I recently had an interesting conversation with someone from the world of books for young readers about why Kirkus sometimes gives negative reviews to books that have the “right” intentions—books that are clearly aiming to do positive things in terms of representation and inclusivity. This person asked, with genuine curiosity and openness, why we would not simply uplift these titles rather than, at times, critique their execution.
Apart from the fact that thoughtfully critical book reviews are invaluable purchasing guides for readers and librarians with limited budgets and shelf space, there is the matter of “intent versus impact.” This phrase is well known and frequently used in the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion work to describe the gap between our intentions and the actual impact of our words and behavior. One everyday example from my own life is the impact of being complimented by white people on how well I speak English. The intent might be positive—who doesn’t like to be told they have mastered a skill? But there are underlying offensive assumptions behind this statement. Anyone who spoke to me on the phone without knowing what I looked like would not think to question that I am a native English speaker.
I firmly believe that no one sets out to write a book for young readers with nefarious intent. Authors who focus their life’s work on children and teens are, with rare exception, special people who respect and want to nurture youth. It is incredibly painful to set out to do something kind, only to be told that what you did is perceived very differently than the way it was intended—and it’s even worse when you are told that you are hurting young people.
Looking back over several recent controversies around diverse books for young readers, they all seem to come down to the authors’ intent not corresponding with some readers’ perceptions of their impact. This is hardly a new concept in the world of creative endeavors (every movie or play that flops is clearly not reflecting the intent of those who made it). However, criticisms around diversity seem to hit writers especially hard and strike at the core of people’s identities.
I believe this is because we often think and speak about diversity related subjects as if they reflect the kind of person we are, our fundamental inner character and worth, rather than being a matter of life experience and cultivated skills. Being criticized in this area feels significantly more painful than being critiqued for writing clunky dialogue or producing a novel with uneven pacing—weaknesses we are more likely to have a growth mindset about being able to learn and improve upon.
I will always be an educator at heart, and believe, optimistically, that honest feedback reflects respect for people’s ability to listen and grow. Those who sincerely wish to learn and improve in any area of endeavor should acknowledge that criticism can sting but is ultimately a gift. We are all on a path of learning. Wherever you are on your journey when you next encounter someone with uncomfortable feedback—and for all of us it’s not “if” but “when”—try to remember that what they reflect back to you does not represent the totality of your being and potential.
In a spirit of celebration, here are a few November titles that our reviewers felt did an excellent job of conveying the authors’ intent.
I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson (Sourcebooks Fire, Nov. 5) is a rare work of genre fiction featuring a disabled protagonist. Jemma lives with cerebral palsy and is nonverbal and quadriplegic, leading many to underestimate her intelligence and powers of observation. She is a well-rounded character who holds the key to solving a crime.
Ronni Davis’ debut, When the Stars Lead to You (Little, Brown, Nov. 12), is a sensitive take on loving someone who is battling depression as well as the challenges of an interracial relationship across social class lines where one party’s parents are prejudiced. It has the added bonus of a female protagonist of color with a passion for the sciences.
In Safe Harbour by Christina Kilbourne (Dundurn, Nov. 16), the plight of homeless teens is woven into a mystery in which a 14-year-old Florida teen is left stranded in Toronto when her father does not arrive on schedule to meet her. Camping in a tent with colder weather setting in, she must decide whom to trust and figure out how to survive.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.