“You can’t control who is going to pick up your book.”
I often point this out when I receive complaints from authors or publishers that one of our reviews didn’t “get” their books. It’s true: No matter how specifically an author or publisher envisions a potential audience, in the end, despite marketing and publicity, they can’t control who is going to buy it or check it out and then read it.
When it comes to assigning a book for review, I can control who picks it up, however, and a great part of my job is figuring out how to match every book I assign for review to its best possible reader. Always something that’s running through the back of my mind, this has been in the forefront in the weeks since the flap over BEA’s initially all-white lineup of authors at BookCon and the resulting discussion it engendered in the children’s-literature community.
#WeNeedDiverseBooks was the Twitter rallying cry, to which I would add that I need diverse reviewers. The Kirkus roster of reviewers largely reflects the demographics of the world of children’s and teen literature: overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly female. (There are very few segments of society in which men can legitimately cry underrepresentation; children’s literature is one of them.) Knowing that my roster does not reflect the mosaic that is the United States—nor does it come close to reflecting the mosaic that is the population of children in the United States, which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts will be minority white by 2019—I have worked to recruit reviewers of color, with some modest success.
I should also point out that diversity has many facets; in addition to looking at the ethnic diversity of my roster, I need to consider other types of diversity, such as disability, class, religion, geography, gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as reading preferences.
But having recruited some reviewers of color, I find myself wondering how most responsibly to match them to books. Whenever I bring on new reviewers, I asked them to fill out a checklist of preferences. Several of my reviewers of color have expressed an interest in what one called “the literature of the African Diaspora.” Sounds good. But they have also expressed an interest in, among other topics, baking, crochet, football, fencing, archery, tennis, “food stories,” and “dogs!” Several love high fantasy, not a subgenre teeming with characters of color. One Chinese-American reviewer has an especial interest in the Japanese-American internment camps; another quite nicely requested that she not be assigned every single picture book on Chinese folklore that came across my desk.
In short, my reviewers of color are, like everybody else, individuals as well as members of specific ethnic classes. They bring to their reading sensibilities and understandings informed by their cultural identities as well as their specific family histories, educations, geographical familiarity, fondness for pets, etc. It would be breathtakingly irresponsible for me to confine my reviewers of color to books that match only one part of their wholes.
When assigning books, I do my level best to match them to the people with whom they will resonate best, the people who will catch the nuances that, when recognized, elevate a good book to the level of great, the people who “speak” the book’s language. Sometimes this is quite literal; I once sent a couple works of “urban fiction” to white reviewers who were utterly thrown by the authors’ use of nonstandard English. (Happily, I soon found another reviewer, also white, who happened to love urban fiction and had no problem with its vernacular.) But most often, when it comes to books for which identity is a significant theme, it’s a question of hoping that I am matching them with readers who will see the elements that make them culturally distinctive where readers not from that culture might not.
I want readers to slide into books and say, “Aah, this feels like home!” But “home” is a pretty elastic concept.
Sometimes that means assigning a book about an African-American ballerina to one of my African-American reviewers—but it also might mean that another time I would assign a book about an African-American ballerina to one of my balletomanes. Books are as individual as people are, after all (at least the good ones are).
So my goal in recruiting more reviewers of color—and of so many other possible diversities, if you will—is not necessarily so I can ensure that books pertaining to a Latino culture (for instance) are read by a member of that particular culture, it’s so I can ensure that I have as many different types of eyes and minds available as possible.
Because, in the end, you can’t control who is going to pick up those books.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.