In the past five months, two debut young adult authors have chosen to postpone or cancel their books in the wake of intense social media scrutiny. Kosoko Jackson pulled his novel A Place for Wolves after criticism of how (among other issues) the book set a romance against the backdrop of genocide. Amélie Wen Zhao delayed publication of her debut fantasy, Blood Heir, after critiques that the book was racist. (After some revision, Blood Heir is now scheduled for publication in November.)
Neither instance was a first: not the first time a YA author opted to pull a book after criticism, nor the first time such critique drew media attention. They followed in the footsteps of books including The Continent, which author Keira Drake pulled and revised after readers pointed out the book’s racist stereotypes; The Black Witch, which was criticized for how it depicted the slow growth of a narrow-minded young woman; and Laura Moriarty’s American Heart, which lost the star on its Kirkus Review after people challenged its white savior narrative. But this was the first time two authors in quick succession withdrew their books from publication.
Media discussion of these flashpoints often focuses on the future of a book and its author, but also often involves sweeping statements about “Twitter mobs” or “purity tests” being applied to books. The focus on the author is understandable, to a point: It’s inarguable that it sucks to be the subject of a Twitter pile-on, and Twitter itself is, as David Auerbach wrote in Slate in 2014, broken.
But “the problem isn’t Twitter,” Patrice Caldwell, a literary agent, writer, editor, and the founder of POC in Publishing, told me in an email. “It’s publishing’s lack of support for marginalized people and lack of care to invest in us AND in training themselves.”
However flawed social media may be, it’s still an important tool for giving marginalized voices and diversity advocates a much-needed platform. And if we set aside, for a moment, the focus on the authors; if we pause to remember that there are bad-faith voices in all parts of Twitter, not just YA; and if we step back and consider that the power to publish or cancel a book lies not with internet critics but with publishers and authors — then there’s another aspect of these stories that’s often ignored in mainstream discussions: What if these critics, with their focus on representation and diversity, have a point? And what change might happen if more people listened to them? (While this article focuses primarily on issues of race and diversity, the larger conversation is about marginalized groups of all kinds, including but not limited to those marginalized for reasons of gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, mental health, or disability.)
“It’s far too easy to look at the simple, shallow version of events — books have bad representation and people got mad and publishers pulled books because they were scared — rather than looking at the roots of it,” author and former publishing professional Preeti Chhibber told me over email. (Chhibber and I are friends.) “How did this book get so far into publication without [anyone] spotting the issues? Why did an agent decide to represent this book? How did an editor make it through edits? Marketers and salespeople through creating the plans?”
It’s time to zoom out — to take the focus off the individual books that have been so intensely scrutinized, and look at why this scrutiny exists in the first place. We can argue endlessly about single novels, their strengths and weaknesses, the question of whether the criticism was just or deserved. It’s more than fair to ask why Jackson and Zhao — themselves writers of color — pulled their books, while white writers rarely do.
But often, frustration about a book isn’t just about that book. It’s about the many books like it that readers have already seen. It’s about a desire that all kids see themselves represented in books. It’s about ongoing frustration with an industry that gives lip service to diversity but remains overwhelmingly white. And to understand that frustration, we need to understand that diversity advocates have been having this conversation for a very long time.
In 1965, Nancy Larrick, the former president of the International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association), wrote an article for the Saturday Review called “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” She didn’t mince words about what she saw:
Across the country, 6,340,000 nonwhite children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them. There is no need to elaborate upon the damage — much of it irreparable — to the Negro child’s personality.
Twenty-one years later, in 1986, the award-winning children’s and YA author Walter Dean Myers wrote an article for the New York Times that reflected on the revolution he thought was going to happen to the children’s book industry after the ’60s — a decade that, he wrote, “promised a new way of seeing black people.” When pressed for greater diversity, the publishing industry in that era “proudly announced that it had seen the error of its ways and fully intended to correct the situation.”
Myers’ essay is full of frustration because that correction didn’t stick: “No sooner had all the pieces conducive to the publishing of more books on the black experience come together than they started falling apart.” Politics changed; budgets were cut. “It's clear to me,” Myers wrote, “that if any race, any religious or social group, elects to place its cultural needs in the hands of the profit makers then it had better be prepared for the inevitable disappointments.”
Those disappointments continued, despite the work of diversity advocates over the following decades. In the ’90s, discussions on email lists like the influential child_lit often covered the same topics as the essays being written in review journals and other publications — essays by writers and advocates including Rudine Sims Bishop, Hazel Rochman, Jacqueline Woodson, and many others. Some of today’s most visible voices on the topic of representation were on child_lit, including Debbie Reese, founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, author of The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. Child_lit was a place where scholars, librarians, publishing professionals, and readers discussed everything from picture books to Harry Potter. Authors chimed in, too; a given thread might include comments from such literary luminaries as Jane Yolen, Julius Lester, or Philip Pullman.
It may sound strange, now, that an email list was a hub for important discussions, but it was a different time. “It was hugely influential,” Thomas told me over email. “Several of the opportunities that I’ve gained in my career were the direct result of my listserv participation.”
“[Child_lit] was a power center and important place for conversations about the power that children's literature has to shape readers,” Reese wrote in an email. “Its drawback was that you had to be a subscriber to the listserv to see the conversations.”
That was the catch: Back then, you had to find these things. You had to know that there were academic discussions about children’s and YA books at all; you had to follow the work being done by librarians, or read about child_lit somewhere. Rarely, the discourse leapt into the mainstream, as with the Myers piece. But then, YA lit wasn’t quite mainstream at that point, either.
As the ’90s wound down, YA blew up — the 2000s had the YA trinity of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight. Discussions that had long been relegated to YA corners began to spread, and with the advent of social media, they spread even further. People criticized gender in Harry Potter; they wrote about feminism and Twilight and why the things young girls love are so often dismissed; arguments erupted over the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games.
In the late 2000s, the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community — which overlaps greatly with YA — had something of a reckoning. Eventually known as RaceFail ’09, it was, as author N.K. Jemisin wrote in a blog post a year later, “a several-months-long conversation about race in the context of science fiction and fantasy that sprawled across the blogosphere. It involved several thousand participants and spawned several hundred essays — and it hasn’t really ended yet, just slowed down.”
While the details of RaceFail would take far too much space to lay out here, it’s relevant in two ways: One, like YA right now, it involved a literary subcommunity on the largely public internet having a difficult, vital discussion about race and representation; and two, for a time, it focused on a book for young readers, Patricia C. Wrede’s Thirteenth Child. In the book, “Columbia” (America) was settled by European colonists who found the continent full of megafauna and devoid of people — though historically, of course, there were millions of Native Americans here when Europeans arrived. While Kirkus gave the book a starred review, other readers saw the wholesale erasure of Native Americans and were furious. This discussion crossed over into the YA community to some degree, but mainstream visibility was still low.
It’s hard to quantify RaceFail’s long-term effects on SFF, but at the very least it brought into the spotlight conversations that desperately needed to be had. As Jemisin — who would go on to win a record consecutive three Hugo Awards for Best Novel — wrote in a post a year later, “Why I Think RaceFail Was the Bestest Thing Evar [sic] for SFF”:
Come on, we’re supposed to be talking to aliens by now, and instead we’ve only just started really talking to each other. If reasoned conversation was all it took to trigger change, the transformations of RaceFail would’ve happened a long time ago.
In her guest of honor speech at 2010’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, author Nalo Hopkinson sounded a similar note: “The vehement response of people of color to RaceFail got more people paying attention, both white and of color.”
The sphere in which RaceFail took place was public, but limited; 10 years later, you can quickly scroll through all the Twitter posts tagged #racefail (most are about people failing at footraces). But it involved big names in the genre, from editors to authors to very visible readers and fans known only by their LiveJournal usernames. If it happened now, it would likely be much bigger, much more prominently covered, and much more like what we’re seeing in the YA community now — where the vehement response from people of color is getting more people to pay attention.
The diversity discussion in YA has only grown more visible since 2014. That year, Walter Dean Myers returned to the pages of the New York Times with a new piece that asked “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” It began with a statistic: “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.”
