Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Diversity in Reviews: Behind the Scenes with SLJ's "Gatekeeper"

By Kiera Parrott

Few people like to think of themselves as gatekeepers—least of all librarians. Yet that’s exactly the position I found myself in a little over two years ago when I left my job in a children’s library, where I spent a large chunk of my days finding the right book for the right reader at the right time, to become the editor of School Library Journal (SLJ) reviews, where I now sit among a privileged minority of “experts,” “tastemakers,” and—yeah—gatekeepers, helping determine what books are good, great, even distinguished. Indeed, review editors can affect the larger conversation about books, selecting which titles merit professional evaluation—and which titles can be ignored. As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben so sagely warned, “With great power comes great responsibility.” What does all of this mean for diversity and representation within the pages of our magazine? How do I, sitting in a potentially powerful and privileged spot within the publishing ecosystem, ensure that our reviews not only shine a light on a diverse array of authors, illustrators, and subjects, but also surface stereotypes, cultural inaccuracies or insensitivities, or other problematic elements in text or illustrations? 

SLJ publishes over 6,000 reviews every year—roughly 300 book reviews in every issue—almost all of them written by school or public librarians who work with kids and/or teens every day. Working with a team of three other book review editors, I must ensure that the reviews we publish are not merely grammatically correct and factually sound, but that they accurately and fairly describe and critique each work. In an ideal world with infinite reading time and no deadlines (If there is a heaven, I’m really hoping it’s this exactly), the other editors and I would read every single book we assigned from cover to cover. Realistically, beyond some of the picture books, most of the titles we send to our reviewers will not be fully read by an editor. As a result, we place an enormous amount of trust in our reviewers. We trust that they accurately describe the plot and characters. We trust that they carefully articulate both the positive and negative aspects of the writing, pacing, characterization, and so on. We trust that they recognize—and critique—stereotypes, caricatures, or culturally inaccurate or insensitive portrayals. But do they? And how would an editor who hasn’t read the book know if a reviewer missed something important? These are the kinds of questions that keep a review editor up at night.   

About a year ago, Jason Low of Lee & Low Books asked me what our pool of SLJ reviewers looked like in terms of demographics. “Huh…,” I said, staring into the middle distance, my mouth slightly agape. “I have no idea. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever asked that question.” 

Why not? Well, I had a pretty fair guess. SLJ, like many other professional review journals, recruits a fair share of its reviewers from the ranks of the American Library Association (ALA) membership, specifically its two youth divisions, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), as well as the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). Anyone who’s ever attended an ALA conference or meeting can attest to the general homogeneity: it’s largely White and female. Still, I couldn’t get Jason’s question out of my head. Sure, we might not be all that surprised by the results, but couldn’t a deeper look at the makeup of SLJ reviewers help us better understand where we stood and where we may need to focus our recruitment efforts? And wouldn’t greater transparency—owning up to those statistics and actively working to change them—be one important step in our efforts to bring more and better diversity to library shelves and, in turn, young readers? 

Shortly after my conversation with Jason in late 2014, we sent out a survey to our active reviewer base (at that time, about 350 individuals) asking about their racial and ethnic background, age, regional location, sexual orientation, language(s) spoken, educational background, and gender—becoming one of the first participants in Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey. The survey was optional and anonymous. Approximately 250 reviewers responded, offering us unprecedented insight into their demographic makeup. When the results started rolling in, I’m sorry to say, I wasn’t all that surprised. Largely reflecting the overall statistics within the publishing world at large and professional reviewers specifically, at the time of the survey SLJ reviewers were largely White (88%), female (95%), and heterosexual (90%). 

Though sobering, the data was also incredibly powerful for formulating focused goals. Beyond the clear mission to do better overall, we now had at our fingertips specific statistics. For instance, it was excruciatingly obvious that we needed to recruit more people of color. Specifically, we found that we had zero reviewers who identified as Native American. Not a single person. That blew me away. Here was something unacceptable that we didn’t and couldn’t know before sending out the survey—and something we could actively remedy almost immediately. 

Over the following months, we made a conscious effort to diversify our corps of reviewers and target those areas where we knew we were especially weak. I’ll be honest, it’s not been as fast a process as I hoped. One of the requirements of being an SLJ reviewer is that you must be a librarian. Ideally, a working librarian with access to a wide ranging collection, and, even better, regular interactions with kids or teens. Though the profession is slowly becoming less homogenous, children’s and teen librarians still mostly look a whole lot like me: White, female, cisgender, heterosexual. 

Despite the challenges, we’ve seen some excellent progress. Anecdotally, I can tell you we’ve recruited over 150 new reviewers, many of them from a rich diversity of backgrounds. We’ve reached out to organizations like REFORMA and local chapters of the Black Caucus to recruit new reviewers. We created a website, forum, and a monthly newsletter for SLJ reviewers, which contains resources, training material, and best practices with a large focus on how to evaluate literature with an eye towards diversity and representation. We hold monthly online chats with our reviewers, often using those informal discussions as a way to talk about diversity and evaluation of literature. And, this summer, editor Shelley Diaz (recently promoted to lead the SLJ reviews team), will be organizing a free online course for reviewers centered on examining how we look at “diverse books,” how we recognize our own blinders or prejudices when it comes to book evaluation, and how we clearly articulate both praise and criticism in professional reviews. 

