially given the fact that youth librarianship is painfully homogeneous.

    For our part, we’ve decided to take a good, hard look at our reviews, our reviewers, and our standards of evaluation. Who are our reviewers? Where do they live? What kinds of communities do they serve? How do they self-identify? What experiences do they bring to their reading? As Roger mentions above, what we mean by “diversity” is more than race and ethnicity–though that is certainly a huge piece of this puzzle. What can we do to attract new reviewers who will bring varied perspectives? How can my staff and I train existing reviewers to take off our blinders and ask ourselves the tough questions when evaluating literature?

    I love how open Nina is and how honest and transparent she is about her own continual learning process. That’s a example we can all learn from. This isn’t a problem to “solve” but a continual process of asking questions, pushing at tired, old standards, challenging our assumptions, and not settling for “good enough.” We are making some great progress, for sure–but we have a long way to go.

    Although it’s referenced in one of Malinda’s post, it’s worth calling attention to Amy Koester’s recent blog post on collection development and white privilege:

  12. Nina Lindsay says:

    Alec, I’m glad to hear from you because I do think/hope your generation, entering the profession, is part of the sea change. I think there’s a lot to be learned in inter-generational exchange on this topic. I agree that the real change won’t happen until “the right people” are “in positions of power.” We have a lot of work ahead of us to make that change in our related professions (librarianship, publishing, etc.)

  13. Kiera,

    I’m hoping you know that I’ve done some very in-depth reviews at my site, of books that get stars or favorable reviews. I do chapter by chapter or page by page studies, all with the point of showing the author, editor, reviewers, parents, teacher, etc., what I see when I read a book that has “three lines” as someone said to me, about Native people or culture. Those three lines exist amongst millions of others. They’re what people are calling, today, microaggressions. Most don’t even see them, but those who are the subject of them, definitely see them.

    A great deal of my frustration with the review community is a defense of those three lines. The “what you call a stereotype, someone else calls a hero” or the “but it is FICTION” or similar responses.

    The pile of books with problematic depictions of Native people is sky high, especially in comparison to accurate and realistic ones (I’m not calling for positive–as I said to Andrew Karre last night, a lot of us are assholes and I’d like to see that in books, too). But real Indians (like those in Birchbark) are a hard sell in a climate that adores Little House, where Indians speak “heap big snow come.” That’s not just inaccurate, it is racist. What if more of you white ladies (to use Nina’s phrase) and white men, talked to other white ladies and white men about the racism that nostalgia upholds? What if you called each other out on the “well it is a product of its time” line of defense. People say racist things about Native peoples and POC today. That “product of its time” defense is bogus.

  14. Nina Lindsay says:

    Roger, the *ultimate* fulfillment of your mission *depends* on the diversity of experience of your staff. It goes for all of our institutions, all of them, and it is not directed at any of us as individual professionals.

  15. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Up to a point, Nina. I worry that people aren’t thinking through some caveats.

    While diverse workplaces can be viewed as intrinsically valuable, they don’t mean that the institutions themselves will change, as institutions tend to hire people–regardless of background–who will reinforce the status quo of that workplace. It is also a mistake to assume that people from a particular background will hold a particular point of view (God, one hopes not!) or have particular knowledge. By saying this I don’t mean to dismiss the value that cultural background brings–I’ve rolled my eyes too often at books about gay people by well-meaning heterosexuals to make that mistake–simply that we can’t assume that a more diverse workplace will automagically bring equity.

  16. Barb Outside Boston says:

    For all the people who would be interested in exploring just how unaware you might be of what it is like to be a minority (especially if you are a liberal white woman!), I would like to recommend Debby Irving’s WAKING UP WHITE. Debby is a nice liberal from Cambridge who thought she was completely ‘aware’ of what is was like to be a person of color, but she through hard work she found out how her world view was wrong.

  17. Roger, the thing is, hiring practices and employment statistics with regard to (for example) racial and ethnic background ARE part of the status quo of a workplace. Hiring decisions are not made in a vacuum; they’re affected by both conscious intent and unconscious, internalized biases. It’s all too easy to take statements like “I also hope that people don’t believe that the Horn Book’s employment statistics about ethnic background should be the yardstick by which the fulfillment of our mission is measured” as leaning toward dismissal of those statistics’ importance, and such a “this isn’t the end-all, be-all solution” statement can easily be interpreted as an expression of bias. A statement like “while diverse workplaces can be viewed as intrinsically valuable, they don’t mean that the institutions themselves will change” is equally easy to interpret that way.

    I’m not going to say you’re actively or consciously devaluing those things by making those statements – I’m no more privy to the inner workings of your mind than I am to anyone else’s – but putting those words in print has meaning for the people who read them, and there are many, many people who will read them as indicative of bias. Bias in favor of negation; bias in favor of diminishment. And my inability to know the true unadorned nature of your thoughts means I can’t dismiss the possibility that you are, in fact, biased in that way, and therefore genuinely inclined to defend the status quo.

    I actually do agree that finding a solution with completely satisfies everyone with a horse in the race (which means eeeeeveryone, of course) is not likely, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or don’t have to try. That is part of the discomfort and imperfection of this work. There are no easy, pre-packaged solutions, alas, so doing this work requires a multiplicity of efforts and changes. I wouldn’t say that diversifying your staff is the ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL solution for making the world of children’s literature fully engage with the world as it truly is, but it’s certainly part of the solution.

    At the Kweli’s Children’s Book Conference diversity panel Daniel José Older delivered some powerful words about historical imbalances in power, cultural contexts of oppression, and the need for diversity throughout the industry, not just among authors and illustrators (I wasn’t there, by the way, I just read the transcript). There are many levers of power and influence in our business, as there are in any business; reviewing books and holding court in the arena of public discourse are not the least of those. You and your staff are not insignificant in the scheme of things, Roger. It would be immensely meaningful to see a demonstrated commitment to diversification by the Horn Book, not just in way those levers of influence are used, but among the people who have the opportunity to use them.

  18. Roger, in regards to your point that the injunction against didactic literature is a cultural standard and not an objective standards, I’ve recently written an article that compares Mary Mapes Dodge and José Martí in their work as editors of children’s magazines. When you look at how each of them determined standards for their magazines, you see just how culturally specific anglophones’ dislike of didactic books is. I also take a look at standards for the Newbery in comparison with the Barco de vapor award (for children’s books in Latin America and Spain). The article’s in an academic anthology edited by Claudia Mills–should hopefully be available at most research libraries by now. Here’s the link to the volume:

  19. Also, the structure of posting replies here is weird…

  20. Nina Lindsay says:

    Thanks Barb, going to look it up. I am reading UPROOTING RACISM by Paul Kivel, I also highly recommend it.

  21. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    AMEN. I’m trying to find out if I can change it.

  22. Nina Lindsay says:

    Yes Mike…and thanks for your reply. And Roger, you and I don’t really disagree….I was offering a counterpoint to expand on your reply, but Mike addressed it much better than me. If you read my comment again I hope you will find that I did not suggest an assumption “that people from a particular background will hold a particular point of view (God, one hopes not!) or have particular knowledge.” I also happen to know how small your staff is, and that always has a role to play. I’m pointing at you because you started this thread, but I emphasize this goes for all of us.

    I do think it’s important to start checking our reactions and defenses. When you say, in defense, “But I also hope that people don’t believe that the Horn Book’s employment statistics about ethnic background should be the yardstick…” this is treading dangerously close to the micro-aggressions that Debbie is pointing to up above, “But it’s a product of it’s time…” “But it’s fiction…” That is, the defense, because it comes from the point-of-view-in-power, the status-quo, becomes a *dismissal* of the counterpoint. Whether or not you intended it to be.

  23. I just wanted to say I am really heartened by the response to my posts, especially those from Kiera Parrot and from Roger for posting about this at The Horn Book. Thank you all for reading the posts and for taking them seriously.

  24. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’ll just put this comment wherever it falls and hope that people can follow! Mike and Nina, I don’t think we disagree, either. My point about yardsticks was only to say that the Horn Book is in the business of supplying information about books for children, blowing that horn that BMM held up in 1924. I am intensely devoted to the idea that our business includes getting out information about cultural diversity–who’s out there, what’s out there, and what’s NOT out there. I am open to revealing our employment demographics (and Jason Low is pulling together those for all the journals) and would LOVE to find more reviewers who are not white women, but please: look at what we do as well as who we are. I know I sound defensive–I know i FEEL defensive!–but I only wish my January editorial about #WNDB ( got half as many comments as we’re gathering here. I’m not looking for praise or agreement here, just more engagement with what we do.

  25. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    And Malinda’s fans will be pleased to know she has an essay forthcoming in the May issue. (Sorry, just doing my job 😉

  26. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Annnnd comments have been de-nested site-wide. Please forgive any resulting confusion.

  27. Nina Lindsay says:

    Roger, sometimes it’s just the time and place, re how many comments you get.

    Hey: free webinar from TLA starting in 2 hrs on nurturing a diverse workplace:

    As we start to really examine workplace diversity in our fields, I also want to acknowledge that the *staff* of the trade review journals is not synonymous with their *reviewers* and that the latter pool is harder to track and train. But clearly, from Malinda’s post, is a pool that needs some attention. I’m part of that pool…and for years, for more than one journal, kept on getting “anything” (it felt like to me) Native American. I am not Native American. I just paid attention to what I was hearing from Oyate, Beverly Slapin, Debbie Reese. I wish more reviewers would.

