Kids’ book authors and publishers are so afraid to offend they’re hiring “sensitivity readers”

Apr 06, 2017, 03:00 PM

In a national culture newly aware of micro-aggressions and offensive speech, what you say can easily strike the wrong tone. One increasingly common solution among US book publishers: Hire someone to be offended for you. “Sensitivity readers,” starting at a small fee of $250 a manuscript, read unpublished works and ask, “Would my community find this disrespectful? Does this sound authentic?” In January 2015, children’s book author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert, a picture book depicting four generations of American families making blackberry fool. The book included two slaves hiding in a cupboard, smiling and licking up dessert. Readers took note. In November, Jenkins, who is white, apologized for her “racial insensitivity” and said she donated her book fees to a campaign about diversity in books. Then last year A Birthday Cake for George Washington, based on the story of the US president’s real-life slave Hercules, was pulled by publisher Scholastic just two weeks after it was released. Even though author Ramin Ganeshram, illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney are all people of color, the smiling slaves depicted throughout the book provoked fierce backlash. Jennifer Baker, a freelance sensitivity reader and host of the podcast Minorities in Publishing, could have helped prevent these costly public outcries. She is African American, and acts as a sensitivity reader for books with black characters, especially from low-income backgrounds. Baker says that each sensitivity reader from the database maintained by Writing in the Margins is hired for a specific demographic to spot stereotypes and irresponsible portrayals. Though Baker believes it’s no substitute for finding authors who are from marginalized groups, she explains she’s glad publishers are paying attention.

It’s not censorship to say, “Be more respectful, be more responsible, and consider how you’re representing other cultures.” And also to ask why are you doing so.

Most egregious things she has read?

One is a slave/slave master romance. That’s one of the worst ones. The author had no idea what slavery was like, because the book really made it seem like it was a contemporary romance of an interracial couple whose parents just hated each other. It didn’t take into context power dynamics and slavery. It was very ridiculous. It read like a contemporary romance, like, “Oh my father hates you, but you know, he’s just like that. My dad’s just like that, don’t worry about it.” I said, “This is slavery! No, no! It doesn’t work like—if his father hates the slave, that’s bad! It’s deadly.” The author was not cognizant of that. In another one, in present day, [the author] made all the black characters sound like Mammy from Gone with the Wind. They were like, “Well gee! I wonders what they goin’ do.” It was horrible. That was the first one I ever got, and it was the worst one.

In another, a graphic novel, they were very concerned about how they presented black people but not about how they represented native Americans. And I’m not native American at all, but I was able to say, you should get someone who is native American to review this, because you said something using the word “savage.” Or in another book—again this pertains to native Americans—they were smiling and talking about George Washington. And I was like, “No!” (laughs) You cannot have pictures of smiling native Americans talking about George Washington. That’s not OK.