Up for Discussion: When Is It Okay to Mention “Diversity” in a Review?

We know that publishing at large and children’s publishing in particular is (yes, still) woefully white-washed. There have been tremendous strides made in the last year as a resultBehindtheReviews_sm-246x300 of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. In fact, our first ever Reviewer Survey was a part of an effort on behalf of this magazine to take a critical look at ourselves and ask some tough but important questions. The next logical step is to examine not just who is reviewing, but how. What blinders do we have? What preconceptions? (And we all have them—review editors included.)

As review editors, we’ve seen the gamut. We’ve seen reviews that, for one reason or another, fail to mention an inaccurate or potentially offensive stereotype. I’ve seen seemingly solid reviews go out into the world, only to discover weeks later that they contain a terrible depiction of a cultural group—something both the reviewer and the editors missed. There are those blinders.

On the other hand, we’ve seen cases in which the reviewer mentions almost every representation of race, ethnicity, and gender depicted in the work—which can be terribly awkward and often unnecessary. I’ve seen books simply described as being “diverse.” And while I usually know what the reviewer means, I worry about tokenism—or at least the perception of tokenism.

My predecessor, Trev Jones, who did this job for over 30 years, was known for this sage piece of advice: “Review the book that is, not the book you wish it was.”

I’ve found myself coming back to Trev’s words again and again over the last year. There are so many books I find wanting. I wish they had chosen to depict a non-white protagonist in that story about going to preschool for the first time. I wish the author of that YA novel had included more female characters. And so on. But when is an omission a failing on the part of the author and the book they’ve produced? When is it appropriate to mention and criticize that lack of diversity in a review? When is it helpful and appropriate to mention inclusion of “diverse” characters? If a character in a picture book is brown-skinned, should that be stated explicitly in the review?

Perhaps as review editors we should be telling you the answer, providing the rules and guidelines for this. That would certainly make everyone’s jobs a lot easier. But the honest truth is that we struggle with these questions every day, every time it comes up in a review. And we do our best to make a decision based on each title. Because no two books are alike and each one deserves to be considered on its own.

What do you think?

Comments

  1. rforbes says

    This certainly is a difficult one. On the one hand you want to mention the qualities a character has so that readers can find those books that has “someone like me” in it, but if you treat it as if its unusual, then that’s a bias. I believe we should state these things in a matter of fact sort of way. Describe these characters as you would any other, focusing on those things that are most relevant; an example would be, we note when an individual’s past is central to their identity or events, then we should do the same with ethnicity/religion/gender/disabilities when it is used in the same capacity. If a quality is no more than “skin deep”, note it with one or two words for the “someone like me” aspect, then move on.

    In terms of lacking diversity, well that depends on the book. Is it a modern work set in a North American city where lots of different peoples reside? Then yes, you could say that the book doesn’t show the world as it is. Is it a historical piece? Then not necessarily, it depends on the time and place.

    Things are a little different when it comes to the more visual formats (picture books and graphic novels). The finding “someone like me” aspect is even more important because we can identify with a character in a more immediate way. Also, whereas the visual qualities of characters in novels tend to fade into the back of our minds, these formats always have it front and center. Even side characters and background extras may be worth noting.

    Ultimately I believe we should acknowledge those authors that have done something which the publishing industry seems to see as a “risky” move, by doing so, we help people find the books they want, demand increases, and the need for more books like it gets justified.

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