    Librarians feed the pools of reviewers, especially for SLJ. At the same time, many libraries have headed to centralized selection, which means fewer children’s librarians are getting regularly schooled in these critical practices, after library school. We need to do a better job of making sure librarians are cultural competent reviewers of children’s books, throughout their careers.

  28. Question for Roger:

    Remember when you decided it was inappropriate for me to use the word stereotype to characterize a kid playing Indian? You decided to give the review to someone else. Later, in a review of a nonfiction book about California missions, I said the author was ignoring new research on the missions, and that review got reassigned, too.

    Those were terse moments for me. I was furious. All the power was yours, and it dictated what I could or could not say as a HB reviewer. Because of those two experiences, it was not hard for me to decide to move on and focus on my dissertation. I think if you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have left.

    Would it be different if I submitted those reviews today?

  29. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Debbie, how could I forget? 😉 Actually, i *do* forget what happened with the book about the missions but remember the playing-Indian question very well. In this book, THE BIRTHDAY BEAR, two contemporary white children and their grandfather, among other activities, put on fake headdresses and pretend to be Indians.

    In regard to your review of this book, nothing would be different today. You criticized it not for inaccuracy or stereotyping but because the characters in the book engaged in an activity you found objectionable. We can’t knock a book because we morally disapprove of its fictional characters’ actions. What I said then I’ll say now: I take the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights very seriously, and I believe “materials should not be proscribed because of doctrinal or partisan disapproval” with all my heart.

  30. Roger, how do you square that with the HB review of Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects and Other Man-Made Catastrophes, where your reviewer comments that the characters are “blithely unconcerned with political correctness” when playing Settlers and Indians? Kirkus similarly comments, “there is no textual mitigation of a running joke that seems anachronistic at best–readers may well be left feeling uncomfortable with the stereotype.”

  31. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I guess I don’t see the contradiction, Sarah. The whole context for that sentence is “two ordinary scenes from real life make rare children’s-book appearances: someone is actually seen smoking a cigarette…and Alvin and the gang, blithely unconcerned with political correctness, enthusiastically play settlers and Indians. Thankfully, neither event results in a moral; this is fiction, not fable.” We are in fact saying the opposite of Kirkus–and happily recommended the book.

  32. Whoa, de-nested comments, turbulence, BLOGOSPHERIC TURBULENCE…

    Roger, I have – perhaps despite evidence to the contrary – great respect for you and for Horn Book, and things like that January editorial and Malinda’s forthcoming essay are valuable and worthy of praise. I also believe the very lucid, cogent remarks being made here by people of vast intellect and integrity (AWKWARD HIGH FIVES TO MY PEEPS DEBBIE AND SARAH) can not be weighed in opposition to commendable actions; they are aimed squarely at a problem that is monstrous in its depth and breadth.

    I very much appreciate everything Nina Lindsay is saying here, partly because I know the level of honesty and vulnerability she’s modeling can be painful and complicated to engage in, and partly because she’s contributing to our collective understanding of how staggeringly large an issue we’re contending with. Institutional racism is not a surface phenomenon; we can’t scrub it from one layer of an institution and be done with it, because it permeates all of the many layers beneath. I think we can all agree that addressing diversity among the community of children’s book reviewers is a daunting prospect, but that’s true across the board.

    I don’t argue with the desire to see more of a response to positive, productive statements and actions; I’m very much a believer in acknowledging those things. But the work we’re trying to do here is monumental. It merits all the attention we give it, and more. There are power dynamics in action here too – as I said in my earlier comment, I can’t say with any degree of truth whether your intent is to diminish voices of dissent and activism by putting the focus on what Horn Book is doing well, but that will be the impression taken away by many.

    There is value in choosing not to give that impression; indeed, I think it’s desperately important to be fully conscious about which voices are heard and acknowledged. There are many, many things the Horn Book can do to put its commitment to diversity into action. Publishing an essay by Malinda Lo is a great one. Writing supportive editorials about #WNDB is another. Hearing and acknowledging a communal demand for more and more change, without lapsing into defensiveness, even as you’re doing those other things, is yet another. Is that last one difficult to do? Of course. Is it productive? Meaningful? Necessary? Yes, yes, and yes.

  33. Interesting that in the wide-ranging conversation nobody is directly talking about money. And, admit it or not, money is at the heart of how reviewing gets done. The Horn Book staff is astonishingly tiny considering the volume and quality of work they produce. Their off-site review staff gets paid shockingly little for the work they do. I’m not going to speak for the Horn Book on reviewer pay, but the people I know who get paid to review books and should be held to a professional standard, get under $20 per review.
    So consider that a book takes any where from 1 to 5 hours to read. Then there’s time for reflection, comparison to other books in the field and current thinking about children’s literature, composition of the review, revision and cutting to get it between 50-100 words, and proofreading. All for a fraction of minimum wage. Most reviewers have advanced degrees.
    Consequently, reviewing tends to be done by a privileged few who have the luxury of working for substandard wages in spite of advanced academic preparation. It’s done by people who can physically afford this through independent wealth, a working spouse, a willingness to live simply, or some combination of these. Further they have to be willing to work in a profession undervalued in terms of prestige.
    Reviewers are overwhelmingly white, but not just white. They are members of a particular economic class and tend to hold a service-minded outlook. Unless we change the money part of the equation, we might change the racial composition of the reviewer pool but I doubt we will change the reviewers’ economic class or social outlook. And so the outward diversity—though laudable—may not change things as much as we would hope.

  34. First off — yes, the conversation at Day of Diversity was tightly controlled. As one of the leaders, I wish we had made different decisions on that score (note – I’m speaking for myself here, not on behalf of ALSC or any of my co-leaders). I think that the communication guidelines at the beginning (which I gave!!) encouraged too many people to say nothing. I’m sorry we were so very cautious. That decision came from a place of fear, and it was not the right one, as far as I’m concerned. Lesson learned.

    That said, Roger, Ouch. Major Ouch to your response to Debbie.

    What is the difference between “stereotyping” and “engaging in an action you find objectionable” in this case? How is an instance in which children put on feathers and play Indian not stereotyping? I’m totally at a loss.

    Similarly on Alvin Ho — the “kids do this in real life” argument makes me livid. Adults who observe kids engaging in perpetuating dehumanizing and damaging stereotypes have a responsibility to speak up, intercede, and interrupt it. I work in a school. If I observe kids engaging in stereotypes, I do my best to interrupt it. If another adult is merely looking on, I encourage him/her to do the same. I hold book creators to the same standard. How did this scene get past so many adults’ eyes–the author’s, editors, reviewers–without anyone interrupting it?

    It is possible to describe racism without prescribing it, but that’s not what these instances are.

    When you argue that books should not be condemned because of doctrinal or partisan disapproval, I have to ask: Is it really doctrinal or partisan to insist that books affirm, rather than degrade, the humanity of Native people? And if so, who’s defining what it means to be doctrinal and partisan? Cuz it sure isn’t Native readers…

    But your assertion that reviews need to be free of doctrine or partisanship also bothers me on a deeper level. The very notion that we can achieve objectivity, or that objectivity is to be striven for at all costs, is reflective of White cultural norms. Not everyone agrees with this goal. And even if we did all agree, we would still need to ask: Who gets to decide what it means to be objective? Ie — who’s got the power?

    We’ve all got to continue the important work of self-examination. This is especially hard for white people (me included!). Nina is modeling it beautifully. For anyone who’s interested in identifying and combating elements of white-dominant culture in their organizations, I highly recommend this resource from Dismantling Racism:

    Major thanks and appreciation, Roger, for your original post and for highlighting Malinda Lo’s article — I think you’re spot on to do so. Also huge thanks for what others have said, especially Mike and Nina.

  35. Without knowing the book in question, I would argue that having characters “playing Indian” ruptures the contract between writer and reader–both a disruption of fictional dream and a betrayal of the implicit promise to a child reader of safety within the pages of a book–and thus is very much a craft issue, and quite material to a review.

    I’m curious whether having white characters dress up as stereotypes of other marginalized groups in an unquestioned way would be considered worthy of comment, or “partisan.” Framing it as a freedom of speech issue feels like a distraction–Allie Jane says it much better than I can. If we are helping librarians purchase and recommend books, aren’t the presence of wounding stereotypes very material, so the librarians can make informed choices about what to recommend and what conversations to have with their patrons about the books in their collection?

    As Malinda so well taught us, white readers tend to look at books assuming their own cultural norm. But what is “partisan” to a reader in the dominant culture can be a matter of essential dignity to a child. And I think our work is to affirm that dignity, above all else. Otherwise what the heck are we doing? Debbie’s work is to get the rest of the world to see how hurtful these casual stereotypes in books are to kids, and that seems worthy of great respect.

    And how do we ever get better if this stuff is getting edited out of reviews? I want to get better.

  36. Nina Lindsay says:

    Here is what I take from the Alvin Ho review. These are my personal reactions to the wording.

    “In addition, two ordinary scenes…”
    Ordinary=Normal, everyone does it

    “ …from real life make rare children’s-book appearances: someone is actually seen smoking a cigarette (Louisa May Alcott — who knew?); and Alvin and the gang, blithely unconcerned with political correctness, enthusiastically play settlers and Indians. “

    Political correctness is a pejorative term, so being blithely unconcerned by it is good.

    “Thankfully, neither event results in a moral;”

    If I am not “thankful” there is no moral, then I must be outside the norm, bad.

