Reading and writing

The Bookseller – News – Publishers defend the sensitivity of readers as an essential tool following the criticism of authors

UK children’s publishers have defended the use of sensitivity readers following criticism from some quarters of alleged interference in the creative process, arguing that the intention is to make books more inclusive and that this should be “applauded”.

Speaking at the Hay Festival last month, author Anthony Horowitz made headlines by saying ‘children’s publishers are scared more than anyone’ when it comes to so-called ‘cancel culture’. claiming he was shocked when he received the notes for his new work.

Series author Alex Rider said he “suffered” from the edits to his latest book for young people, Where Seagulls Dare: A Diamond Brothers Affairwhich is due to be published next month by Walker Books, and claimed that “what is happening to writers is extremely dangerous”.

Horowitz did not single out sensitive readers, but the author seemed to echo national press concerns about their use. “I believe that writers shouldn’t be intimidated, that we shouldn’t be made to do things because we’re so afraid of starting a storm on Twitter,” he said, though he declined. to clarify the publisher’s scruples.

Bloomsbury, Bonnier and Quarto says it all The bookstore they had employed sensitive readers, saying the move was “important for inclusive and forward-thinking publishing” while rejecting any suggestion that the authors were being pressured into making changes they didn’t want to make. None of the Big Four editors responded to requests for comment.

Helen Wicks, Managing Director of Children’s Commerce at Bonnier, said: “We recognize that it is a delicate balance and that the voice of the author must be respected. However, we believe that sensitivity readings can play an important role in an inclusive and forward-thinking publication. We have been using them for many years, selecting our partners very carefully and positioning them as peers. Above all, we believe our teams have both the knowledge and skills to work with our writers and advisors to deliver the best possible stories to the widest possible audience.

Rebecca McNally, Publishing Director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books, confirmed: “We think they are very useful on some projects as many authors really appreciate the insight of a specialist editorial perspective as part of the process. We see it as another kind of expert reading that raises questions that a generalist writer, no matter how rigorous, either doesn’t think of or doesn’t know how to ask. Most of the time, they give the author the opportunity to review their text through a particular (relevant) lens and make subtle changes, or not. We don’t expect them to make bulletproof books, and we don’t expect authors to implement every sensitivity reader’s recommendations – it’s intelligent, informed dialogue.

Shannon Cullen, group publishing director for Quarto Kids, also confirmed that the publisher has used “a variety of editorial consultants” for some of its books “to ensure they are naturally inclusive and accurate in their content. representation, especially when exploring subjects such as history or geography, or in books that represent multiple experiences”.

She added, “We encourage our creative partners to consider the potential impact of their work on children and families, regardless of their intention to produce it, when reviewing any editorial commentary or illustration. . We don’t think you can make children’s books ‘too inclusive’ if the outcome is also to make every child feel seen or safe within its pages, or to develop empathy through reading.”

Silvia Molteni, head of children’s and YA books at PFD, said the agency had seen “an increasing number of UK publishers employing sensitive readers recently, whereas in the past it was something a lot more common with American publishers”.

“It’s a process that we as an agent are distanced from when working with our writers and it’s the editor who decides whether or not and how to perform a sensitivity reading. Generally speaking, the intention to make children’s books more inclusive, without affecting creativity in the process, certainly deserves applause,” she said.

However, national media reports of reader sensibilities tend to focus on authors who are less receptive to the idea. In February this year, author Kate Clanchy, whose title won the Orwell Prize Some Children I Taught and What They Taught Me has been criticized for its portrayal of young people, including accusations of racial stereotyping, wrote an article on Detachment sensitive readers who complained “defiled” his memoirs.

She said her original editor, Picador, whom she has since parted ways with, asked for “several” reports from sensitive readers and criticized how they seemed to “freely contradict each other, even praising and disparaging the same passages. “.

Clanchy noted the origins of sensibility reading in children’s and young adult fiction, and said “there are good reasons for regulating children’s reading: it is fundamental and formative and can be imposed by the choice of school or be read aloud”, adding “it’s really important here, to avoid oppressive stereotypes”. Nevertheless, she argued some children was not written for children. “Adults are capable of putting books down if they get in their way, so their books can safely contain difficult ideas,” she said.

“I thought carefully about all the ratings given to me and ultimately did not adopt any of the readers’ suggestions.”

Sensitive readers, like author Eva Wong Nava, are keen to explain what their role really entails. Wong Nava says the term “sensitivity reader” is a “misnomer.” She said The bookstore“What a sensibility reader does is really editorial. This isn’t to cancel anyone out, it’s really to add a recommendation or suggestion. She explained how sensitivity readers read through the lens of their own lived experience, or professional and research experience, to provide feedback on authenticity. Wong Nava reads for the representation of the experience, identity and culture of Southeast Asia and China, for example, as she is originally from Singapore and Malaysia. She also reads for the lived experience of British Chinese while living in Britain.

She pointed out, “I understand writers feeling defensive, but the thing to note about sensitivity editing isn’t to undo, it’s to improve your manuscript, like n any publisher would want to do that.”

Responding to Horowitz’s remarks, she stressed the “advisory” nature of sensitive reading, where the author has the right to accept or reject suggestions, but also the need for children to feel safe.

“I would say that authors should not be afraid to write, but should be aware when writing who their audience is today. Ultimately, the irony remains that children’s books are written by adults and often by adults who had very different childhoods than the children they write for,” she said.

“The world needs books, all kinds of books, but especially books that empower the child, written with empathy, care and sensitivity.”

Alexandra Strick, author and co-founder of Inclusive Minds, an initiative supporting authentic inclusion in children’s books, agrees. “I still have reservations about the concept of sensitivity reading, which can risk being a case of ‘cutting out’ anything that might be controversial. By its very name, it also implies that it’s about people who are sensitive to something, which I think is problematic. Inclusive Minds does not provide “sensitivity reading”, but rather links to Inclusion Ambassadors who can work with book creators by sharing a specific lived experience to help ensure authentic representation from the outset. We continue to believe that thorough research is essential and that the involvement of lived experience should begin as early as possible in the design of a book” .

Ambassador Christy Ku explained, “’Sensitive reading’ reduces people like us to angry weirdoes telling artists what they can and can’t do. People from marginalized backgrounds can provide much more than simple checkboxes of do’s and don’ts. We are real humans with full lives that can enrich the research and development stages. To believe that one’s worldview and imagination can provide enough, or even better, source material than someone’s actual lived experience would be delusional arrogance.

Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson