Sensitivity Reading, Censorship, and the State of Diversity in Children’s Publishing

Censorship, Diversity, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Lauren Salerno

On December 24, 2017, The New York Times thought, “Why spread peace and good will toward men when we can set the internet on fire?” and published Alexandra Alter’s controversial article, “In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship?

New York Times Sensitivity article
This piece appeared in both the online and print publication of the New York Times.

In the article, Alexandra Alter muses on whether or not the common practice of sensitivity editing sanitizes the work of authors writing outside their experience to the detriment of freedom of expression. Sensitivity reading is where someone with the lived experience of the people being written about in a manuscript go through and catch any misrepresentations where the writer may have blind spots. This type of editing, in many cases, results in the accurate portrayal of cultures and languages while also flagging any flat characterizations or stereotypes.

Alter interviews authors and other book professionals about their experiences with sensitivity reading and internet backlash against books that readers feel have not gone through rigorous vetting before being published. Overall, Alter seems to be of the opinion that publishers and artists are less willing to take risks and create fearlessly. She cites several incidents in which books have been delayed or even pulled because of early reaction from readers.

Book Twitter was not thrilled.

Photo of Dhonielle Clayton via her website.
Photo of Dhonielle Clayton via her website.

The strongest voice of criticism came from Dhonielle Clayton, who was interviewed in the original New York Times piece. Clayton is a Young Adult author, founder of CAKE Literary, and COO of We Need Diverse Books. She’s also a former librarian(!), and was a sensitivity reader on a number of projects.

Dhonielle was quick to comment on the frustrating direction the article ultimately took.

Let’s fact check this. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center puts out an annual survey of picture books, fiction, and nonfiction written for young people to document the state of diversity in children’s literature. The numbers are dismal, but not shocking if you spend time looking at your library’s children’s and young adult collections.

Of the 3,200 books published by U.S. publishers in 2016, only 683 titles were books about people of color. This figure does not necessarily mean that the remaining 2,500 titles published the same year all feature white characters. A good number of children’s books may have anthropomorphic characters or are informational reference material. What we can’t deny and what we have to keep talking about is that if we glance at our new books in stock, white characters are prevalent in illustrations and in imaginings of characters. Clayton knows all of this probably better than anybody. She goes on to talk about how publishing discriminates against people of color telling their own stories.

Using the same survey, the numbers, again, back up Clayton’s assertions. Of the 266 titles featuring black people as the main subjects, only 34% were actually written by black authors. The only group that experiences even less representation is American Indian/First Nations (AI/FN) peoples. Only 35 titles were written about AI/FN people, and, of those, only 8 were written by AI/FN authors.

Dhonielle Clayton talks about representation in publishing lists. twitter
Dhonielle Clayton talks about representation in publishing lists.

What’s more, a 2015 survey by Lee & Low Books found that overall, 79% of the publishing industry, from executives to editors to reviewers, is staffed by white people.

The takeaway for me is that publishing values white voices over those of people of color because they simply cannot relate. Until the industry itself becomes more diverse, our collections are going to remain overwhelmingly white. As a writer of color myself and as a library worker who works with a community that is 80% non-white, it’s incredibly frustrating.

In the New York Times article, author Laura Moriarty, one of the few people quoted who to my knowledge has not publicly taken issue with how she is represented in this article, says, “I do wonder, in this environment, what books aren’t being released.”

I wonder, too. All the time. Except I know which books aren’t being released. Dhonielle Clayton, N.K. Jemisin, Zoraida Córdova, and a slew of other authors who weighed in on the article over the holiday week all know which books aren’t being released. We know WHOSE books are being passed over, and we’re mad.

So the bigger question is this: Is the publishing industry’s routine passing over of books written by writers of color a form of censorship?


Lauren SalernoLauren Salerno works in Youth Services at the Ovitt Family Community Library. She is passionate about developing a new generation of creative thinkers and confident do-ers. Her process art program, Artopia, was listed in best practices for nurturing creativity in children by the Association for Library Service to Children. When Lauren is not making a mess at the library, she is a writer of speculative fiction and creative nonfiction. Her writing can be found in the Los Angeles Times, xoJane, MiTú, and The Rattling Wall. She loves monsters, Star Wars, and Pokemon GO. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and a tiny dog. Find her on Twitter @ParanormaLauren.

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