Friday, December 11, 2015

The Duty of Professional Reviews

You can’t read all the books.

I know.  You have the best of intentions.  Heck, you WANT to read them all. You have piles dedicated to this very purpose and you know that it is an important part of your job as a youth librarian.  I am there with you.  No matter how fast I read (and I’m a pretty fast reader) I still feel the overwhelming crush of all the books I am not getting to.

How can you know what to buy?  What to recommend?  How can you ever know enough?  Well, I suppose the philosophical answer is you can’t.  You can’t but you keep trying because, well, what else is there. But the more tangible answer is that, as librarians, we can look to reviews.  We have numerous professional resources that, with their larger staffs of writers, cover more than one single person ever could.

I am writing today for these reviewers.  I, myself, review for School Library Journal and it is a dream to someday be a Kirkus reviewer.  I do not take my reviewing assignments lightly because I know that thousands of librarians across the country will be using them to make and justify purchasing decisions. Many librarians can't get advance review copies of titles (and no librarian can get them all!) so the reviews are often the only guide they have for assessing content. In times of limited budgets, in conservative climates, reviews are often the difference between “I can absolutely justify needing that on my shelves” and “I have to pass for another Rick Riordan book.” Some institutions require at least two positive reviews to purchase material. If you are a reviewer, I am asking that you too remember this responsibility when you are critically evaluating titles.

I specifically want to look at the professional reviews for Katie M. Stout’s 2015 title Hello, I Love You.  This is a YA book about an American girl who, on the run from her personal problems, enrolls in a boarding school in Korea.  Once there, she falls for a Korean pop star.  From this premise, this sounds like a book with tons of teen appeal: boarding schools, K-Pop, a diverse love interest, a look at another country and culture, the fish out of water heroine.  I can see plenty of librarians interested in adding it to their collections based on those factors.  But when you look at the professional reviews, a troubling thread is revealed.

Publishers Weekly hints at the trouble with this:

“Grace's stubborn cultural naiveté, while not necessarily unbelievable, grates from the start.”

School Library Journal is more precise:

By setting the tale in Korea, Stout has an opportunity to open a window into Korean culture for her readers; sadly, the opportunity is often missed. The book too closely follows Grace's first person cultural ignorance, and an unfortunate a number of stereotypes are perpetuated.”

But Kirkus, as always, cuts right to the chase and says:

Stout's depiction of Korea is often shockingly insensitive and riddled with errors and inconsistencies. Grace thinks crowds of Korean people smell like garlic, is nauseated by Korean food, and obsesses over the horrors of squat toilets. A Korean character incorrectly describes Hangul, Korean writing, as a syllabary rather than an alphabet. In the end, the plot is a variation on the classic "White Savior" story (think Dances with Wolves). It's deeply unfortunate that a novel set in Korea with many characters of color is primarily about its white protagonist's journey of self-discovery. Skip this embarrassing example of clueless cultural appropriation.”

These three reviews, especially when taken together, clearly expose some real troubling content within the book.  It was glaring enough that, to some degree, every reviewer felt like it warranted a mention in their review.

Look - I haven’t read Hello, I Love You. That is why this is not a review of that book. But these three professionals have.  And they are giving me valuable information on if I want to buy this book for my library. And beyond that, they are also giving me valuable insight into how this book handles race and Korean culture.

Have you ever read a book that had problematic content and then thought, “Wow, I wish there had been some mention of that in the professional review before I bought it!”  I have. But the reviews for Hello, I Love You make me feel some hope that we’re moving forward - that we’re moving towards a world where these kinds of critical comments about problematic elements of books are not only welcomed but required for reviews to be considered successful and useful. When I read these reviews I felt like I could make an informed decision about purchasing for my library that was backed up by librarians who take our role in selection seriously.

If you’re a reviewer, you have an obligation to comment on these things, from microaggressions all the way through to the more blatantly obvious examples like the ones described in Hello, I Love You so that people can use your review to make an informed purchasing decision.  If you happen to be an editor for a professional publication, please consider letting your reviewers explicitly know that you welcome and encourage this kind of introspection. If you are someone who reads and uses these professional reviewers, look for this type of precision and make use of it when you come across it.

Because the fact of the matter is: we can’t read all the books.  We have to rely on each other.  


Nina Lindsay said...

Angie, thanks for this example, which I find heartening. While I've always depended on reviews it's been hard to rely on them for this level of insight. I sense that changing. Generally, a negative review will prompt me to seek out a copy to read for myself.

Unknown said...

This is exactly the kind of information I'm looking for before I purchase. I want to know if a book that purports to be multicultural is simply a poor representation of "Other".

Debbie Reese said...

This stands in contrast to the Horn Book discussion "Are we doing it white" from Feb of this year. Here's the link, for those who want to see it:

Kim Bradley said...

I review for Kirkus, and I've always tried hard to pay attention to this sort of thing. Once I described an Ann Rinaldi book as "blatantly racist." My editor, shocked, read the book herself--then pulled my review and ran her even more strongly worded condemnation of it. I'm proud of this.

Ms. Yingling said...

I had reservations about the upcoming Chloe in India, and the three professional reviews on Follett's Titlewave did address the same concerns. I do think reviews are changing, but I still try to read everything before I buy it, having been burned too many times!