In 2017, I read more than 35 children’s book manuscripts for editors and authors about or featuring black American characters. The industry calls these reads “sensitivity reads,” a poor term that mischaracterizes the nature and scope of what we sensitivity readers do. The buzzword has been distorted, weaponized by many to dismiss the need for responsible representation.
Critics cling to their associations with the word sensitive and not the actual substance of the job. Many claim that sensitivity readers are diversity police officers telling (white) writers that they cannot write cross-culturally, and that our very existence (or presumed power) is proof that censorship runs rampant, stifling their freedom to write what they want to write. Most of the articles about this topic have focused on white, cisgendered, able-bodied, heterosexual writers’ feelings about this process and the pain they’ve suffered when their books are discussed in online spaces.
One thing that gets left out of the conversation is that, when an author fails to write well-rounded, fleshed-out characters outside of their own realm of experience, it’s, at its core, a craft failure. In simple terms: it’s bad writing. I subscribe to the personal philosophy that writers should write what they want to write, but they should aim to do it well.
Another thing left out of the conversation is that it’s not only white writers who use or should use sensitivity readers. Sensitivity reads—or authenticity checks—are part of my own writing process. For my first book series, Tiny Pretty Things, my coauthor Sona Charaipotra and I hired 12 sensitivity readers.
Set in a ballet boarding school, the series follows three girls from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds who are each willing to do whatever it takes to be the top ballerina. Some of our readers focused on making sure the ballet world was depicted accurately, others vetted details about eating disorders, and the bulk read for Korean-American representation, as one of our main characters is from that community.
In my February release, The Belles, I had eight readers look for various issues surrounding bodies and identity. The book is set in a fantasy world where you can change yourself down to your bones for the right price. The subject matter opens a difficult conversation about beauty standards and the commodification of women’s bodies.
Working with readers, I made changes throughout the publishing process, from first draft to the final pass. My readers imparted valuable nuggets of wisdom that helped give my worlds a layer of added authenticity, and noted mistakes I’d made that led to harmful representation. None of my various readers ever censored me or told me I couldn’t write the characters, settings, or worlds that I’d crafted. I am indebted to all those who have given me their expertise. My books are better for it.
Misusing the term censorship and warping its definition to smear sensitivity readers is an attempt to divert attention from the real issue: the systematic erasure and blockage of marginalized voices from the publishing industry. It’s not so much about who is writing what but rather who gets published with the content they’ve chosen to write. The way books enter the publishing machine and navigate the book world is the underlying subtext in this fraught conversation. The reason I read so many manuscripts this past year is because publishers are giving more book deals to non-black American writers writing about black Americans than to black American content creators. That is the core problem.
Publisher Lee & Low’s 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey revealed the uncomfortable truth that one homogenous group dominates publishing. And since 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has tracked the number of books published about kids of color and by authors from those respective backgrounds, finding that they account for only a small proportion of the books published each year.
While sensitivity reading helps curtail problematic and harmful representations and helps authors with their craft, it’s merely a Band-Aid covering up a deep, bleeding wound. The industry must recognize that real censorship shows up each season in the way new books are bought by editors and find their way into bookstores.
Dhonielle Clayton is the COO of We Need Diverse Books and a cofounder of Cake Literary. Her debut fantasy, The Belles, is coming in February from Disney-Hyperion.