Members of the Association of American Publishers’ Young to Publishing Group gathered on December 7 in New York City for a panel discussion on the role of sensitivity readers in bringing diverse and authentic stories to children and teens. The panelists were Patrice Caldwell, associate editor at Disney-Hyperion and founder of People of Color in Publishing, Tiffany Liao, editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers; and Namrata Tripathi, editorial director at Dial Books. Phoebe Yeh, v-p and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, moderated the discussion, which addressed the challenges and rewards of working with beta readers throughout the editorial process.

Yeh observed the growing number of sensitivity readers being hired to assist in evaluating diverse kids’ books. “In adult lit, it doesn’t seem to crop up the way it does for children’s,” she said.

The panelists were in agreement that bringing on additional readers for a manuscript can provide context and personal insight, especially when authors are writing about a character outside of their own lived experience. Tripathi suggested, “The term ‘authenticity reader’ better encapsulates the work they do, because they are providing critical feedback about matters of accuracy.” Caldwell also spoke to the importance of soliciting informed criticism, adding, “The best sensitivity readers are strong critical readers.”

The editors cautioned, however, against viewing sensitivity reading as a box to be checked off while preparing a book for publication. Liao emphasized that working with a reader is not a quick fix or precaution, but rather an important part of the mission to foster more accurate representation in children’s literature. “We’re looking for hard-and-fast rules for something that isn’t one size fits all.” Building on this statement, Tripathi said, “When we want single, easy answers to big questions, my response keeps coming back to ‘it depends’—we have to actually engage with the specifics of the question.”

Yeh asked the panelists when in a book’s production schedule do they enlist the help of an authenticity reader. She pointed out that some authors and editors may be wary of sharing a manuscript in its earliest stages, when significant changes may still remain to be made. Even so, all felt that a book could benefit from early feedback. Liao said she sometimes consults with multiple readers, over the course of successive drafts. “My philosophy is early and often.” Regardless of where a book stands in the publication process, Tripathi said the question to consider when working with an authenticity reader is: “Are we asking for feedback or permission?”

Doing the Work

Caldwell, who is also a writer, added that authors must consider their intentions and limitations, and whether they are the right person to tell a story. “You shouldn’t be writing so far outside your own culture that you don’t know anyone who’s a part of your character’s culture,” she said. Tripathi echoed her comment, saying, “It’s not about who’s allowed. It’s about whether you do it well.” While they recognize that not all of today’s diverse stories are Own Voices stories, the editors aim to help their authors craft authentic and accurate representations.

Yeh then asked the panelists about in-house conversations and contentions that may arise regarding diverse storytelling. One source of internal discussion relates to the copyediting of diverse titles. Citing the house style for some publishers of italicizing words in foreign languages, Tripathi described the problem this poses for books told from the perspective of a native or fluent speaker. “This is indicating otherness,” she said. Yeh said that, in these cases, she will ask for the author’s preference. When discussing approaches to diverse content, Tripathi said, “I think it’s important to have a vigorous debate”—but she believes that discussion should take the shape of a “rich, thoughtful, generous conversation” as opposed to “one that is defensive.”

While editorial approaches may vary, the speakers agreed on the importance of gathering as much information and insight as possible to bring authentic stories to light. Tripathi said, “As editors, we can’t have knowledge of all experiences, but we need enough knowledge and facility with the language of examining non-dominant narratives to be able to ask good questions of the author.” Caldwell stated the need for thoughtful and thorough research, regardless of the genre. “I see just as many problems in fantasy or sci-fi because people forget how their own biases come into play when crafting their worlds. If authors can imagine worlds, it bothers me how some don’t put in the same amount of work to get cultures right.”

Wrapping up the discussion, Yeh brought up the issue of handling feedback from sensitivity readers. In many situations, the suggested edits will entail more than simply removing or adjusting a line. After considering a reader’s notes, Liao said, “It’s important to have in-depth conversations with both the reader and the author to think critically about the feedback. It’s not just about omitting anything that could be problematic. It’s about examining and addressing the root of the issues, rather than doing triage or troubleshooting.” Liao encouraged publishers, authors, and readers to continue engaging in these kinds of dialogues. “It’s important to push through the discomfort. We will only move forward if we keep talking about it.”