    “…this is fiction, not fable.”

    Morals are not appropriate in fiction.

    “The story’s only life lesson comes from Alvin himself, when he accepts a last-minute invite to classmate Hobson’s party and decides to skip Flea’s birthday tea party.”

    Wrong: there is another lesson here, which is that playing settlers and Indians, when done enthusiastically for fun, is unobjectionable.

    There are a LOT of judgments made in this review. But they are status quo judgments. I take the Library Bill of Rights very seriously too. But pointing out a stereotype for what it is NOT flying in the face of “materials should not be proscribed because of doctrinal or partisan disapproval,” and in fact trotting this out is a sign of privilege. “Partisan” suggests a group organized in argument against another to gain power, condemning this viewpoint to the self-interested minority. “Doctrine” has to do with political platform, right? So objecting to dehumanizing stereotype is…”policitally correct?” How about just “human?” In fact, the only doctrine really at play here is white privilege, partisan to its core.

    (Finishing this, I think I’m repeating Allie and Anne, but …)

    Roger: if I wrote a chapter book in which a character pretend to be a “slave” enjoying a slice of watermelon, how would you comment on that scene?

  37. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Allie Jane–the reason the “Ouch” directive at Diversity Day bothered me was that rather than presuming we were all professionals with good intentions and a shared goal it set us up as adversaries, aggressors and victims.

    Now as to your “Ouch” here: the history of children’s librarianship is filled with those who would limit access to books on the basis of their potential harm to children. Sometimes these limitations are sought by social conservatives; sometimes by progressives. (Sometimes the same book will get it from both sides, see TWILIGHT.) Each side generally thinks the other’s idiotic–we laugh at people who think Harry Potter promotes Satanism; they mock us for “Political Correctness” when we try to take Huck Finn out of the classroom.

    But either way it takes a grand leap on the part of the challenger to claim actual harm. You have made once such leap here, deciding that a fictional depiction of non-Indian children “playing Indian” perpetuates “dehumanizing and degrading stereotypes.” You give the book a lot of power, and also assume that there is some kind of consensus of what is acceptable and what is not. There is not–I worked at Chicago Public Library in the wake of JAKE AND HONEYBUNCH GO TO HEAVEN, and opinions about whether that book contained harmful stereotypes were all over the place, among the black and white librarians alike. And the older reviewers here at Horn Book complained that Salley and Stevens’ TO MARKET, TO MARKET stereotyped old ladies. And we all remember THE SNOWY DAY, which went from lauded to damned and back again.

    I am certainly not setting myself up as the arbiter of what constitutes acceptable behavior for characters in a book. Do i want reviewers who know African American history, Japanese culture, Cuban politics? Absolutely. Do I want reviewers who have lived those things? Even more. But knocking a book for cultural cluelessness (something I’m all for) is not the same thing as knocking it for “harmfulness,” something I don’t think it’s in my purview to decide.

    Back in the 70s, there was an attempt made within ALA to revise the Library Bill of Rights when it came to children’s materials for just the reasons Allie Jane outlines. I wonder if we will see such a push again.

  38. I’m scratching my head here. I’ve been arguing that naming a stereotype as harmful (which they are) is 100% relevant in professional reviews.

    I thought it was pretty clear that we’ve been talking about reviewing and what’s relevant to a review, not about banning or censoring books.

    Yet you say: “…the history of children’s librarianship is filled with those who would limit access to books on the basis of their potential harm to children.”

    We may ostensibly have a common goal, but in this case, I’m saying Ouch again. I should be able to criticize a book — or a review — or philosophy about reviewing — without being accused of advocating for censorship.

  39. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Well, Allie Jane, I guess I was making the assumption that if reviewers for library selectors should point out stereotypes, that it followed that librarians should feel free–praiseworthy, even–to pass on a book for the same reason. Am I inferring incorrectly?

    And Nina, it seems clear to me that the reviewer knew that the characters in Alvin Ho were engaged in behavior that many would find reprehensible, thus her extensive commentary about it. Why do we–the Horn Book–need to say “children shouldn’t do this, you know”? You seem perfectly capable of saying so yourself. There’s a long list of things people think children shouldn’t do. Which ones shall we point fingers at.

    Show me the book that has the character pretending to be a slave and eating watermelon and I’ll tell you what I think! I can’t review a hypothetical.

    I gotta go to Unitarian choir rehearsal now.

  40. Last time I checked, a librarian deciding to spend her (these days, very limited) budget selectively — and perhaps passing on books that perpetuate stereotypes — isn’t censorship, it’s selection. And certainly I think it’s the job of reviewers to arm librarians with such knowledge.

    And I think Nina’s point was that the language in the review condones –actually PRAISES — the stereotyping. It’s a passive, subtle form of praise, harder to identify and therefore call out (the use of “ordinary”, “politically correct” and “thankfully” are all microaggressions). But praise it is.

    Have fun at choir rehearsal!! I love singing.

  41. What I hear: that racist stereotypes in The Long Winter just represent antiquated ideas, but the continued deployment of those stereotypes merely reflects contemporary attitudes; that big publishers are unlikely to change so self-publishing is an answer, but self-published books aren’t worthy of review; that the perspectives of more diverse reviewers are obviously necessary, but the ways in which those reviewers’ perspectives diverge from dominant ones are unacceptable. A Native reviewer says why she stopped reviewing, but the reasons reviewers are mostly white must be financial ones. All reviews judge books, but judging an author’s use of stereotypes is a step towards censoring books.

    I feel like this logic is absolutely everywhere in white-dominated culture, and it is *exhausting*.

    But it’s more than exhausting for those on the receiving end. I’m all for applauding positive actions, too, but not if in so doing we’re asked to lose sight of harm. Roger, I know we’ve gone around on this topic before, but if we don’t think these issues have real effects on real people, why are all of us here talking?

    If proof other than people’s accounts of their own experiences is needed, I’d point to this, as Debbie has many times before: Debbie also has an excellent post linking mascots and stereotypical depictions of Native people in children’s books at her site. And there have been many other studies as well. But I think hearing what other people are saying should be enough.

  42. Nina Lindsay says:

    Roger, I know you’re at choir practice right now, and I’m about to head out to listen to some live music myself. But the reason I cannot show you a book with the scene I describe is that no one would write it today (we hope). Most people understand the effect this scene would have, but don’t yet understand the effect of more subtly racist depictions of African Americans, or, sadly, very blatant ones of Native Americans.

    The Library Bill of Rights guides us at that selection end of the spectrum of a books use. What we’re talking about here, I think (!), is how can we, and should we, influence the production of the books made available for us to purchase so that we can fulfill the mission of our libraries, and the Library Bill of Rights, which also says “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.”

    Condoning stereotypes that masquerade as normalcy in books for children works against this.
    I don’t think it goes against freedom of speech or freedom of inquiry, and requires no change in the Library Bill of Rights, to call this out when we see it, to name what is actually going on.

  43. Good morning!

    I’ve just uploaded a post at my site about this conversation. It includes a link to a pdf of an article I wrote about the rejection and ensuing conversation I had with Roger about THE BIRTHDAY BEAR.
    Here’s the link to the post itself:

    And here’s the link to the pdf:

  44. Kate Messner says:

    I’m more than a little stunned to learn in this comments thread that Horn Book reviews were reassigned because a reviewer pointed out what she felt was a harmful stereotype in one case and a lack of awareness of current research in another. And even more stunned to hear that those reviews would still be reassigned today. Really? When so many people are saying that they *want* learn and want to be more aware? Sadly, it makes me wonder what other voices are being quieted here.

  45. Popping back into this discussion to say two things:

    1) Un-nested comments are incredibly frustrating. Blogospheric turbulence, indeed!

    2) Crowd-sourcing time! I’m building a rough and dirty list of resources–both online articles and blog posts as well as recommended books–all related to diversity and book reviewing/evaluation. I’ve tried to grab all of the suggestions already mentioned in this thread, but please feel free to add your own. Again, focused tightly on book evaluation, but if it’s a great resource that supports cultural literacy, that counts.

    Okay, a third thing: What if we–review editors, children’s lit experts, and other smart folks–get together either in person or virtually with the goal of creating an updated set of criteria for book evaluation as it relates to diversity? And to talk through some of the tougher issues, like the grey areas between selection and censorship. The issue of what aspects of a work should and should not be included in a book review is incredibly tricky and worth digging into a bit deeper, I think. This and other threads have been so engaging and useful–but nothing beats a real-time conversation. Maybe a Google hangout?

  46. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    It wasn’t that cut and dried, Kate, and it never is. There was quite a lot of discussion between me and Debbie before I made the decision to reassign the review. My problem with what Debbie wrote was not that I approved of children “playing Indian” (I don’t) or that she mentioned this aspect of the book, it was that she saw this one scene in a chapter book as a fatal flaw. Here is the text of the BIRTHDAY BEAR review we published in the Horn Book Guide:
    “Visiting their grandparents in the country, David and Sally play outdoors and have an adventure when a bear comes out of the woods and eats David’s birthday cake. This European import set in North America seems oddly old-fashioned: David and Sally (and Grandpa) don feathered headdresses and pretend to be war-whooping Indians; the encounter with the bear is predictable; and the artwork is sentimentally idyllic.”

    As you can see, we did not dismiss Debbie’s complaint, instead giving it a context within the whole book. Any reader of that review who had issues with “playing Indian” could not say that we didn’t tell them.

