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Why Sensitivity Readers Matter: (And Why We Should Call Them Something Else)

Last year, one of the controversies that hit the headlines was the use of sensitivity readers in publishing. The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune covered the topic but chose to feature clickbait headlines that included words like outrage and censorship. This led to the usual cacophony of opposing views.

Lee & Low Books editors have consulted with outside readers for decades. We don’t call them sensitivity readers, however; we prefer the term targeted expert readers. The reason we use this term is that it shifts the attention away from cultures and sensitivities and focuses on the true function of what these readers do for us: they are experts in a particular subject area. These readers are tasked with the job of verifying the accuracy of information that appears in books. The facts can be related to a character’s ethnicity or culture, but they can just as easily involve how a certain machine works, or the terminology related to a particular medical procedure. Editors of children’s books are knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects and are experts when it comes to editing. They cannot be expected to be experts in everything, and the use of targeted expert readers is a crucial tool in an editor’s toolbox that enables us to make better books.

Here are some examples of recent Lee & Low books for which we used targeted expert readers. Author Supriya Kelkar’s 2017 middle-grade novel Ahimsa takes place in India in 1942, during Gandhi’s independence movement. The story’s protagonist, Anjali, looks at the protests with fresh eyes and wonders why the rights of Dalits (the so-called “untouchables” of the Hindu caste system) are not included in the fight for freedom. A Dalit reader noticed in an early draft of the manuscript that the author included superstitions about and examples of the treatment of Dalit people from a variety of times and places. Because Dalit experiences vary depending not only on caste but also on socioeconomic status, location within the large country, and other factors, the targeted expert reader’s feedback compelled us as a team to home in on what would have been the specific experience of a Dalit person in the 1940s in that particular area of India.

A targeted expert reader also helped us better understand how events could have happened in the 2018 picture-book biography Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann (illustrated by London Ladd). According to Mississippi law in the 1850s, teaching an enslaved person how to read or write was strictly prohibited. However, the subject of Halfmann’s book is an enslaved woman of that period named Lilly Ann Granderson who taught other enslaved people how to read and write but, although caught, was never punished for it. Halfmann could not find any historical records explaining why the authorities decided not to punish Granderson. We needed assistance from an expert. Since the majority of the story takes place on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, we consulted Justin J. Behrend, a professor of history who had written an essay titled “Black Political Mobilization and the Spatial Transformation of Natchez.” Dr. Behrend answered several of our questions within the context of the story and said that, at the end of the day, it would have been the plantation owner who decided Granderson’s fate. And it seems as if, since we have no records or testimonials of a punishment, that plantation owner decided not to punish her. Dr. Behrend’s insights helped us better understand this complex story and why it ended the way it did. The information also proved useful in allowing the author to go into greater depth in the afterword, providing more nuance and meaning.

As a final example, Benji, the Bad Day, and Me is a new picture book by Sally J. Pla (illustrated by Ken Min) that focuses on a boy named Sammy and his little brother Benji, who is on the autism spectrum. While the book’s author has a son with autism, and the story is based on her family’s daily life, we consulted a targeted expert reader who is also on the autism spectrum because we wanted to try to be respectful of a plurality of experiences. Books about marginalized people can be hard to come by, so we try to make our books both as personal and as universal as we possibly can. The targeted expert reader pointed out that the text did not specify whether or not the little brother, Benji, attended school, and that in the current political climate, with an administration seeking to roll back the educational rights of children with disabilities, it is important to hear about neurodiverse children participating in school. The reader suggested an addition: “When Sammy comes home after his bad day at school, maybe Mom can mention that Benji [also] had a bad day at kindergarten or preschool.” The editor and author found this perspective illuminating, and while it may seem like a small change — to add a mention of preschool — the acknowledgment of that school experience would speak volumes to a person on the autism spectrum.

At Lee & Low we are committed to using targeted expert readers. Think about it. If an author gets something factually wrong, it’s distracting — it takes the reader out of the story. It makes people ask questions like, “Where was the editor on this?” or exclaim, “This writer didn’t do his or her homework!” Why risk it? If using targeted expert readers increases the chance of keeping readers engaged and in awe of good writing and craft, isn’t it worth it?

From the November/December 2018 Horn Book Magazine. Read Roger’s 2013 interview with Jason Low and Holiday House’s Mary Cash.

Jason Low About Jason Low

Jason Low is the publisher and a co-owner of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States.

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Comments

  1. Love the idea of calling us “targeted expert readers” as people sometimes have the wrong impression of what we do. I try to explain it like this: If you’re a script writer and want to create a medical drama, will you consult actual doctors to make sure you have the medical lingo, situations correct, or just guess? Most writers would go the consult route.

    I’m a Sensitivity reader and course creator for sensitivity readers and feel it a privilidge to share this inductry with people and dispel myths.

  2. Excellent insights, and I admire the alternative tag: #TargetedExpertReaders. So happy to see the backstory on Midnight Teacher by Janet Halfmann. I adgree completely about the author note at he back- opened up great converations about this hidden history. Thx!

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