The next step is to gauge our progress: are we any more diverse now than when we first sent out the survey? That’s a relatively easy question to answer. We’ll look at the numbers and see how we’ve done; we plan to send a follow-up survey sometime in 2016-2017. But there’s another question that’s much harder to answer: how are our reviews doing? Are our reviewers better equipped to recognize and articulate positive and negative elements within text and illustrations? Are they spotting stereotypes and critically examining literature for bias? Are we, the review editors, doing everything we can to help support our reviewers in this essential work? Are we shining a spotlight on excellent titles from a diverse array of authors and illustrators? These questions are much trickier to answer. And they still keep this review editor up at night. 

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.


Pat said...

Thank you Kiera Parrot and Reading While White for describing the framework and timeline SLJ has followed to begin changing the culture of children's and YA book reviewing. So often the problems of changing institutional culture are tied to the combined definition of 'qualified' and the historical practices that locate 'qualified' people in only a few familiar places. The labor of change has to be collective and that's what you and Jason Low and RWW and # activism are all about. Pat Enciso @patriciae1

Anonymous said...

I love how this post highlights the need to educate existing stakeholders and recruit and recognize talent from all corners of the profession. Very proud of SLJ on this front, and I look forward to what's ahead! Twitter: @ashleyhopeperez

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Kiera! I think your work at SLJ is vitally important in the growing conversations--and changes ahead of us--in bringing people of underrepresented and marginalized groups to the fore. How things are reviewed, and who reviews, is critical.

I'm working on an article for VOYA. The data I'm using for the article is books reviewed in Horn Book Guide in 1990, 2000, and 2010 that are indexed as being about Native people. For the article, I'm focusing on the fiction reviews marked as Older Fiction.

Overall the books themselves are troubling, but the ways the Native content is described is interesting, too. Examples are on page 89 of the July December issue. In the review of de Lint's THE DREAMING PLACE, I see "an evil native American spirit." It isn't indexed as being Native. In the second column, same page, I see the review for Paulsen's THE NIGHT THE WHITE DEER DIED. It has "...mystical relationship between fifteen-year-old Janet and an alcoholic old Indian..." It is indexed as being about Native Americans.

If I was reviewing those two, I don't think I would call either one Native.

Both attempt to be, but the outcome is stereotypical and monolithic. Sometimes I use "white man's Indian" (a term from Berkhofer's 1978 book, The White Man's Indian) because I think the term reflects the romanticized outsider perspective.

We, of course, want more Native and people of color to be reviewing, but the work has to be done by everyone. The training all reviewers get is important. I think we all know people who have a family story in which an ancestor is Native, but, that person is in a remote past. Not knowing who they are in the present tends to manifest in romantic ideas that get in the way of being able to recognize problematic depictions of Native people.

One more thought before I hit "publish" -- I am so happy to see Jason Low and Sarah Park Dahlen's work on the survey being covered in the media. A problem, though, is that I'm seeing articles that leave out the data on Native people who responded to the survey. The data is there. It should not be ignored. I tweeted to Slate's Twitter account this morning, asking why it was left out, and I hope others will do that, too.

Anonymous said...

Kiera, thank you so much for this post. I love how you so clearly lay out all the work you're doing and all SLJ still needs to do. As Debbie shows us, there's a lot we all still need to do.

I do have a question for you, Kiera--how do you respond when someone says "but naming stereotypes is not the job of the reviewer, to do so would be about politics rather than quality, and therefore it's censorship"? I'm assuming, of course, that this has happened to you (because it's happened to me) but maybe it hasn't. Or, maybe it happens every day. Thoughts?

Jason Low said...

Kiera, your efforts and leadership are a case study on diversity advocacy and application. Your actions clearly illustrate how having data can be a powerful tool in allowing you to ask the right questions, implement a plan, and measure results.

Kiera Parrott said...

Thanks, Allie. Good question. So far none of my reviewers have challenged the need to look for, examine, and critique the inclusion of damaging stereotypes in the literature they review--at least not to my face, anyway. But if they were to raise this argument, I would counter that examining the inclusion of harmful stereotypes in literature for children is precisely the kind of work a professional reviewer must do. Our reviews are used primarily by librarians trying to make decisions about what books to purchase for their collections. And beyond that, what books to use for booktalking, to put out on display, to recommend to their students and patrons. If a book contains very explicit descriptions of sex, we generally mention that in the review (we'd say something like "mature sexual situations"). Some may consider that censorship. It's not. It's information necessary for a librarian to decide whether or not that book would be a good fit in her library's collection. Obviously, harmful stereotypes are not the same as sexual content, but the principle remains: we need to be sure our reviews are accurately describing what's in the book--for good or ill. And if a book contains inaccurate depictions of a cultural group or stereotypes, then that is information a librarian deserves to know before selecting that book and placing it on her shelves. The challenge for me, as an editor, is helping educate reviewers on how to spot those types of stereotypes and inaccuracies. How to recognize our own blinders to be able to see. And I'm not exempt from this learning process--I've missed major flaws myself. So the learning is on-going and just as important for editors as it is for reviewers.