    A huge part of a book review editor’s job is making sure that the reviewer has considered the whole book. This is why I can’t answer Nina’s hypothetical about kids pretending to be slaves and eating watermelon–it’s all about context. One of the criticisms way back when about JAKE AND HONEYBUNCH was that it depicted black people eating barbecue (stereotype) in heaven (sacrilege). I recently interviewed Floyd Cooper about his new picture book JUNETEENTH FOR MAZIE, in which black people are depicted . . . eating barbecue. (And it looked heavenly.) I recently edited a review of Laura Hillenbrand’s adaptation of UNBROKEN for young people. In checking a quote, my eyes fell across what felt like the worst patch of purple prose I had seen in a long time. The reviewer had not mentioned it and she was right not to, as the purple patch was not indicative of the prose as a whole. A reviewer can’t make a review about One Thing, unless the book is only about One Thing, in which case there are larger problems than the review.

  47. I recently gave a short white space at Kindling Words on hearing “cultural beats” in children’s literature and making books an invitation, rather than an edict. I’ll probably blog because it’s longer than is reasonable for the space here.

    First – I wanted to personally thank Roger, because he’s one of the few people in the mainstream (read white) part of the industry I have thought has heard my concerns on diversity. Certainly the industry took notice when Roger ran an essay about how Caldecott had not ever awarded the medal to a Black individual save Dillon. And then “voila!” Jerry Pinkney rises to the top that year.

    When Roger invited me to write an essay for Horn Book I wrote it in my preferred vernacular. A language my children use as well only to be told they aren’t “Black enough” because we are too “literary.” So kudos to him for continuing to raise the subject of how and why decisions are made and asking the question of what to do to change it.

    But I would emphasize that despite the current climate of “diversity” discussions, it still feels like a death of a thousand cuts as we begin to nominate our new deities and listen more intently to the voices of newly anointed initiatives while ignoring initiatives such as BrownBookshelf which started a forum to showcase people of color. Elizabeth Bluemle wrote Shelftalker blogs which helped get some of these new books acquired and published a list of books getting little marketing attention. Bernette Ford (formerly of Cartwheel Books) started ColorBridge Books and gave many of us a start in our careers at a time when no one else would. The Hudsons started Just for Us. People started the CSK and Pura Bel Pre awards. K.T. Horning and CCBC have been publishing diversity statistics for years with no industry reaction. Deborah Taylor pushed for increased acceptance of CSK books but the industry turned a blind eye.

    There are so many people who have been at the forefront of the struggle and were ignored. Walter Dean Myers finally unleashed the fury we all felt from decades of micro aggressions that continued when Rachel Russell, was shut out of BookCon despite outselling two of the headliners combined. 

Once We Need Diverse Books started I can tell you that people in the industry who were part of the problem suddenly rushed to the table to be “involved” only after massive donations started rolling in. And I can tell you those people are still part of the problem. One publisher recently asked me to audition for a new series in which all the ethnic characters had flaws but the white character was cheerful, helpful and brought everyone together. I balked, was told I was too sensitive, and the publisher is the first to brag in public they are helping “fix” the diversity problem.

    We can’t fix this problem unless gatekeepers spend more time listening (and less time lecturing and tinkering) – both to the various rhythms that inhabit the children who now occupy more than 50% of the landscape in terms of ethnic population. And to those of us who have advocated for them.

    I have friends, both editors and authors who are getting out of the business, because after a while, they’ve just become bone weary of constantly marching against water canons, dogs, and well meaning people who keep filtering the information through their own lenses.

    Thanks to Roger for giving voice to our frustrations over the year. We’re all in the fight together. But battle fatigue is setting in as I look at the CCBC numbers and realize not only does the increase pre-date WNDB which is a powerful tool, but not the catalyst, but is almost all the result of more white authors (mostly women) writing about us poor down-trodden black folk. And really – I wish they would stop. Because the industry has not extended the invitation for people of color to write in the reverse. That is a truth most people don’t want to talk about. Diversity – in this industry – has always been one sided and controlled by gate keepers with no real knowledge of the children they profess to market to. And it still feels like a plantation with a select few being allowed to come in and serve in the big house.

    So I’ll end here and just keep listening to the conversation until I have something insightful to add. I know that on this forum I’m preaching to a choir that already knows the song. And for that, I’m grateful.

  48. First, I want to thank you all —Debbie, Sarah PD, Sarah, Allie JB, Anne, Nina — for continuing to discuss and debate this. I don’t have that much to add that you haven’t already said and far more eloquently than I could say it.

    I just want to say this: If we’re taking Malindo Lo’s analysis seriously, and I am, we have to agree that perspective matters in reviewing kidlit and YA. As Sarah said, all reviews/reviewers judge books. If we are using a “white” lens to look at the work of diverse creators — with unsatisfactory results — then we are also using a “white” lens to look at the work of *white* creators, and, as Debbie and others are saying, this is also unsatisfactory. It’s not enough to do a better job at reviewing diverse works, we have to do a better job reviewing all works, no? Which would include pointing out when a work contains a stereotype.

    As for this: “But either way it takes a grand leap on the part of the challenger to claim actual harm.” We’re not talking about just one book, we’re talking about many books that perpetuate stereotypes (over and over again). Debbie has talked about the harm this caused her own child, but there are so many others who’ve talked about it. (And wasn’t the WNDB initiative born out of fury/frustration/pain over not just a lack of representation but harmful representations of diverse folks?) Yes, reviewers — even diverse ones — disagree on what’s harmful and what isn’t, but they also can disagree on every other aspect of craft. (The voice the Kirkus reviewer loves, the PW reviewer finds inauthentic and grating, etc.) At this point, I’m not sure what we’re arguing about.

  49. I’m a Cherokee author finding it difficult to figure out how to inform the world about American Indian issues. My first book Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and Practices grew from my masters thesis. I targeted a publisher known for books about museums and historical societies, and learned from them that a thesis is not a book. But I didn’t know how to make it a book, so I found a university press with an editor that thought the material had potential and he told me what it needed to become a book. Once that was achieved, his editorial committee rejected the book as too strident. I had reined in the message as much as I was willing to do. So, I took it back to the desired publisher, and they immediately accepted it, changed nothing, and the book is now used in Museum Studies internationally and in American Indian Studies programs, too. Sometimes, people are starving for information that has been kept from them. People want to understand other cultures and want to improve relationships. Please stop censoring American Indian voices by allowing non-Indian authors to override our voices with countless books of stereotypical material.

  50. Nina Lindsay says:

    (West coast AM) Good morning to you all too, and thanks for chiming in. Christine and Karen: Yes. I’m pretty weary of this too, but I am hoping we can use this moment of attention to really kick this forward from where it’s been stuck…and to circle back to my first point, for us white people who have been involved in “diversity in children’s lit” for some time, this requires us giving *ourselves* a kick in the butt.

    Kiera, there is an EMIRET task force working on those criteria, not sure where they are with it.

  51. Roger,

    I’m not finding emails in files (on an old computer that groaned as I fired it up an hour ago) that indicated there was a discussion between you and me before you reassigned the review. I do find one from you, dated Jan 30, 1997 that starts out “I wanted to write to you to explain why I felt we could not use your review of Schneider’s Birthday Bear.”

    I also found my review! Here it is, submitted on November 5, 1996, to Jennifer:

    “(5) Illustrated by Uli Waas. Translated from Dutch by J. Alison James. (1996) First published in Switzerland, this story (set in the United States) is about David and his sister Sally and a visit to their grandparents home in the country where they celebrate David’s seventh birthday. His penchant for Indian adventure stories figures prominently spurring the children to do feathered headdresses and play Indian. Although grandfather says “Now most Indians dress just like you and me.” (p. 20), the dominant text and illustrations of the play Indian theme fit the objectionable stereotype of the aggressive savage Indian. DR.”

    On 1/29/1997, I have a reply from Jennifer, telling me that she had edited my review, and that you (Roger) had read it, and said (to Jennifer) “that part of the book was so peripheral to the story” that there was no reason for Jennifer to assign it to me. And, Jennifer continued, she ended up writing a new review with her initials on it.

    Her review is the one you shared above (comment at 9:31 to Kate).

    A lot of us are weary at this point. I didn’t want to drag out an old computer to find the thread of emails about that 1997/1998 conversation, but your reply to Kate didn’t match my memory and so I went looking.

    In reading those old emails, you and Jennifer said that you had many conversations about that book and my review, internally and with others in the field, but as this conversation today shows, your decision then and now are ones that a lot of people find troubling.

  52. Maia Cheli-Colando says:

    Deal-breakers. Where do we each draw the line? And, do we understand why other folks draw lines where they do? Debbie has chosen in recent years to focus much of her review energy on building a platform for native voices: both authorial, in celebrating works by native authors, and critical, in assessing the representation of US indigenous populations in books published herein. With the dissolution of Oyate’s website, the lack of other platforms with similar standing, and a lack of recognized spaces *within* the mainstream review world, she has shouldered a lot of this public discussion alone. Frankly, I’d be exhausted — and I do hear from Debbie an exasperation and some pain that folks can’t even follow the most basic guides about respecting indigenous populations. Debbie’s posts suggest one fairly clear deal-breaker: if a story has people “playing Indian,” then change it or don’t publish it, unless that behavior is examined and upended. (Even then, I would think that any writer/editor team would want to take a very careful look at who that “learning” story was serving and who it was not.)

