“There are a lot of tough conversations going on right now in children’s publishing,” says Clarissa Hadge, manager of Boston’s Trident Booksellers and Café. Earlier this year, Amélie Wen Zhao requested that Delacorte postpone the release of her YA fantasy debut, Blood Heir, in response to criticisms of the book that were posted on social media by early readers. The novel, which has been revised and read by academics and sensitivity readers, according to her publisher, will be released in November, five months after its original street date.
Kosoko Jackson asked Sourcebooks Fire to cancel the release of his historical YA romance A Place for Wolves, despite its having received starred prepub reviews in trade publications.
Some booksellers PW queried describe the recent controversies, which largely have to do with the way authors who are not members of marginalized communities represent those communities, as having a chilling effect. Sara Luce Look, co-owner of Charis Books in Decatur, Ga., recalls similar disputes in the 1980s, when, she says, “booksellers were shaming each other about what was on shelves.” She points to books once lauded as classics that contain offensive content and yet remain on bookstore shelves, such as those in the Little House on the Prairie series. “Don’t pull things immediately: let’s talk about them,” she says, but, she adds, “editors should do better vetting and authors should be prepared for criticism.”
Kris Kleindienst, who co-owns Left Bank Books in St. Louis, agrees. “I don’t think this is the way to cultivate better children’s books at all,” she says. “Let a book stand or fall on its own. Don’t make that decision for the rest of us.” Kleindienst adds that the fact that anyone with an internet connection can become a reviewer muddies the water.
By contrast, some booksellers applaud the way Zhao and Delacorte and Jackson and Sourcebooks responded to criticism. “People raised concerns and these authors took them seriously,” says Cecilia Cackley, children’s buyer at East City Bookshop in Washington, D.C. “As a bookseller, I don’t want customers to be triggered by something that’s, for example, racist.”
That consideration is especially important when it comes to children’s books, notes bookseller Nicole Brinkley of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “This might be a [young reader’s] first encounter with a marginalized people’s experience,” she says. “Even though it’s fictional, you really want it to be a fair representation.”
As a woman of color, Stephanie Seales, head children’s buyer at Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., takes the way marginalized people are represented personally. “Everybody seems to have an opinion, but the first voices we should be hearing are those of the marginalized communities being misrepresented,” she says. “There’s a higher concern here than the market.” She argues that postponing or canceling books demonstrates to marginalized communities that publishers are fulfilling their role as gatekeepers.
Though booksellers broadly disagree on how the industry should respond to criticisms from early readers, particularly those from outside of the industry, several booksellers PW spoke with emphasized the importance of ongoing dialogue. “It isn’t about us: it’s about the kids,” Cackley says. “I think we can all agree that they are the most important people in this business in the end, and we want to give them the best books possible.”
Many booksellers, however, agree that publishers sometimes rush books into print that should have gone through another round of edits and that the industry lacks diversity.
BrocheAroe Fabian, founder and owner of River Dog Book Co., an online bookstore that holds pop-up events in and around Beaver Dam, Wis., has worked as a sensitivity reader. She says that hiring sensitivity readers should be standard for publishers. “Just because you have an aspect of diversity in your life doesn’t mean that you understand all diversity,” she notes. “Do it for every book, and publishers and editors can stand behind their authors, and say, ‘We’ve done our due diligence; we’re going to publish.’ ”
Fabian’s suggestion is one that Trident’s Hadge supports. “If we had more people read through manuscripts and catch these things early on so they could be corrected,” she says, “then we would not miss out on what may be the next big thing in kid lit.”
The “Talking Productively About Content Issues in Children’s Literature” session will take place on Thursday, June 27, 9–10 a.m., in the Monongahela Room.