Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
In No Good Deed, a novel for and about teens, author Goldy Moldavsky offers a rare satiric view of political correctness through the eyes of a guileless youth attending a summer camp for social justice warriors. At Camp Save the World, campers identify themselves by their pet causes, such as Feed the Children, Feminism, Men’s Rights, and QUILTBAG.
QUILTBAG? Is that a thing? Yes: Queer/questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay. As a term to cover all varieties of sexual experience, it probably gets the job done. But the current quest for diversity in books for the young doesn’t stop there.
In 2015, dissatisfaction with the prominence of white male authors at a young adult book conference led to the creation of We Need Diverse Books (see “A good book is a good book,” WORLD, Sept. 5, 2015). It was a movement whose time had come. Though the publishing world had for years expressed its intention to become more “inclusive” (both in personnel and in product), WNDB focused efforts and demanded results.
Results came quickly, from all segments of the industry. Publishers Weekly visited independent booksellers to ask buyers and clerks about their recommendations. “For me,” said one buyer, “diverse books are not only books that include the presence of people of color, Latino, Native American, immigrant, disabled, or QUILTBAG characters.” She was also looking for context “within the broader culture of racism, sexism, homo- and transphobia, [and] classism, without lapsing into stereotypes or generalizations.”
That seems like a tall order, and it indicates the very danger that diversity-for-its-own-sake represents. All good literature broadens experience, whether it takes the reader to the Russian steppes, apartheid-era South Africa, or Regency England. A dogmatic insistence on a particular context pits cultures against each other. It also creates a class of literary cops who patrol the pages of upcoming releases and blow the whistle on “incorrect” content.
The trend is especially pronounced in young adult (YA) publishing. Two well-publicized cases from 2017 demonstrate how far it can go. The Black Witch, a YA fantasy novel, was trailing a string of enthusiastic blurbs toward its May 1 publishing date, when the influential blogger Shauna Sinyard blasted it as “the most dangerous, offensive book I’ve ever read.” In a 9,000-word review, Sinyard detailed every instance of sexism, racism, and homophobia. It was the white female protagonist, not the author, who was expressing these views, but Sinyard’s audience appeared to miss that distinction.
Harlequin Teen, the publisher, endured a twitter storm of irate readers (the vast majority of whom had not read the novel) demanding that The Black Witch be heavily revised or canceled altogether. Neither of those things happened, and The Black Witch debuted at No. 1 in Amazon’s “Teen and YA Wizards Fantasy” division—proving either that there’s no such thing as bad publicity or that Twitter storms produce more heat than light.
The second incident attracted even more attention. Advance copies of American Heart, a novel published by HarperTeen, were making the rounds of review journals and had won a coveted starred review from Kirkus. The novel pictures a dystopian America where Muslims have been ordered into “safety zones”—i.e., internment camps. Sarah Mary, the white Christian protagonist, approves of the order until she encounters a Muslim woman on the run. In spite of ethnic and religious differences, the two manage to bond, and Sarah becomes a latter-day underground railroad conductor to get her friend safely to Canada.
The plot sounds exactly like the kind of “broader-culture racism” context an independent bookseller would approve, except for the protagonist/narrator and main character: a classic “white savior,” according to critics. Why wasn’t the Muslim character allowed to speak for herself? Was this not a case of cultural appropriation?
Outrage grew, and after a token resistance Kirkus pulled its starred review for reconsideration. When it appeared again, revised by the same anonymous reviewer, the word problematic was attached to the protagonist, who clings to her prejudices far too long. And the star was taken away—a first for Kirkus in its long history of book reviewing.
Laura Moriarty, the author of American Heart, protested that several Muslim friends had critiqued her manuscript for false notes. HarperTeen protested that at many points during the editing process, “sensitivity readers” of similar background had weighed in. Kirkus protested that a “Muslim woman of color” had written the original starred review and its successor. American Heart had passed muster at all stages. Still, the reader websites Book Riot and Goodreads savaged the novel—for the principle of the thing, apparently. Since the book was not even published until late January, few had had a chance to read it.
Though nervous about these outbreaks, the industry is putting on its game face. At a children’s publishing conference in December, literary agent Jill Grinberg acknowledged that some of the authors she represents have been blindsided by criticism they did not earn, but “the dialogue, the awareness, is incredibly important. If this is what we have to endure to get to a better place, so be it.”
Other authors, agents, and editors are not so sanguine. Journalist Kat Rosenfield, in a long article about the Black Witch controversy (“The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter”), reported that only one author would offer comment under her real name. The rest admitted that this level of hypersensitivity wasn’t good for fiction but feared the handful of “culture cops”—mostly independent bloggers—who pounced on an incorrect representation or cultural appropriation. Some of these critics have made themselves standard-bearers of a particular advocacy or ethnic group, and an author who fails to meet their standard comes in for a drubbing.
The headline of a recent New York Times article states a major concern: “In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship?” The article quotes Laura Moriarty, still reeling from the fracas over American Heart: “I do wonder, in this environment, what books aren’t being released.” It’s a fear shared by other industry professionals. What future Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird will never see the light of day?