Nina Lindsay said...

Kiera, thank you for this... And Debbie, for reminding us the work has to be done by everyone.

I don't do much reviewing anymore, for a while, the sources I was reviewing for (including SLJ and others) were sending me nearly exclusively books on First Nations / Native subjects. I don't recall how this started, but I learned a lot from doing it, and took much guidance from the Oyate publications THROUGH INDIANS EYES and A BROKEN FLUTE, and also by just listening to and following Debbie Reese and others, like Beverly Slapin, who are "doing this work." This is all to say there are tools out there.

Kiera Parrott said...

This reminds me--one of the things Shelley and I are working on is putting together a reading/watching list. It includes the books you mention above as well as videos and blog posts--many of the suggestions I found from this site. If anyone is interested in using or adding to it, here's the link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JCiA9sZtLAtBZ_SWtIY39XgsWN8nRUobqBOuDjMdts8/edit?usp=sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kiera. So much good stuff in this answer.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic resource, Kiera!! I just added to it one of my stand-bys: Children Are Not Colorblind by Erin Winkler.

We also collect resources, though ours are geared specifically towards a study of whiteness: http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/p/resources-for-further-reading-websites.html

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

Hi Kiera,I review mostly Judaica for SLJ (I'm a synagogue school librarian). It's definitely important to have diverse reviewers who know what to look for in books about minority characters, to be able to spot inaccuracies and stereotypes. Your post makes me proud to be an SLJ reviewer. I am so pleased that SLJ is taking an activist stance.

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

I added Excellence in Jewish Children's Literature by the Association of Jewish Libraries to the Google Doc. It's meant for Jewish reviewers so it assumes some insider knowledge about what's authentic, but it's still a good general framework for judging Jewish kidlit.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for your guest post and your efforts to survey your reviewers and recruit more diverse reviewers. And I remember fondly my days of reviewing for SLJ. I noticed that you didn't mention disability as one of the survey categories. The baseline survey noted a slightly larger share of persons with disabilities (self-identified) as reviewers and designers. Is this something you may explore in the future?

Anonymous said...

Articles like this are why I always find RWW so interesting and important. Reviews from SLJ are the basis for many of my purchases for our library. Your actions will only make them better. Thank you for what you are doing!

Kiera Parrott said...

Hi Heidi! I don't think we've ever met in person, but I'm intimately familiar with your SLJ reviews, of course. I am just as proud to have you as a reviewer for us--and proud that you're proud to be one! Thank you for adding to the Google doc. :--)

Kiera Parrott said...

Hi Lyn. Thank you for your kind words. You are absolutely correct in noting the absence of a question about disability/ability. We sent out our survey a bit before Jason sent out the official one, which meant that we missed some important questions--including this one. We plan to include a question about disability in the follow-up survey.

Birgitte Rasine said...


I read your post with great interest. I am an author who grew up partially in the Czech Republic, and read works with widely diverse characters from an early age. The diversity was cultural more than racial (China, Oceania, etc.) but it made me into the person I am today: completely colorblind and ever curious about different cultures and ethnicities. I even married someone not of my own race.

And so, now that I have written my first book with a Maya girl as one of the principal characters (in fact three generations of Maya), I wonder what chances such a story has of being reviewed in one of the established review publications like the SLJ, especially if it comes from a smaller press. I understand there is an issue of sheer volume as well, and that you simply cannot get to all of the books. I do feel that in addition to the diversity issue, small presses also face the challenge of not having the immediately recognizable brand of one of the Big Five. Any insights or advice would be tremendously appreciated.

Warm regards,
Birgitte Rasine

Beverly Slapin said...

Thank you, Kiera, for your work in pushing SLJ into a model of equity and representation. As someone who has collaborated for decades with Debbie and Lyn and others who have been "doing the work," I sometimes feel it's like trying to dig out of a pool of quicksand with a teaspoon.

But this hard, hard work needs to be done and we need to keep on pushing. As we wrote in our analysis of Ann Rinaldi's racist children's book, MY HEART IS ON THE GROUND (Scholastic)--which was favorably reviewed by all the major journals--"We do this for our children and grandchildren, and for their children and the next seven generations."

erica said...

A little late here in the conversation, just catching up.
When negative stereotypes are called out in a review, it's something I really notice as a collection development librarian. Is it appropriate for our collection in a very diverse mid-size city? I rely heavily on reviews for my selection with a limited budget and a bad review, especially one that calls out those negative stereotypes may lead me to not purchase a book.

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

Thank you for acknowledging the need to address disability as a form of diversity in your future efforts at diversifying, and in assessing diversity.