Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Book reviews: whose opinions count?

It’s often said that books are critical as windows and mirrors – opening up new worlds and reflecting back your own reality – and also as maps that show you possibilities for the future. This realization inspired We Need Diverse Books, an organization whose mission it is to increase the diversity of characters in books for young people.
Often the conversations focus on supporting more authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds, but another area now coming to the forefront is the diversity of the book reviewers themselves. A recent survey by School Library Journal, one of the largest sources of reviews of material for youth, found that 88.8% of their reviewers are white. 

Why does this matter? As Megan Schliesman writes in "Are We Privileging White Voices in Criticism?"
"...it’s more than a matter of taste. It’s a matter of knowledge and experience, and we need to be willing to listen to one another, and especially to the voices of those who are speaking from positions of knowledge and experience..."
YA author Malinda Lo's article "Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews," points out a number of problems she's observed when reading reviews of diverse literature (do read her eloquent and passionate post in full, as it is well worth your time):
"These reviews reveal a few specific issues or perceptions about diversity: the idea that diversity in a book is contrived; the critique that a book contains too many issues; the question of believability; the demand for glossaries; and finally, unsupported assumptions relating to race. ...All of these microaggressions add up to support an environment in which particular beliefs are held as given: that readers are predominantly white; that books should explain their diverse content to those white readers; that too much diversity is unbelievable. ...Book reviews are one visible place where it’s possible to see these beliefs written in plain English."
Book reviews matter because they form the basis of reading and purchasing decisions by parents, teachers, and librarians. A book review has significant power to shape perceptions of a book. It can open a reader's eyes to nuances they might otherwise have missed, offering much-needed context and awareness. Critical evaluation is also part of every award selection process. 

I was thrilled to be granted a spot in this year's Bill Morris Seminar: Book Evaluation Training, intended to "result in new and emerging leaders for future Association for Library Service to Children evaluation committees," which include the Newbery, Caldecott, Sibert, Wilder, Carnegie, Batchelder, Belpré, Geisel, and Odyssey awards. While my personal background and experiences include a fairly broad range of types of diversity, we all have room to learn and grow in this area. 

As a reviewer for School Library Journal, I am often sent books that have themes relating to diversity or that were originally published in another country. Conversations such as the ones inspired by the articles above have helped me to be more aware of my own blind spots, as well as the responsibility I bear to the creators of these works, and their potential readers. Whether the Bill Morris Seminar eventually leads me to the great honor of serving on an ALSC award committee or not, I know that I will learn much of value that I can then offer to those I serve as I choose books for our collection, advise teachers on materials for lessons, design my own curriculum, and recommend titles to students.

As you read book reviews and consider the assessments they put forth, I encourage you to bear in mind the fact that they were filtered through someone else's perspective and experiences which may or may not fit with your own. Well-intentioned though reviewers overwhelmingly may be, this is ultimately a very human process and we can only benefit from bringing more voices to the table.