    Roger, I believe, isn’t comfortable with deal-breakers, at least not of the ideological variety. 😉 (Note: I use ideological here in its descriptive, not pejorative, sense.) We’ve all seen how some words go from being empowering to out of touch, or polite to insulting, as we wring new and different meanings from language over time. A term that was deferential or respectful in one generation may be considered bad form in the next. Unfortunately, it’s not even as though we can put time-markers on terminology — because one part of the country (globe), or subset of a given population, will use terms and ideas differently. Things sting in one place that don’t in another… and so, given the long eye of time & space, some of the linguistic deal-breakers, at least, reveal themselves to be less fundamentally true than they once seemed. Because language is how we describe behavior, our understanding of behavior at a remove by time or space is then complicated by these changing ways we use language — all the which sometimes makes deal-breakers seem less fixed (in terms of their impact on a population) than they may actually be. Which perhaps leads Roger, and other folks, to avoid making judgments based on seemingly shifting ideological frameworks. (Then again, you may have completely different reasons!)

    However, I think that many establishment folks go awry in not understanding that many of these deal-breakers aren’t there as a guide to best behavior, they are the bottom rung before you fall into the pit of awfulness. That is what makes a deal-breaker — crossing the line too far for the position/work/behavior to be redeemable. What I think Debbie has said is that playing Indian is fundamentally injurious to indigenous populations and to non-indigenous people’s capacity to relate intelligently with indigenous people. Just as I would find a picture book to cross a deal-breaker line if it showed kids dressing up for BDSM, or girls doing a strip-tease for boys, native folks have said over and again that books that show kids playing Indian do direct damage to actual native kids here in the States. These stories function as a humiliation and a silencing technique: “We already know all about you, we played you in 5th grade.” Many white people have gotten very angry at real native people for disrupting their pleasant native-fantasy world. Furthermore, this play-world makes us stupid re: things that we all need to understand about the formation of our country, our politics, our current ideologies. When native folks are put in roughly the same playing ground as fairies, we are not positioning any of our young well to understand how the world works. And, it’s a bitch to be told you’re as substantial as a fairy. At some point, it’s difficult to not start doubting yourself – or resenting the hell out of people who pretend you aren’t real.

    Now, it’s true that in the age of the internet, a sneeze can be construed as deal-breaking, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about carefully formed arguments raised consistently by members of a community — arguments that we can follow scientifically if we are so inclined. They are reasoned. There is demonstrable cause and effect.

    If reviewers don’t set a standard about stories that do consistent damage, who will speak back to the publishers? Who will inform editors and writers, who will be the voices that remonstrate, that encourage them (us) to think more deeply and broadly? Who else can hold them to account? Should we leave it to the native reviewers to speak out in their own publications, and blacks in theirs, and lesbians in theirs, and… ? How will they get heard? Do we really think that consumers will speak wisely with their money? Who, after all, taught them? We did. The book industry — in all of our permutations: writers, artists, librarians, editors, publishers, reviewers. We gave them – we are giving their children – books about how to understand the world. If we aren’t very clear about the problems some books carry, who is going to do that work? And if we don’t push back on books that do damage, are we doing our job?

    I also think that there is a core rhetoric that socially privileged folks need to examine: the idea that some things are didactic, while other things “just are” — and that didacticism is inherently problematic. Everything we do with children is didactic: humans teach and learn by experience and exposure. When we are already “at one” with the lesson, it doesn’t feel as disruptive or didactic as when we have to go through it step by step. I do wonder how often objections to didacticism are objections to a lessoning that is at odds with cultural norms, and so has to be more deliberately explained. Doesn’t this set up any non-mainstream voices to be shouted down for style errors that are actually demanded by current social constructions?

    I do believe that the folks of the Horn Book are genuinely interested in and committed to making a compassionate world: whether you officially accept that mission statement or not (!), it infuses the HB writing, book selection, staffers and social world. I also believe that compassion involves pain (wildly unfair though that is), and that we need to get a bit dirtier if we are going to understand what is going on, not only in the flowers but under the soil — if we are going to examine the root structure of which children’s literature is a part, the roots that inform and define the society of our young and ourselves. The point of books is to do something: to make us think, feel, and imagine more and differently. There is no way that examination can avoid turbulence, not with the culture we live in, not with our historical and current traumas. I think that we have to frequently ask ourselves why we are advancing what we are advancing – to be honest in our didacticism, and to wonder whenever we are not seeing it, why we can’t.

  53. maia, thank you. so on point and well said.

    i wanted to take the time to thank you too, roger, for posting this, and allowing for discussion and disagreement in these comments. i’m glad malinda’s posts (and thank you malinda!) really underscored the challenges and difficulties that might arise from reviewing more inclusive and diverse kidlit books. (and imagine, the challenges and difficulties that arise for authors to get them published, for publishers to get them marketed and shelved–it is an uphill climb!) but uncomfortable discussion is necessary, and i can see very clearly that we ALL come to the table from a place where we would like to make things BETTER, where we want to effect change as best we can. so continue talking and respecting each other, despite disagreements at times. we are not taking a stroll on a beautiful beach, friends. we are climbing a path blocked by foliage, strewn with branches and fallen trees. but we keep walking. 🙂

  54. I might not be a regular commenter, but I can’t say how much I appreciate being able to read this discussion. I find it incredibly valuable as a librarian and as a human being. Thank you all for taking the time, effort, and energy in working toward a better understanding for everyone involved in this community and the wider world. I hope I am able to do my small part at my little library, with your help.

  55. Kate Messner says:

    Roger, I appreciate your response and the opportunity to see both reviews – but I’m still troubled. And I agree with Maia’s beautifully explained logic. When a group of people are targeted by a damaging stereotype, it just doesn’t seem out of line to invite someone from that marginalized group speak out on just how fatal a flaw it is when that stereotype is depicted in a children’s book. Is it really fair for someone outside that group to decide that it’s not really that big a deal and should be toned down?

  56. Kate Barsotti says:

    There is so much to unpack here. As a white middle class lady would-be writer and artist, I may be entering a minefield, but here goes.

    Do we need more diversity everywhere in pubishing? Yes. It is dismaying to see how far we have not come, for children certainly, but also as creative people. I also need and want writers of color because they are good writers; I learn from their virtuosity.

    Do I feel safe talking about race and such issues, which includes, perhaps, asking stupid questions that reveal how much I need to learn? Not really. I do not want to ask a POC to educate me, figuring it is not that person’s job to undo my cluelessness, and my few forays into such discussions have been fruitless because my questions are questioned. I have been unable and unwilling to get to the answer stage (with, often, white, liberal academics).

    Do I understand that POC are tired of white representations of them? Sure. Which puts a white writer in an awkward position. Do I censor myself and give up a novel with a diverse cast? Because I am probably going to be criticized for either 1) not portraying diverse characters well enough or 2) not having them at all. The odds of me getting it pitch perfect are unlikely. And yet, my world is not just a white world. People not of my race or background have had profound influences upon me. I cannot stick to one race of characters any more than I can stick to one gender. I cannot grow as a writer if I do not take risks, and I sure as hell, as a visual artist, do not want to be siloed to depicting only white folks. Even contemplating that level of boredom is painful.

    I am very concerned about the assumption that diverse books don’t sell. I do not believe kids operate that way. They want a good read. Be honest; smash stereotypes. Kids can take it. And an underserved market is known as a gold mine.

    What I am struggling with, essentially, is how to champion or support diversity while not exposing my occasional whitey-ness and also allowing myself to tackle characters some will say I have no business tackling. Please realize some of us do care, even if we mess up.

  57. I’d also like to thank Maia for her spectacularly articulate comment. Spot on, indeed. I’m going to take the quote from the Horn Book review in a direction that’s slightly different from Allie’s, but still closely related. As she said, it’s entirely possible, easy, even, to read it as a celebration of the “settlers and Indians” game, and I think it’s equally easy to interpret it as a covert slap in the face. “Political correctness” IS used as a pejorative expression, often viciously so; it’s not hard to interpret “blithely unconcerned with political correctness” as a subtle upbraiding of anyone who might be (rightfully) offended by the game in question.

    That is, of course, an extremely nuanced, subjective interpretation, but we’re talking about literature, for crying out loud. We can hardly claim to be pursuing a life of letters if we simultaneously dismiss finely shaded examinations of our literature – that would be like declaring that air is still entirely breathable if we remove all the oxygen molecules from it.

    I suppose some might dismiss that interpretation because of its subjectivity, but what part of this entire messy enterprise is free of subjectivity? Whose interpretation do we defend? Whose interpretation do we reject? Who are the ones who have to do the hard work of examining the foundation their interpretation is built on? Well, we all are, of course. But it’s easier to opt out of doing that hard work when the complicated, painful interpretation applies to someone else. It’s easier to dismiss an interpretation rooted in pain and rage when it’s someone else’s pain and rage.

    We can choose to do and say things that give offense and silence voices, intentionally or not, then leave the work of contending with the fallout to those who react with pain and anger. Or we can prioritize our own lack of conscious intent and defensive reactions. The damnable thing is that we actually don’t ALL have that choice. Some of us have to contend with the pain and the rage no matter what anyone else chooses to do.

    When I see and hear from the people who’ve been locked in this struggle for so long, I feel humbled by the relative insignificance of my own recent efforts to engage. I have not done enough; there’s always more. That’s true for the Horn Book too, and for its staff, and for its community of reviewers. We have to do more, and if it means we have to put every single syllable we write and speak under a high-powered microscope, so be it.

