Warning: this is a long post.
There have been a number of articles on sensitivity readers in the last few weeks. Slate ran this one; Huffington Post this one over here; here’s the Washington Post. There are others. Google a few more if you want. Then go to Writing at the Margins, where you’ll find a description of what sensitivity readers do, just in case you weren’t already aware.
I’m a person who believes in sensitivity readers, in the first place because I’m a person who generally believes in having expert readers look over my manuscripts before my I call my books finished, but also because I write for kids. I think when you write for kids, the stakes are, in general, higher than they are if you write for adults, and I believe, basically, in taking the feelings and well-being of my readers into consideration. I don’t think I began my career in middle grade literature feeling quite so strongly about this, by the way–more on that below. But suffice to say, while writing Ghosts of Greenglass House, I made sure to find readers who could look at several aspects of the story that were outside my direct knowledge and experience.
This, by the way, if you read the comments on any of the articles I linked to above, apparently means I caved to excessive political correctness and allowed a bunch of overly-sensitive censors to water down a story that might otherwise have been original. I invite you to please imagine me either laughing my ass off as I type this or reading it with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Because I feel that, as with every other expert reader whose assistance I’ve requested in the course of writing a book, the input of these readers was invaluable. Simply put, their feedback made Ghosts of Greenglass House better. More on that below, too.
A couple weeks ago, I was honored to join Jennifer Baker and Jordan Brown on a panel moderated by Justina Ireland and presented by the Children’s Book Council. The panel was called “A Second Opinion: Utilizing Sensitivity Readers.” The panel was geared towards children’s and young adult publishing professionals who were interested in some best practices for working with sensitivity readers. Jennifer is an editor, author, and sensitivity reader; Jordan is an executive editor at HarperCollins; Justina is an author and maintains the Writing in the Margins website, including a database of sensitivity readers. I was there as an author who’d utilized sensitivity readers. Publisher’s Weekly did a nice write-up of the event; you can read it here.
After that panel, I was contacted by a correspondent at NPR who was looking for an author who’d used sensitivity readers to answer some questions for a piece that I believe will air tomorrow (Tuesday). [Tuesday edit: Here’s the link to that interview, which also features my dear friend and colleague, author Dhonielle Clayton, as well as author Hillary Jordan.] Because I’m always afraid I’ll sound incoherent or rambly when I’m speaking off the cuff, I made some notes, and because I don’t know what parts of our discussion the NPR piece will ultimately use and because I didn’t wind up saying everything I’d written down, I decided to write my notes up as this post. The headings below are questions I anticipated being asked, followed by what I wrote up to help me organize my thoughts when I answered.
Isn’t this all a bit too much, the idea of hiring people just to avoid being insensitive? And paying them, too?
I do not. I love that sensitivity readers exist, and I am in awe of their generosity. These are people who are willing to share their knowledge and personal, lived experiences with complete strangers in the interests of bringing better stories into the world. And not all of these experiences are pleasant to relive and rehash, which, in addition to compensating basic time and effort, is one reason why paying sensitivity readers is important.
They do this so readers–and since I’m coming to this from the world of young people’s literature, I mean specifically kids–have a chance to see themselves and others like them reflected in books that feel authentic, that value their own feelings and experiences, and that tell those readers that they’re important and worth seeing in literature. I love the generosity of sensitivity readers because not only are they willing to give their time and emotional energy, they’re willing to do this in order to make literature a better place for another generation of readers. They’re willing to deal with the middlemen–authors like me, and all of our errors, assumptions, and ego–in order to make a positive change for strangers they’ll never meet.
And as for being paid–we’re talking about hiring people to do work, and people who do work should get paid. Editors get paid, copyeditors get paid–reading and critiquing a complete manuscript is work, and deserves to be compensated. Full stop.
Why did you feel you needed sensitivity readers for your book?
In Greenglass House and its forthcoming sequel, the main character is a transracial adoptee. In the first book, in addition to solving a mystery, Milo was dealing a bit with questions about his unknown birth parents. In the second book, he’s dealing a bit with the complications of being Chinese in a white family and feeling a bit alienated from his ethnic heritage.
With past books–and in retrospect I wish I’d done this differently–I’ve relied on my own research. And I do have a significant amount of personal experience with the international adoption process–my husband and I have been in the process ourselves for a number of years, and after numerous trainings and homestudies and conferences with social workers, I know that transracial families frequently if not always have to contend with complications about race and heritage. But I have never experienced myself what my character and his family are going through and I wanted to try and be as true to that experience as possible. Because of that, during the revision process of Ghosts of Greenglass House, I arranged for three transracial adoptees from different backgrounds to read the book and give me feedback, as well as two non-adoptee Chinese-American readers and two additional readers looking at other concerns.
I want to write the best possible book I can, and the most accurate book I can. I’m a very good researcher, but even after three years’ worth of preliminary research, when I wrote a book set on a privateer during the War of 1812 I lined up two experts for feedback. In books where I’ve had characters speaking languages in which I’m not fluent, I’ve had experts check my translations. Asking someone to read for perspective when I’m writing outside my own personal experience feels not at all different to me from those things. It’s not that I can’t empathize or do the imaginative work myself; it’s about improving accuracy and adding depth and detail, except I would mind less if someone found an error in how I’ve described a schooner than I’d mind if someone found that I’d been inaccurate or insensitive in writing a transracial adoptee. My inaccuracy isn’t going to hurt the schooner.
