A few weeks ago Kirkus’ editorial team met for a style summit. Like most publications, we take advantage of a style manual to answer such nit-picky questions as whether to capitalize “Lab” (yes, when we’re talking about the dog) or “first lady” (no) in order to edit our reviews to the same standard, though they are written by some several hundred separate individuals. Our default style is that of the Associated Press, although we have borrowed some conventions from the Chicago Manual of Style and have put our own spin on both.
One of the first decisions we made was to forevermore eschew the ludicrous-looking “high jinks” for “hijinks,” and one of the second was to join the rest of the literary world by rendering “backstory” as one word. Thank goodness. Some of the other changes, however, go deeper, and I’d like to address two of them.
First, according to AP, “In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible.” We decided to say phooey on AP and to affirmatively use the singular “they” without treating those who prefer its use as problems by writing around it.
This also has immediate application in reviews of picture books in which gender is not specified in the text. We have done our best to avoid labeling by gender stereotype (girls can wear T-shirts and jeans, and boys have eyelashes too, and both apply to those who are not of a binary gender) and to avoid the male default in cases where visuals are opaque. Without recourse to the singular “they,” this has resulted in reviews in which, say, an unnamed baby elephant protagonist is referred to as “the elephant,” “the calf,” “the tiny pachyderm,” etc. Starting now, our readers will notice more and more reviews in which a singular protagonist is referred to as “they” or “them.”
The other major change is to reject an approach found in Chicago and other style manuals: “Italics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers”; in practical application “unfamiliar” is defined by their treatment in Webster’s. This has the effect of establishing on our readers’ behalf what is and is not familiar, which feels very presumptuous in our increasingly polyglot society. To tell our Spanish-speaking readers that “quinceañera” is a foreign word or our Vietnamese-speaking readers that “bánh mì” is likewise feels like the worst kind of cultural imperialism.
These are two small changes that we hope make our reviews inclusive of all our readers.
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.