Questions of fairness, fact-checking, and reviewing books with diverse content were the subject of Book Reviews: The Diversity of Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation, a panel held Friday morning at BookExpo. Moderated by School Library Journal reviews manager Shelley Diaz, the panel featured Vicky Smith, children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews; Anastasia Collins, a liaison librarian at the Beatley Library at Simmons College; and Hannah Oliver Depp, operations manager at Word Bookstores in Brooklyn and New Jersey.
Asked about the biggest challenges they face with regard to issues of diversity, Smith landed on fact-checking, particularly in the wake of Kirkus’s recent decision to identify the race and ethnicity of characters in its children’s and YA reviews, which can be difficult when an author isn’t explicit about a character’s background. “In one recent book,” said Smith, “all of the characters had black hair and brown eyes. What do you do with that?”
Collins, who reviews for both Kirkus and the Horn Book, bemoaned word counts as “the bane of reviewers’ existence,” especially when trying to discuss a character’s background thoughtfully, an idea Depp echoed in worrying about inadvertently relying on the “shorthand of tokenism” when trying to match a reader with the right book during a brief retail interaction.
Both Diaz and Smith emphasized how their publications are actively seeking to diversify their ranks of reviewers, which led into a discussion of the art of finding the right book for the right reviewer, a process Diaz likened to matchmaking. “It’s so frustrating to get a book about a Tamil immigrant and to know that the two South Asian reviewers I have on staff at this moment, that their affinity for YA is nil,” said Smith. “So I have to decide: what aspect of this book meshes with other reviewers I have? Trying to find some affinity between a book and a reviewer is very important to me.”
As a reviewer, Collins emphasized the importance of self-education—aka “doing the Google”—when confronting a book with cultural content she may not have firsthand experience with. “Once that review is turned it, it’s also my job to continue learning,” she said. “Not just learning for that book or for that moment.” With regard to Native American representation, Collins cited Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, “where she’s put so much effort and time into [describing] red flags to look out for, and good things to look for.” For Collins, it’s about “leaning on the labor of folks who are already trying to fix things” while also keeping her own knowledge up to date.
When it comes to deciding what titles to order for stores with limited physical space, “Don’t judge a book by its cover, but also do judge a book by its cover,” said Depp, who praised the jacket of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. “It told you so much about what you were walking into. All you had to do was face it out on the shelves.” Looking beyond the jacket, Depp said she often has to rely on trade reviews, Edelweiss comments, and even Goodreads to help decide whether to stock a book. “Books need to be top notch or they don’t go on the shelves.” And she underscored the necessity of truly knowing what you’re selling: “If you don’t know the books, you can’t recommend them.”
On the topic of fairness, the panelists largely agreed that, as a concept, it’s both subjective and evolving. “I think constructions of fairness are as fluid as identity constructions,” said Smith, who recalled an interaction years ago with a reviewer who used a wheelchair and worried that she wouldn’t be able to fairly judge a fantasy adventure with a disabled protagonist. “Now,” she said, “a lot of people feel you aren’t giving a fair review [to a book with diverse content] if you aren’t giving it to someone with that identity affiliation.”
Collins suggested that there are “two kinds of fair: fair to the book and fair to the reader,” and that “sometimes those two don’t match up.” She also cautioned that readers aren’t a homogenous group, and that recognizing that different readers may react to the same book in different ways is part of the challenge, particularly in a short review. Weighing how to handle a book that may be “literarily stupendous,” as Smith put it, but potentially problematic in terms of representation, Diaz noted, “I would actually argue that if a book has a slip-up or problematic representation, I don’t think that is a quality book no matter how well-written it is.”
Smith admitted that “errors have happened a fair amount” since Kirkus began identifying race and ethnicity in reviews. “Reviewing is a form of journalism, so getting the facts right is important,” she said, but authors aren’t always transparent in ways that make those facts apparent. She noted an uptick in books about mixed-race characters. “But if the reader learns of this particular heritage through a naming convention or very oblique reference to where you got your hair from, that’s really hard,” she said. “If you’re just planting clues, to me that’s not writing diverse content.”
Collins expressed regret over having written reviews that use ableist language she wouldn’t use anymore: “I can’t fix them. I can only do better now.” And Depp echoed the need for facing one’s mistakes head on, such as organizing a display to celebrate Asian heritage and realizing you only have books about China in stock. “Recognize a mistake you’ve made and do better.”