Following Myers’ piece (which ran alongside one from his son, Christopher), outlets as general as CNN picked up the topic. And then the next month, BookCon — the consumer-facing convention that follows on the heels of BookExpo America, publishing’s prime trade show — announced a children’s books panel entirely made up of white men.
Response was furious — and, with Twitter now a major part of online discourse, it was fast. The panel was announced on a Thursday; the next day, Publishers Weekly had a piece in which the organizers of BookCon promised to diversify.
“Although the conversation about representation and diversity within the publishing world and the kid lit world specifically is far from new, it’s begun hitting critical mass over the last year,” Kelly Jensen wrote in BookRiot. Not two weeks later, BookRiot was covering the announcement of BookCon’s all-white lineup.
Later that month, a group that included authors Ellen Oh, Malinda Lo, and Cindy Pon created the We Need Diverse Books campaign. #WeNeedDiverseBooks took off on social media, and WNDB would later announce that the hashtag had more than 160 million timeline deliveries in a week’s time — and the group would be hosting a diversity panel at BookCon. In the lead-up to BookCon, many news outlets took note, from the Daily Dot to the Los Angeles Times. NPR covered the panel.
“I started in publishing in 2008 when these conversations were virtually invisible,” Chhibber said. “People felt comfortable saying things like, ‘You can’t put a black girl on the cover, it won’t sell’ out loud in meetings in a room full of employees. I mean, as late as 2015 I could count the number of people of color on the entire floor of my publishing house on a single hand. That’s not necessarily a space where marginalized people could feel comfortable speaking up.”
But with the advent of WNDB, she said, “[A]ll of a sudden people were publicly and loudly discussing things like representation and what it did for children, and kid lit professionals started taking notice.”
Publishing moves slowly; the results of publishing taking notice of 2014’s conversations wouldn’t show up on bookshelves for two or more years. But the internet kept paying attention. In 2015, author Andrew Smith said he was ignorant about “all things women or female”; after part of Twitter roasted him, another tried to start a campaign to “Keep YA Kind” — which was met with what might generously be called mixed results. When Meg Rosoff, the author of How I Live Now, wrote on Facebook that “there are not too few books for marginalised young people; there are hundreds of them, thousands of them,” it drew controversy. In a 2016 piece for School Library Journal, Jason Low of the independent multicultural children’s books publisher Lee & Low wrote: "Controversies should help us see our blind spots better, and inspire us to take the time to become experts in areas where we fall short."
Low’s piece begins with a list of steps taken, in early 2016, to improve diversity in the publishing industry — contests, new imprints, awards, diversified reviewer pools. It sounds a bit like what Myers wrote about happening in the 1960s. Then, change didn’t stick. Can social media accountability, in all its imperfect forms, help sustain change this time?
These controversies are about the knowledge gaps that are inevitable in a largely homogenous industry. They’re not always cut and dried, and the critics don’t speak with one voice, because marginalized people are not a monolith. Where one reader calls out racism, another may see a book that doesn’t warrant critical attention.
“What needs to change,” Caldwell wrote, “is that publishers, oftentimes white people in publishing, need to stop viewing diversity as a trending thing, as the perfect decor for a story, and start also doing the work themselves. The work to vet submissions and queries — yes, even those by people of color. The work to hire AND retain POC staff.”
Not only are diversity advocates not a monolith, but, as author and CAKE Literary cofounder Sona Charaipotra told me in an email, “The idea that marginalized voices on Twitter actually have the power to ‘censor’ anyone is laughable. Censorship is about power and erasure. For so long, marginalized voices have been the ones censored and erased — and that balance certainly has not tipped. We are still the ones marginalized and erased, or declared bullies for trying to use our voices.”
Power still rests with publishers — and it’s worth noting that the authors who have pulled their books have clearly said that the choice was theirs. Publishers don’t want to pull books that close to pub date; for one thing, it’s lost money, and publishing is a business. So how does this situation keep happening?
“Unfortunately,” Chhibber told me in an email, “the homogeneity of publishing means that there aren’t enough people with different life experiences or perspectives who are able to do the job they need to do — make the strongest book possible in all facets, including authenticity … Public critique shouldn’t be the way that these issues get caught, though. Publishing needs to be better. ... There is no reason for readers to be doing the work that publishing should be doing.”