  58. Nina Lindsay says:

    Maia, thank you so much for addressing the “deal breaker” question so beautifully. And Mike for pointing out that “Some of us have to contend with the pain and the rage no matter what anyone else chooses to do.”

    I want to take a stab at addressing Kate Barsotti’s brave question…doing so as a white librarian, and knowing there are many shades of answers to it. I would suggest for any white writer facing this question not to censor yourself, but to inform your writing with open ears and humility (Debbie Reese has a wonderful post on “using” beta testers…) and to be conscious of hogging air in the room. Don’t shut up necessarily, just be aware. And if you can devote energy to action that makes room for marginalized voices on the stage that you have privilege to, do so knowing it will help your own writing in the end.

  59. Nina Lindsay says:

    I already want to amend my statement above to say…. DO listen to what Christine and Karen are saying. Some of the responsibility they are calling for also lies with publishers. When there are more books with token representations, or even just less-than-convincing representations of non-White culture than there are of authentic representations…,that is a problem, and that is where we are today. Make sure you are moving into publication work that is legitimate, work that makes a real contribution, and honor the fact that is it *harder* for White writers to do this about non-White culture, and for a very good reason.

  60. Thank you to so many voices above.

    If it’s okay, I wanted to add to the points about subjectivity, just to address another argument that seems to come up often in these conversations– or, maybe, to address the same argument from another angle. As Mike and Maia said, the expressed concern of some may not be only with the changeable nature of deal-breakers (thank you, Maia) but with the subjectivity involved in judging them in the first place. Roger’s argument– if I understand it correctly!– is that there can be no perfect consensus about what constitutes a stereotype, just as there can be no consensus on other cultural values, so the job of the reviewer is to provide relevant information that enables the widest (most diverse) range of readers to come to their own judgments. The standard should be to make space for multiple viewpoints, not advocate for one perspective at the expense of others. Because, the one perspective may be that something is a damaging stereotype, but it could just as easily be that letting children read about magic will land them in hell. Both see the end result as harmful. Or, some feminists might believe pornography is automatically a deal-breaker, while others believe pornography can be empowering for women. Whose deal breaker do you go with? And how far do you go with it?

    It sounds good, on the surface, and in some ways I don’t disagree. These issues aren’t easy. But, insidiously, that argument assumes that a variety of opinions means there can never be relevant consensus among marginalized people. It concludes that it’s always impossible for marginalized people to name something as harmful, or–for that naming to have power. The implications of that should be obvious. And, you know, we accept cultural consensus all the time: like that child abuse is wrong and harmful and we can identify and try to stop it, and that some behaviors are definitively abusive, even as some might at times debate whether another particular behavior crosses the line into abuse.

    The argument also requires accepting that the voices and experiences of actual children aren’t relevant in defining harm, or can never really be heard. Or that the recognition of someone else’s humanity is equivalent to arguing books about magic are evil.

    In raising the example of socially conservative book challenges, it also seems worth pointing to Malinda Lo’s look at the relationship between book challenges and suppression of diversity: Rather than just being a cautionary counterpoint, I think those challenges often reflect the same power dynamics being discussed here.

    Also: isn’t part of what’s being discussed– both in Malinda Lo’s posts and in this conversation– the ways that members of dominant cultures can center and universalize their own subjective understandings of context, and call them “impartial”? And how this relates to power?In the reviews of books cited above, the Horn Book didn’t maintain an objective stance regarding the significance of those stereotypes– reviewers at other journals, for example, saw their context and significance differently. As did Debbie. The line “seems oddly old-fashioned” doesn’t avoid a subjective value judgment, or escape broad cultural assumptions (including about audience– seems old-fashioned to *whom*?) Debbie’s perspective that a book’s depiction of playing Indian overshadows other elements is no more ideological than the position that it’s relatively harmless and insignificant, and shouldn’t interfere with recommending a book. Each perspective comes from a different understanding of context. By endorsing the latter position, the reviewer is *already making a choice to prefer one ideology and set of experiences over another*. And reinforcing existing power structures in the process.

    Looking at the collective effects of those choices, they can go pretty far.

    If reviewing is by its nature *always* subjective and preferential (reviews don’t just summarize plot and let readers decide): why would critiques of dominant cultures feel uniquely threatening, and why keep centering certain understandings of context as “objective,” and censoring others? Why would favoring one consensus perspective feel comfortable, while allowing for the existence of another does not?

    And as others have eloquently pointed out, the discomfort some of us feel in looking at those questions and examining our assumptions (with the choice of deciding not to), will never match lived pain on the other side.

    (Also just want to say that in my comment above, didn’t mean to dismiss real concerns about class.)

  61. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Thank you all for such a great dialogue. I’d like to add that I don’t think, in the case of the two “playing Indian” books under discussion, we’re talking about stereotyping. For me, stereotyping is the depiction of the look-alike brothers in THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS or the “heap big snow” Indian in THE LONG WINTER. What we’re complaining about in ALVIN HO and THE BIRTHDAY BEAR is bad behavior, unmediated by authorial comment or correction. For some of you this may be a distinction without a difference but for me it isn’t. While I do believe a reviewer needs to call out inaccuracy or stereotyping as faults, he or she is on shakier ground when editorializing on the morals of a character or story (or topic: I remember the advisory committee at BCCB slamming a Dorothy Hinshaw Patent nonfiction book about hunting because they didn’t approve of hunting).

    I had some trouble with this myself in reviewing Susan Kuklin’s recent BEYOND MAGENTA, a collection of interviews with and photographs of transgendered kids. MY feelings about transgenderism and its current rhetoric are complicated and uneasy; the book is uncritical. Perhaps if I were reviewing it in a different venue I might bring up my issues with its implicit arguments but the Horn Book wasn’t the right place for that–my job there was to present the book’s point of view and evaluate how well it succeeded in conveying it. And as far as ALVIN HO and BIRTHDAY BEAR went, I feel like we did our job in mentioning that “playing Indian” was a theme in each–and our readers could decide what to do with that information.

  62. And… we’re back to definitions. When kids are playing Indian, they’re doing it in a stereotypical way. I don’t see that as any different from the language Wilder used (“heap big snow”), but we’re not going to agree and there’s no point in talking further about it.

    I do wonder, however, how Native people or people of color with the skills and expertise HB wants in reviewers are feeling as they read through this discussion.

    Of course, that information is not easily gained.

    How the discussion affects Horn Book’s standing is also unknowable. In the eyes of some, it has probably dropped. Others are likely cheering that Horn Book is staying the course.

    I’ll end with this: if anyone reading the discussion has a question about the depiction of a Native person or some aspect of Native culture in a book for children or young adults, visit my site, American Indians in Children’s Literature, here:

    Depictions like the ones in BIRTHDAY BEAR and ALVIN HO are the norm–not the exception. Part of the work done at American Indians in Children’s Literature is to catalog those depictions with the hope that someday, they will be the exception and the norm will be books about us, as we are and were, with the full range of our humanity being what people know.

  63. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Debbie, the work you do to educate is invaluable, and we are a stronger community for it.
    This is a thoughtful and enlightening discussion, and I, too, thank Roger for bringing it up, and for his continued commitment, as editor of The Horn Book, to examining questions of race, bias, and inequity in all its forms. No one could fault The Horn Book, or Roger, for lack of integrity. He unfailingly practices what he preaches. This is the man who allows, encourages, doesn’t see any problem whatsoever with reviewing Orson Scott Card — ORSON SCOTT CARD! — in the Magazine, despite the author’s documented homophobia, because, to paraphrase the reviewer of Card’s latest book, “The author has written some of the best science fiction for young adults in recent years.” To paint the Magazine — or Roger’s beliefs, as a fervent upholder of the Library Bill of Rights — as reactionary (or, worse, to resort to personal attacks on social media, which some people, not Debbie!!, have done) is counterproductive, and undermines this valuable discussion.
    (BTW, has anyone confronted/interrogated the creators of Alvin Ho about the scene in question? Their perspectives might be interesting.)
    Rosanne, the Horn Book reviewers are almost exclusively working librarians whose living wage is paid by their institutions. No Horn Book reviewer has ever gotten rich by writing reviews — and no review is ever just one person’s opinion. Each and every book is looked at by one, usually two or three HB editors (of which I am one) before it is published.

  64. Kate Barsotti says:

    I appreciate your difficulties with insulting stereotypes and wishing they could be called out on moral grounds, but I am 100% with Roger on this one, for one reason: I am tired of conflicts over books on moral grounds in general. One person’s crusade is another person’s censorship. It is a fine line and hard to make those judgment calls, but I’d like the Horn Book to mention such scenes or characters in a book so I can make a decision about them, based on my moral views. That does help me to avoid the yuck factor.

    Kansas bill would ban teachers from distributing offensive material
    Educators could face criminal charges for violations
    (Sorry for the annoying video.)

    I am not quite sure how to respond to Christine’s charge that I, the White Middle Class Lady (WMCL), is part of the problem many of you are facing, and I should just stop writing characters who are not white. I had hoped we could come together as one tribe of creative people, because that’s how I think of all of us, as one connected family in that sense, our common ground. We see the world and operate in the world in similar ways. I am thinking, however, that I should cheer you on from the sidelines and bow out of discussions like this one, because I am starting to feel battle fatigued as well. I wish you all the success in the world.