Which brings me to the more important point. I write for kids. If I’m going to ask them to go with me on an adventure that might be challenging, might be sad or difficult or frightening, I need them to trust me. I need them to believe that I’m on their side. If I somehow signal to them that maybe I’m not–that maybe I don’t understand them or don’t understand their experiences or that I don’t know what I’m talking about, then at best I’ve lost them. At worst, I risk doing harm.
Yes, harm. You’re free to agree or disagree, but for myself I believe that the way that children see similar kids represented in books can make a difference about how they feel about themselves, and how they understand (correctly or not) the way they fit into the world. I’m perfectly willing to scare a kid (see my published works), but I’d rather err on the side of not making them feel crappy about themselves than they already might. Childhood and adolescence can be pretty brutal to start with. I prefer not to add to it.
So for me, working with sensitivity readers is less about trying not to offend anyone (there’s no way to guarantee against that, because no two people read the same book the same way) and more about a) at minimum actively trying not to do harm to the very vulnerable audience I write for and b) ideally trying to write the best book for them, the one that they can read and think, this book was written for me.
What did you get from the experience?
I was fortunate in that, for Ghosts of Greenglass House, the readers didn’t find any massive, big-picture issues that needed to be addressed. Most of the issues were small and subtle, things that probably never would have occurred to me on my own, based on my own experience.
For instance, this is a sequel, and in reintroducing my main character and his family, I referred to his parents as ‘his adoptive parents.’ This, of course, was accurate, but the readers all felt that, since we were in the POV of the adoptee protagonist, referring to his parents that way felt distancing. I had chosen that phrasing out of convenience, as a way to quickly remind readers of Milo’s family situation, but from the perspective of readers who were also adoptees, that choice undermined the otherwise tight-knit family I thought I’d written. And it was an easy fix. Most of the critical feedback I got was like that–subtle things, but meaningful, especially to young readers and their families who might in some way or other identify with the characters.
And then there were what I’d call missed opportunities–things that the sensitivity readers had personally experienced that they were generous enough to share with me so that I could share them with the characters, or places where they saw the opportunity for me to make a stronger storytelling choice, or one that would resonate more deeply with kids in family situations like my protagonist’s. One reader reminisced about how her family helped her connect with her heritage through food and suggested I might use that to help show Milo’s family encouraging his efforts to connect with his. Another reader suggested I change a character’s name. Her suggestion for a replacement was way better than what I had started with, and because it relied on language fluency I don’t have, I would never have made that choice without her input. Two readers mentioned feeling alienated by family tree projects in elementary school, and with their permission, I gave that experience to someone in the book to share with Milo–after everyone also said they wanted more from that particular character.
Those things added beautifully to the story and made it richer. That’s an important thing to mention: this process isn’t just about someone telling you what you did wrong. It’s about making the story better, and not just for your sake, but for your target readers.
But political correctness! Censorship! Blaaaahhhhh!
Okay, stop. An author can, in fact, write whatever the hell he or she wants. Actual fact. You can write outside your cultural experience or not. If you do, you can hire a sensitivity reader or not, and if you do, you can follow the advice that person gives or not. So for a writer, it really is up to you. Just remember that if you put what you write out into the world, the public has a right to comment on it. There are a lot of good arguments for sensitivity readers. We’ve discussed some of them. But no one’s going to make you do it.
Unless, potentially, you decide to work with a publisher. Because once you sell your book to a publisher, you enter into a partnership, and you aren’t the only one making decisions about that book anymore. That’s just the way it works. If you feel you need to be the only one making decisions about the story you’ve written, and if you don’t look at the story as belonging to anyone but you–and some writers do feel that way, which is their choice–then the traditional publishing model might not be ideal for you. And today there are myriad alternative publishing options and platforms available to writers who want complete control over their projects.
If you do sign with a publisher, and if you the author choose not to worry about a sensitivity reader and the publisher does and this results in a disagreement, then presumably you work together to solve it as you would any disagreement that crops up during the editing process. I mean…that’s kind of what the editing process is about.
And I do think publishers–or at least publishers of books for young readers–should at least think about sensitivity concerns. I think they should utilize sensitivity readers and consider very carefully the feedback those readers give. For one thing, public opinion can impact sales, and using sensitivity readers can help identify potential issues before the book gets to print, which is just better for everyone.
But more importantly than that, in a perfect world, publishers of books for kids should be concerned with more than the bottom line. They should be concerned with doing right by their readers, and doing their best to be sure that the books they publish don’t perpetuate stereotypes or include potentially damaging elements. And even though what constitutes “harmful” is not always a clear-cut matter–look at any book that’s caused any kind of controversy in this way and you’ll find conflicting opinions–I think it’s incumbent upon publishers to think critically and seek informed voices and opinions to aid in making their decisions when in one of those potentially gray areas. The point isn’t to never ever offend anyone ever–because again, impossible–but to do due diligence and make informed editorial decisions before the book goes to print.
And if you’re still reading after all that, hey, thanks.