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Reviewing race

lemonadeWe have a new podcast out today (with Horn Book reviewer Hannah Gómez as guest), mostly talking about Kirkus’ children’s editor Vicky Smith’s new policy of labelling, where possible, the race of all mentioned characters in reviews of children’s/YA fiction. When we recorded the podcast I hadn’t yet seen Kirkus operating under its new rule, but now I have and I mostly like it.  (Note, though: a “group of racially diverse children” is not the same thing as a “racially diverse group of children.”) Kudos, Vicky.

I want to think more about how and where to apply this altogether admirable goal at the Horn Book. As I say in the podcast, I’m uncomfortable labelling a character with an ethnicity that the book itself does not corroborate; I can’t agree with Hannah that a book’s failure to denote a characters’ race means that that character defaults to white. (And as far as taking cues from the cover–nuh uh.) I figure characters are whatever the reader says they are unless and until the text says otherwise. in Make Lemonade, Virginia Euwer Wolff famously lets readers choose for themselves; as far as I’m concerned, the heroine of DuMaurier’s Rebecca will always be named Elspeth.

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.

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  1. As a young reader, I actively disapproved of descriptions of physical appearance, due the jolt they gave me over the discovery that beloved characters didn’t look like I had already imagined them to look. I thought Nancy Drew looked like me, for instance, and every time the text referred to her red hair, I did a double-take that distracted me from the storyline.
    Now, as an adult reader of middle-grade novels, I recognize the importance of diversity in literary characters, but I still prefer to let the reader (me) choose for herself. As a “pre-published” writer, I have not offered physical descriptions for that reason, but may have to rethink this policy. Now intending to have this conversation with my bi-racial granddaughter as soon as she gets home from school, wondering if she assumes white in the absence of descriptors.

  2. Deb:

    I am gratified to read what you wrote about character descriptions. That is exactly why I tend to be sketchy in physical descriptions of main characters and more detailed about supporting players. This does not always please the readers who often demand something more concrete.

    #

    As to labeling by race I’m of two minds. I write very diverse casts and I have absolutely fallen into the trap of seeing white as the default race which does not require mention. It only takes about 60 seconds’ of thought to see how obnoxious that is, treating all non-whites as essentially variations from a standard.

    At the same time, carefully labeling characters by race feels to me like a throwback to the part of my youth I spent in the deep south in the sixties. There’s a disconnect between a 10 year-old me looking at my first “Colored” drinking fountain and feeling that it was so obviously stupid I couldn’t believe anyone was obeying, and now 50 years later seeing that we are still obsessing over skin color. Somehow I thought by now we’d be banging green space babes like Captain Kirk and hanging out afterward in Mos Eislay’s bar. (And we’d have flying cars, and probably be wearing unitards.) For people raised on sci fi, a different race involves someone with tentacles coming out of their ears, not someone whose DNA is 99.99999% identical to mine.

    I’d like to think 20 years from now kids will be reading books from this era and rolling their eyes indulgently at mentions of race. But we aren’t there, we’re still at the point of trying to bend the curve. Things always take so much longer than I expect them to – seriously, where is my Google brain chip? But ten minutes on certain sub-Reddits or a Twitter battle over Trump shows you very quickly that race still matters a whole lot, to a whole lot of white people. I thought Chris Rock made a brilliant point that seems obvious once you hear it.

    “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

    In any event, I am now labeling white as well as black in my work, and straight as well as gay. It feels simultaneously right and wrong to me. Right for now, wrong eventually.

  3. Thanks again for having me, Roger! What Deb said is right on, and it’s very, very prevalent and established, even though you keep saying you “can’t” agree with me. Another example – I was recently in a writing workshop and one of my critiques said, “Why did you have to say she was a white girl? You already said she was blonde, so we know she’s white.”

    I was basically doing a Kirkus move when I wrote “she was a white girl” in the description of a character, but that critiquer also proved the whole “white as default” thing. To her, white people only need to be given other descriptors to distinguish them from other white people, and also, only white (read: Anglo) people can have blonde hair, so I guess she’s never met a Latinx person or known anyone to buy hair dye or seen Beyoncé or heard of mixed race people.

    it’s real. It’s a problem. It’s so internalized that it’s very, very easy to miss, but just like Deb, I used to read vague descriptions and think, “maybe that could be me!” and then later I’d have it confirmed that no, it can’t be. Hermione couldn’t be me. Karen Brewer couldn’t be me. Betsy Ray couldn’t be me.

  4. Radical Individualist says:

    Why stop at hair color, eye color, skin color, DNA? Perhaps in the digital book future, we will move toward even greater specificity. A child could be placed at the center of each book she reads, the details customized to be about herself, the most interesting subject in all the world.

  5. Hazel Mitchell says:

    Putting this in the body of the text can seem like a negative. A better solution would be to have a key/footnote directly under the review itself which would be a solution that does not have to be carefully worded, or EDITED in the review, as each reviewer seems to be writing the description of the ethnicity differently, with inferences and irrelevant comments.

  6. Very recently, I had a Kirkus review name my protagonists as “apparently white” in error. The supporting characters are Persian and Ethiopian for reasons central to the plot, but the main character is described simply as having black hair. The reason I chose to do this is, at the time of writing the book, I wanted my future child – being part Korean – to have a protagonist in which he or she could see themselves in.

    I have two children now. I’m not sure the YA market is any more diverse, or will be by the time they’re reading, so I appreciate the conversation Kirkus is trying to have. I’m not sure this naming is helpful, though. One must take into account what the word “white” means in the cultural vernacular at the moment. Typically, it bears a negative connotation. So, within this context, calling out white characters seems like shaming or bullying.

    What’s disappointing is that, in my case, Kirkus applied their own default prejudice to the characters in my book and then, it felt, penalized me.

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