    As a farewell, I’ll add this one: I am intimately familiar with the pain of not having a voice, with being told I am “less than,” and that if I would just become X or act like Y, then I might be worthwhile. I have lived that pain, chapter and verse. Due to race? No. Other reasons. So daring to write characters totally unlike myself has been the most rewarding creative challenge I have ever taken on. Why are they in my head and heart? No clue, but if I do not give them life on the page, no one else will. I owe a great deal to each one of my imaginary friends, and rightly or wrongly, they exist through me.

    Some of us, as artists, need permission. Others need access, or both. I hope everyone with a passion for children and stories finds that conduit, inside or outside traditional publishing.

  65. I definitely encourage people to visit Debbie’s (I agree: invaluable!) site, where she evaluates books based on one criterion, and one criterion alone. What is the quality of the book, as a piece of literature? Not her concern. Is there excellent characterization and an original voice? Not her concern. What was the author’s intent in writing the book? Also, not her concern. Almost all the questions I ask myself as a reviewer and editor every time I open a book, in fact, she does not ask.

    Because: she is not a reviewer for a mainstream review journal! Does anyone fault Debbie for not asking the other questions? No. Would all of you rather that The Horn Book (and other review journals) approached books the way she does? I don’t think you’d get reviews anymore. You’d get editorials masquerading as reviews.

    The Horn Book review philosophy is “alert, don’t alarm.” Or maybe it’s “inform, don’t warn.” (One of those…) We try to let our readers know when there are problematic situations or words in books so that they can decide themselves how to react. I’m sure we get it wrong sometimes: not bringing enough attention to one situation, or over-stressing another. But the implication that we aren’t concerned about diversity or racial stereotyping in children’s literature — and in the world! — is ludicrous. Roger shared Malinda Lo’s thoughtful blog series on diversity in reviewing because it raises questions that need to be asked, and that we all need to answer. Personally, I am hugely grateful to Ms Lo for raising them, and I will be taking them into consideration every time I review a book, or assign a book for review.

    At a time when so much progress is being made, and when the change we’re all trying to effect together is so important, I wonder about the motives of those who are making this so much about “us” and “them,” or what is to be gained from such divisiveness. Really wish we could get past that.

  66. Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Vaunda Micheaux Nelson spoke so eloquently to this subject at last fall’s Horn Book at Simmons: Mind the Gaps colloquium. We are publishing her keynote speech in the upcoming March issue of the Horn Book Magazine. I’ll post it online early this week.

  67. Respectfully, I think it’s easy to make this into a question of “us vs. them” when a certain group of people have been able to define “us” for so long. And people are saying NO, NO, I DON’T AGREE with this version of what “we” are saying, and instead of trying to use that to make us–all of us–better, instead of using this an an opportunity to expand the definition of “we”–they’re getting told that ethnic caricature is the same thing as magic in a book, or hunting, or anything else. They’re getting told that they are censors, just like people who take a book of the shelf because it has masturbation in it. They’re getting told that the pain they are trying so hard make people at least acknowledge, if not understand, is akin to parents who don’t want their kids exposed to witchcraft, as Sarah says so well.

    What Debbie and others tell the powers that be in the kidslit world, if only they would listen, is that these caricatures cause harm, they cause pain, in our readers. And that is a very different thing than masturbation references, magic, sex, hunting, what have you. They are saying, to a child reading this book, this HURTS. This is harmful. And the harm reverberates. And by continually drawing equivalencies between grown-up subjective morality and the effects of ethnic caricature is to belittle them. And, in this particular environment, it is making this reader believe that HB thinks racial caricaturing is a subjective issue like witchcraft, and a reviewer who says otherwise is going to lose the assignment of the book, and still would today.

    Sarah has brilliantly shown how subjective this all is, all of it. And by not listening to all of these voices, by the powerful rejecting what so many people are saying, I think–respectfully– that creates an us-versus-them environment.

    And don’t we want to know how wounding these portrayals are to our readers? All of us? Reviewers, librarians, teachers, writers, editors? Don’t we want, desperately, to know this? Don’t we want librarians to see it, and be able to discuss these moments in books with their patrons? Don’t we want writers to do better? I want to do better.

    This is an opportunity. The powerful “we” can dismiss what everyone’s saying, make it into an issue of divisiveness, or can decide this is a moment to listen. And then to grow. And to expand what “us” means, which I think kidslit needs so badly.

    And if those who have been shouting to be heard for so long keep getting shut down, patted on the head–maybe they have every right to be angry. As far as I can tell, the motives of all the people who have been speaking up are simple: We can do better by kids. And we must do better.

  68. @Kate My comment about “I wish they wouldn’t” had more to do with a new trend of white women who have little if any contact with people of color – and failing to place their own work, are now jumping on the new “bandwagon” of diversity as if getting in on the ground floor of a rising stock.

    I distinguish those neophytes from someone like Susan Vaught – a long time friend and advocate whose book STORMWITCH was beautifully written and carried the appropriate emotional and cultural beats and was then buried by Bloomsbury because her being white didn’t make it eligible for a CSK. I told the editor, “Who cares? Why aren’t you pushing this for a Newbery?” That Susan is white didn’t bother me. She wrote what she knew and what she experienced. Also, we can look at NO SURRENDOR SOLDIER written by Christine Kohler who is white, and was a foreign correspondent, lived overseas for many years, and understands the culture she is writing about. I don’t mean for any of my comments to cause people to ignore books like that.

    But I do remember an argument on this issue over a decade ago on the SCBWI board in which a white woman said “I’m just entitled to write about Mayans as their ancestors because they’re all dead.” Yep. I had to quit the boards after that because the overwhelming sense of entitlement to the entire pie just wasn’t going to be solved there.

    Yes – we need more children of color included in ‘casts’ of characters. So in your efforts to do that, I would say – bravo. Just be sensitive in the event something is wrong. Lenore Luk didn’t do that with her Alvin Ho books. Instead I’m told she made excuses for her Cowboys and Indians faux pas and she’s now off my “recommend” list permanently. Because, why not have fun playing slaves and plantation owners? Do we not immediately see how offensive that would be?

    So sorry, the diversity push is causing hoards of people to jump on a bandwagon who don’t want to be educated. And even if they were – the question I pose is why have publishers (plural) been so reticent to take on works by people of color both when writing about people of color and when writing about white characters (as if just being a POC author is box-office poison) but are so willing to praise the cultural authenticity of an author whose only real exposure to a POC is walking by them in a mall? (I know several of those authors). If anything, POC authors and illustrators are often more fluent in multiple cultural languages than the reverse. It’s called “code switching” and in raising my children it was taught as a required survival skill.

    So write what you know. But use discretion and sensitivity. POC are well on the way to being the majority and deserve more seats at that table – both inside and behind the books that are published. But reviewers also have to consider their own cultural bias when disseminating an assessment of a work.

  69. Also, no one is asking HB to review books like Debbie does on AICL–everyone understands the two fora have different purposes, and to suggest otherwise seems to be throwing in a straw man. The issue is that, I believe: in having a diverse staff and a diverse group of reviewers, an organization can broaden it’s point of view and better serve its audience. As Malinda has shown, if the reviewers are all white, they’re going to come from a perspective that treats diverse books as “other” and treats the white reader as a default reader–and we can see that happening in this very comment thread. Debbie and others are jumping up and down saying that “playing Indian” is absolutely material, and the Horn Book staff is telling them otherwise–and telling them they are being divisive, to boot–and maybe, just maybe, part of the problem is there aren’t enough voices on the staff to explain why this is so offensive. On one hand, we’re being told about Horn Book’s great commitment to diversity, on the other hand, no one is listening here, and diverse voices are being taken off reviews for pointing out issues they feel are essential, and those trying to raise objections are being told they are causing problems and having their motivations questioned. And, again, this is simply derailing.

    I am quite positive that every one here wants to get past this–Debbie has devoted a career to trying to get us past this. But I think in order to get past it, we all need to take a deep breath and start listening. And maybe it’s the natural tendency of people in power to be defensive and stop listening that needs to be gotten past. We’re not going to effect any change if those who are trying to be heard keep getting their motives questioned and are silenced.

    Because a reviewer DID point this issue out, and she was taken off the review, and, we’re told, the same thing would happen today. That is the discussion here. A diverse reviewer was silenced for pointing out ethnic caricature in a book. And of course Debbie is perfectly capable of opening a book and examining it on the exact same criteria as above if she were reviewing for a mainstream journal–and she has the added perspective of a great deal of scholarship, wisdom, and passion about an issue in which our field has failed, miserably, repeatedly, disgracefully. And it matters. That’s what everyone’s trying to say: this matters.

    What is so divisive about that?

  70. With the usual thanks to others, just want to add that (for me as a reader) Debbie’s reviews do look at all of those qualities listed above. On her blog, she initiates and hosts conversations about books that have changed how I think about writing– both in terms of how I see *what* I’m writing, and in terms of craft issues: like using humor, or thinking about how a writer imagines audience, or the complicated question of how to provide authorial context for a character’s views… especially when as the writer I disagree with those views (a *hard* one, and one I think absolutely belongs in an assessment of a book’s artistry). I know she provides that for many others, from many professions and backgrounds. She also writes beautiful, full reviews of books she loves. But a step-by-step, careful and considered look at how books *don’t* succeed, within all of those criteria, and what meaning that has, is just as valuable. That process, and her perspective, are not limited or limiting but just the opposite. And I don’t think her work is at a remove from what happens here. Here I’ve also read many things that have similarly broadened my perspective and understanding, including these engaged, contentious, and yes even angry conversations– which are not limited, either. BUT that still requires a space for responsiveness, and for holding ourselves responsible, and for active change from those with power throughout the industry, along with a recognition that these conversations take a much bigger toll on some than on others. And for not limiting who is heard and how.

