Alternate Title: The Call Is Coming From Inside the House
So yesterday at lunchtime I trotted out my neat little stack of periodicals to read while I munched a ham sandwich. I picked up the latest Kirkus (1 May 2016) and there I saw the Vicky Smith article: “Unmaking the White Default”. As many of you may have noticed recently, Kirkus made a significant shift in the way that they review. Normally, a children’s or YA book review will eschew mentioning the ethnicity of a human character unless that character isn’t white. The implicit message to this is that white is the default and anything that isn’t white is the exception rather than the rule. To combat this problem, Kirkus has taken to mentioning the ethnicity of all human characters, or at least making note of their skin tones. In this article, Vicky discussed the change.
When this switch was initially made, the responses were mixed. I’ve listened to the Horn Book Podcast that discussed the decision, noted the mistake in the Kirkus review of The Night Gardener (the 2016 picture book, not the Jonathan Auxier gothic middle grade), and taken an interest in the SLJ reviewers’ online course on diversity & cultural literacy (so far they have 125+ registered).
Imagine me reading all this while twiddling my thumbs. Dum de dum. Toodle-oo. Hum hum hum. Not really thinking too hard. I review for Kirkus so, like all reviewers there, I’ve been adjusting my reviews as I write them. There’s an art to it, really. Some folks have been concerned that this sort of thing just reinforces how obsessed we are over skin color. I see that, absolutely. And I look forward to the day a Kirkus editor writes an article rescinding this reviewing method because we’ve come so far as a nation that we don’t need it anymore. At the same time, I’m pretty sure the publishing industry isn’t quite there yet. Or, for that matter, the nation.
I suppose it’s because I review for Kirkus that it took me this long to come to a very personal realization. First off, do I agree with what Kirkus is doing? Actually, I do. The white default is more annoying than the old italicize-all-foreign-languages trope and hardly less bothersome than the describe-darker-skin-tones-entirely-in-terms-of-food method.
As Vicky Smith mentioned, it’s hardly a change everyone likes. I saw that one commenter on the Horn Book podcast site wrote, “Why stop at hair color, eye color, skin color, DNA? Perhaps in the digital book future, we will move toward even greater specificity. A child could be placed at the center of each book she reads, the details customized to be about herself, the most interesting subject in all the world.” A comment placing the whole debate in the context of how personalized electronic information leads to narcissistic youth sort of misses the point. There may be kids out there that only want to read books about kids of their own races, but Kirkus isn’t doing this for them. Would you find fault in a review mentioning a character’s chosen gender? As a librarian, I need to know precisely what each book I read or need to read contains. Characters are more than their ethnic backgrounds, but at the same time your race informs your life. Not everyone has the luxury of ignoring it.
So. We come to it. If I agree with Kirkus, would I apply their method of mentioning all skin tones to the reviews I write on this blog?
Hadn’t really occurred to me before.
I mean, the reviews that I write for this blog are my brand. If this blog dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow, it would be the reviews I’d really miss writing. And in the time that I’ve been writing them I’ve settled into a nice comfortable little format. Opening paragraph, description of the book, mentions of writing, mentions of art (if applicable), concerns, closing paragraph. Easy peasy. And in my time reviewing I don’t think I’ve made an active change to the format at all.
Is white the default when I review? Yes indeed.
Could I change this? Yes indeed.
Now let me be clear about a couple things right off the bat. When Kirkus first started applying this method to their reviews, it was awkward. They got the details wrong on some books and shoehorned the mentions into some of the reviews. I have a theory, and I could be completely off, that there’s been a learning curve since then. There is an elegance to how you describe a character in any review. Done correctly and with careful consideration and the mention feels natural. Done wrong and it feels almost didactic.
In the end, and when you boil it all down, this is an easy switch to make. I’m going to give it a try and see how it goes. Plus, I have a distinct advantage over Kirkus. While they must bring up racial skin tones within a scant 225 words, I have all the time in the world in my own reviews to make the mentions. In a way, bloggers are in a better position to try out this change than professional review journals.
Die, default. Die.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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