Publishing isn’t an easy industry to break into. It’s not just that there are many more would-be editorial assistants than there are jobs; it’s that salaries (starting and otherwise) are often painfully low for an industry that remains headquartered in expensive New York. The Publishers Weekly Publishing Industry Salary Survey is not specific to YA/children’s, but is disheartening in many ways; for one, the average salary of male respondents was $27,000 more than the average salary of female respondents, though women outnumber men in publishing in all the areas covered by the survey.
The PW survey also paints a pale picture of who’s making books: 86% of responding publishing employees were white. Lee and Low’s 2015 Diversity in Publishing Baseline Survey likewise depicts a field dominated by white, straight women without disabilities, from publishing executives to book reviewers. Earlier this year, Bustle interviewed 10 women of color about working in publishing who described stressful, uncomfortable, toxic situations. "I think the people I work with are very conscious of diversity, but they’re not in the same situation and I don’t know how to have conversations where I can be truly honest," said one woman.
While publishing slowly changes, the world outside moves on. A 2014 CBS report said that according to the National Center for Education Statistics, US public schools would have “more minority students than non-Hispanic whites” by that fall. That same year, the CCBC statistics showed that just 14% of children’s books were by and/or about people of color — a number that marked an improvement.
“There is a real hunger for these stories,” Charaipotra wrote. ”Kids (and adults) are dying to see real, accurate, authentic representations of their own experiences, and kids of color in particular are so critically underrepresented, it’s tragic. The idea that diverse stories don’t sell has been proven untrue again and again — in Hollywood and in publishing. It’s time for us to understand and embrace that.”
Much of the calling out we see of publishing now is happening on Twitter, where “the line between discussion and harassment is slippery,” as David Auerbach noted in his Slate piece about how the platform is broken.
However slippery that line is, it still exists. But that slipperiness makes it easy for commenters to throw out valid criticism by dismissing it as the ravings of angry tweeps, and to conflate two different topics: one about representation in YA, and one about how social media allows people to jump on a bandwagon with a minimum of thought or work. Very little, if anything, about the cruelty of the internet commentariat is specific to YA.
Keeping the focus on Twitter’s less thoughtful voices essentially erases the meaningful critique that take place within the same medium. As author Justina Ireland wrote in February, “YA Twitter Drama articles hinge on two foundational ideas: one, that the criticism isn’t valid, and two, that the criticism comes from Mean Girl-style antics instead of actual literary analysis.”
Or, as Thomas said on Twitter back in 2016, “What has been characterized as a ‘lynch mob,’ ‘toxic Twitter,’ ‘Twitter anger,’ etc. is simply kidlit's singular inability to take critique.”
Critique is hard. It can be hard to hear when it’s directed at you, and it’s hard, sometimes, when it’s focused on something you love. Adults can be incredibly defensive about the books they loved as children; we internalize those stories, take them as our own, and then feel like it’s our selves being critiqued. And then we white readers have the temerity to ask why readers of color are angry and disappointed when they’re handed another tale about dark savages or another magical white girl who saves the world thanks to the sacrifice of her brown sidekick.
In his 2014 essay “Diversity Is Not Enough,” Daniel José Older wrote, "The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: 'How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn't just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we've been having for decades?'"
The real issue at the heart of these discussions is bigger than each individual book — it’s much broader, more nuanced, and more complex. The criticism around a book like American Heart or The Black Witch isn't just that it's a book that centers whiteness; it's that it's one of many books published by an industry that centers whiteness. The issue with the original version of The Continent wasn't just that it used racist tropes; it's that it was yet another book using racist tropes.
Every time a diversity advocate criticizes a new book, they do it in the context of all the other inaccurate, poorly researched, hurtful, biased books they've seen before. And they do it in the hopes that there will be fewer of those books going forward.
“Social media has certainly helped the conversation move from behind closed doors,” Thomas wrote. “While airing the dirty laundry of young adult lit in front of the general public isn’t always pretty, we #DiversityJedi care less about the aesthetics of the conversation, and more about the pragmatics about it. For ultimately, this is about teens, not us.” ●
Molly Templeton is a writer and publishing professional based in Oregon.