    Just wanted to point back to Karen’s comment because I think it got a little bit lost, and also to the recognition of everyone who’s been not only saying these things, but doing hard work, for many decades.

    Also wanted to point out Nina’s post from December as well.

  71. Thanks to all here and elsewhere for pushing everyone to think so carefully about all of this. These conversations and ones at my school are challenging me to look hard at my practice and ways of viewing the world. (An article in yesterday’s NYTimes gives a taste of what is going on in my and other local independent schools: It isn’t easy, but boy is it critical.

    I wondered, is there any thought to initiating more in-person conversations? I seem to recall this being discussed here in a post by Roger some time back. I know there was the Day of Diversity at ALA and panels at the recent SCBWI, but I do wonder if there is anyway to create other safe places for these conversations to happen in person. I’m someone who is usually comfortable expressing herself online, but not everyone is. Wouldn’t it be valuable to bring in as many voices as possible in this conversation? Some of whom may feel confident speaking up in person rather than online? Or listening when seeing people rather than reading their words perhaps? At my school we have been working for the last few years with the consultant Glenn Singleton ( who has been very insistent and pushing every part of ourselves and our community hard to have what he calls “courageous conversations.” I’m grateful that my school leadership sees the importance of this and is giving us time and space for these challenging discussions. And I’m grateful to Roger for providing us the space to have one here too, painful as it is.

  72. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’d like to recommend to readers an article Debbie wrote for us back in the 90s; it includes a list of recommended titles on American Indian themes:

  73. Thanks to Monica who brought to my attention both the Melinda Lo blog posts and this discussion thread. I have finally finished really all the comments so far and have taken many many notes. Since this is so complex and multi-faceted an issue, I have to take a lot of breather and think on multiple levels: as a Chinese American, as a blogger who talks about books, as a “trained” reader of children’s lit with a master’s degree from Simmons College, and as a colleague of so many people in the industry: from other librarians, to authors, to editors, etc., I simply cannot use this comment area to convey all of my thoughts. So I’m preparing for an upcoming blog post (or a series of) that chronicles some of my personal experiences and also documents my thoughts on most of the matters discussed here: from my comments dismissed by the publisher whom I worked for years ago regarding a very famous Chinese American author’s picture book, to my disagreement with the HB editors about literary qualities or cultural depictions in a very popular Chinese American author, to my reactions of recent books and their receptions by the reviewers.

  74. Nina Lindsay says:

    Thanks for the continued thoughts, especially Sarah and Anne and Christine…I’d like to look beyond the particular titles/reviews we’ve been discussing because I think that suggests a personal or individual level, when these are only examples. But I have to emphasize Debbie’s point that the idea “playing Indian” only exists because of stereotypes of Indians. It is firmly rooted in stereotype. Just as are “slanted-eyed Asians” or “happy slaves.”

    I value the demonstrated integrity of the Horn Book and its “inform, don’t alarm” approach. However, I continue to question whether–in *all* of our review media, not just the Horn Book–we are truly “informing.” I don’t believe we are, because I don’t believe we are all listening, yet. If we were, we’d be informing each other *consistently* in reviews of the effect “playing Indian” may have on readers (as that particular Kirkus review did), and of many of the more insidious stereotypes I find *regularly* in books yet rarely find called out in reviews… characters “of color” whose skin/hair/diction is pointed out as different when the same isn’t true for White characters, or who are clearly token characters. (I believe that this is the kind of writing Christine is asking us to watch out for.)

    I don’t hear that this discussion has changed anything yet. Will be looking to continue it in many other arenas.

  75. Oralia Garza de Cortes says:

    I’d like to share this post that appeared in Salon on 2-22-215 regarding this particular author’s essay regarding the whiteness of the Oscar-nominated film Boyhood. Regardless of whether you agree with her or not, it is articles such as these that all those who work in children’s literature-be you a publisher, book review, book editor, librarian, marketing director, art director, teacher, etc. etc. should read and read often. There is indeed much that the book publishing industry and Hollywood have in common besides storytelling: lots of omission about the ‘other’.…/racism_begins_in_our_imagination_how_the_o…on

    ” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not only famous for her works of fiction, but also for a wonderful TED talk called, “The Danger of a Single Story.” She cautions that if a culture of people is depicted one way, only, over and over, it narrows our perspective as a people. She reminisces about a fan who mentioned reading Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and lamenting that all Nigerian women are beaten. She responded by saying that she had read “American Psycho,” and she lamented that all white American men are serial killers. She explains there are plenty of stories about white men, so we know all the possibilities, but when we have only one story about another culture of people, our perspective is narrow and faulty.”

  76. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:
  77. Thanks for circling back to my question about money and reviewing, Elissa. The reviewers I know don’t write for the Horn Book, and many people I know review for free on their own platforms which is an entirely different kettle of fish. I’d love to see a post or article about what happens to a book from start to finish in the review process. It might illuminate both checks and balances not obvious to an outsider and areas for improvement that may benefit from brainstorming by a wider group. For example, drawing from librarians as a review source makes abundant sense in terms of technical expertise. But librarianship has been a majority white profession for a long time. So perhaps there are other sources to consider in finding reviewers. Or perhaps our energy is better spent diversifying the field of librarianship–a conversation that perhaps belongs in a different venue.

    I do hope we circle back to the money question in a different thread. Money is just as uncomfortable and sensitive a topic as race, and money has power to move the industry in ways good intentions don’t. Fantasy was an underrepresented and much maligned genre until Harry Potter changed the game. Money influences who comes to the table. Most editors, librarians, teachers, and booksellers make a modest income and their professional preparation is long and expensive, involving advanced degrees and often unpaid internships. Most authors make even less than their gatekeepers and have no employee benefits. It’s crazy to ignore the impact of money but it’s one that seldom gets mentioned. Perhaps this is not the venue for that conversation. Certainly this is not the thread for it. But I’d be interested.
    Thanks for maintaining a place for such conversations.

  78. Rosanne,
    Actually, I think money definitely has a place in this discussion: we need to be aware of who can afford to be involved in an industry (publishing, libraries, writing, reviewing, trade journal publication) that simply does not pay much (for the most part.) Is it true that the majority of those who fit this profile are white middle class women? If so, and if this limitation of the racial-make up of the industry insiders is inherent and cannot be changed easily, then our next and natural step is simply to educate and to be educated — with open willingness to admit biases, correct faulty assumptions, and change one’s mind over what one has held true (such as didacticism is evil) for a long long time! Come to think of it, even if the whole industry is racially, socio-ecomonically, gender, sexual orientation, etc. etc. etc. balanced, the exact same step should be the norm and not an additional demand on the practitioners. In short, simply changing who gets to speak at the table will not necessarily improve the quality or equality of the discourse — what we need to change is the basic and fundamental requirement: if you are writing, editing, publishing, reviewing, recommending children’s books, you’d better be prepared to never stop learning or thinking about what goes in and what is taken out of each and every book!

  79. Hi Roxanne,

    Your post prompted me to read your blog. I am glad to be reading your posts. I shared this one on FB and Twitter a few minutes ago and encourage people reading “Are We Doing It White” to read it, too:

  80. Nice. Thanks for the link. I love the Fairrosa post and she makes a very good point. I myself am fond of caramel and chocolate fudge – when I’m eating them, not when I’m reading the umpteenth use of that description as a stand in for brown skin color. I think there should be a repository for essays like that as required reading for those who keep resorting to stereotypes in their narratives.

  81. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I remember Judith Krantz describing a heroine’s hair as being the color of a glass of champagne with precisely three strawberries in it. Which is sort of charming, which is exactly why you DON’T use it to convey the color of someone–someone ELSE’S–skin. Thanks, Roxanne.

  82. I’ve been staying out of this conversation, but watching it closely. But Roger, I’m curious why you feel the book BEYOND MAGENTA needs to be critical at all – if I’m misunderstanding you there, please let me know. I’m also curious what your “complicated and uneasy” feelings regarding “transgenderism” (which seems like a problematic term) are, and how they could possibly relate to what others are saying here.

  83. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    My review of BEYOND MAGENTA is here: It’s very positive. And my point above was that my opinions about the current rhetoric around transgenderism were *beside* the point of the review and did not belong there. Nor here.

  84. I recognize that I am coming to this conversation super late, but I wanted to thank you all for your thoughtful comments, questions, and resource links. I believe there is value in putting oneself out there and modeling these sometimes-difficult conversations.

    For those of you interested in evaluating literature using an anti-bias lens, I recommend the work of Louise Derman-Sparks:

    I also hope that we’ll have more opportunities to discuss these ideas and challenges face-to-face at upcoming workshops, meetings, and conferences. When that happens, I’ll be promoting the “ouch” rule. (I wasn’t at the Day of Diversity but it appears that the rule got mixed reviews.) YES everyone might be professionals with good intentions and a shared goal, but intentions and outcomes are two separate things. I learn from my own well-intentioned-but-still-harmful-mistakes when people interrupt the moment—with “ouch!”—and constructively call me out. Owning one’s impact regardless of intent can be challenging, but it can be an important step towards growth. I’m all for it.

  85. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I wanted to make sure readers of this thread knew about Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s keynote speech from the last Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, which we’re publishing in the March issue of the Horn Book Magazine:

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