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I was reading a Kirkus review today for THE MAGICIAN'S KEY by Matthew Cody (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/matthew-cody/magicians-key/ posted last July). The main character is a girl named Max. The blurb includes the line...

Thankfully, the white girl possesses a magical map.

That text doesn't appear in any other blurbs I've seen for the book. Was the reviewer making some kind of point? Has someone read the series to know if her skin tone was important? It just seemed really weird.

#1 - November 28, 2016, 07:42 PM

David, a lot of the children's reviewers have made a point to begin noting the main character's race in the reviews. This is to combat the white default assumptions and make it so that anything other than white isn't an "oddity" worth noting. It's the new best practice and you'll start seeing it a lot more.
#2 - November 28, 2016, 07:58 PM

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What HDWestlund said. Since it's been noted in diverse books in the past, with other books being considered the default (a.k.a. white characters), some review sources are starting to list the races for characters in all the books.
#3 - November 28, 2016, 08:36 PM
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Yup, this is Kirkus's thing now. Here's an article from the spring about it, though I'm sure there's a press release too: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/unmaking-white-default/
#4 - November 29, 2016, 07:38 AM
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It's a good policy but they have a ways to go before it's not awkward. Or maybe we'll get used to it and it won't be awkward anymore.
#5 - November 29, 2016, 07:42 AM
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I disagree. Sure, not being white can introduce frictions that may not otherwise exist, but is every non-white character supposed to address them in some way.

If we're just talking skin tone, it doesn't make much sense. So many characters could be anything. We assume white for a variety of reasons, but it's not because any part of the character necessarily demands it. Yes, I know there are exceptions. But it wouldn't bother me if Harry Potter was another ethnicity. The truth is, I often gloss over specifics and picture them how I want anyway.

Look at A. Dumas's The Three Musketeers. It's fairly well known A. Dumas modelled the characters in his books after his father (a six-foot tall, dark skinned man). Do we say the white three musketeer (because that's what we assumed) or the black three musketeers (because that's what the writer pictured)? Why does it matter?

I think identifying people by color first, or disability, or any other blatant visual marker is sad. Even if it's just me that thinks it.
#6 - November 29, 2016, 12:52 PM

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I agree, David. We don't make a big deal out of hair color, eye color, nose shape, height, weight, unless, of course, it's important to the plot ....so why skin color? I think qualities of the heart, physical and emotional struggles that are central to the theme of a book are what should be mentioned.
#7 - November 29, 2016, 03:25 PM

I think part of the issue is that reviewers help librarians and booksellers choose books to stock, and when you know that there is an interest, need, lack of, etc., a certain type of character representation, it is useful to know if THIS fantasy story features another white main character or if it's going to provide a touchpoint for patrons/buyers who have been feeling a lack. And you don't want to only label the characters who are NOT white, straight, abled, etc., because then the labels become a negative or a warning, implying "this isn't for mainstream consumption," when that is absolutely not the case.

As writers, we care much more about story and whether or not a character feels real enough to carry us happily into that story. But as a bookseller, I DO have to think in categories outside of that, because I have customers who come in saying things like, "I am looking for non-historical books about people who look like my daughter." If races aren't mentioned in reviews or blurbs, I'll miss the connection to any book I haven't personally read. And I don't have time to read them all. The labels definitely stick in the craw all too often, but there is not yet a better way to help people who depend on reviews to sort categories without listing it all out.
#8 - November 29, 2016, 08:37 PM
« Last Edit: November 29, 2016, 08:39 PM by HDWestlund »

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Thanks, HD. That's a good explanation.
#9 - November 29, 2016, 10:18 PM
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As a librarian, what HDW said is true. The reviews do read really awkwardly, but their purpose isn't to win a writing award.
#10 - November 30, 2016, 06:16 PM
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Thanks, HD. That's a good explanation.

Yes, it is. Now I see the point in saying so in a review. Thanks for sharing a bookseller/librarian's perspective.

#11 - November 30, 2016, 06:28 PM

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I applaud Kirkus and other journals for their efforts to provide important information, but I think there are some issues with the way it's worked into reviews, beyond sounding awkward or worse. ("Thankfully, the black girl possesses a magical map" is not a sentence I would like to see in a review.)

One issue I have seen is that--ironically, given the goal of countering "white as default"--reviewers frequently assume characters are white if they have "white" names or are otherwise not clearly nonwhite. Sometimes they get it wrong. It might be better if, instead of trying to work it in to the main text of the review, there could be a separate line stating the main characters' ethnicities, with the option of "unknown."

Another issue is with implied praise or criticism, intended or unintended. When my nonfiction picture book AROUND AMERICA TO WIN THE VOTE came out last summer, SLJ described the passersby as "mainly white folks," while the Kirkus review included the line, "Diversity is expressed in crowd scenes and on a New Orleans veranda, with a few faces tinted tan or brown." Both were saying the same thing, but the latter wording seems to praise the illustrations for showing diversity while remaining historically accurate, while the former suggests that these 1916 scenes could have shown something other than "mainly white folks." (Leaving aside the question of whether urban crowds of Jews, Italians, and even Irish would have been considered "white" back then.) This is another reason why a separate line with standard wording might be a better way to go. 

I sympathize with the reviewers and the journal editors and I appreciate what they're trying to do. I'm hoping they'll keep tinkering!


#12 - December 01, 2016, 07:27 AM
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Mara, you raise some excellent concerns and criticisms.
#13 - December 01, 2016, 12:29 PM

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I understand and agree with the point Kirkus is making, but I think Mara's approach is better. It would make easier and hopefully more accurate book selection.
#14 - December 01, 2016, 12:46 PM
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Sometimes they get it wrong. It might be better if, instead of trying to work it in to the main text of the review, there could be a separate line stating the main characters' ethnicities, with the option of "unknown."

I agree. That would be so much less clunky and eliminate mistakes made due to guessing.
#15 - December 01, 2016, 01:13 PM
« Last Edit: December 01, 2016, 02:52 PM by C.K. »
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It might be better if, instead of trying to work it in to the main text of the review, there could be a separate line stating the main characters' ethnicities, with the option of "unknown."
I really  :like this idea
#16 - December 01, 2016, 02:04 PM

I like that too.
#17 - December 01, 2016, 02:29 PM

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Yeah, me three, or four?  :eh2 Not only would a checklist remove the clunky sentences, but it would be easier to find the info quickly.
#18 - December 01, 2016, 02:42 PM
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Mara -- Yes! Who's going to approach Kirkus and make the suggestion? :-D
#19 - December 01, 2016, 05:40 PM
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Mara -- Yes! Who's going to approach Kirkus and make the suggestion?

No kidding -- great idea. :)
#20 - December 01, 2016, 05:57 PM
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Excellent idea, Mara. It would be more searchable that way -- a better resource for readers, booksellers, librarians. 

The writers and illustrators being reviewed almost always present the characters, including their ethnicity, much more gracefully and holistically than the Kirkus reviews now do.
#21 - December 01, 2016, 08:05 PM
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Yes, what bothers me about this would be reviewers making assumptions wherever characters' races or ethnic backgrounds are not specifically spelled out, and possibly assuming wrongly.

Sometimes readers misread even when the text is specific (e.g., Rue in The Hunger Games).
#22 - December 02, 2016, 01:49 PM
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Yes, what bothers me about this would be reviewers making assumptions wherever characters' races or ethnic backgrounds are not specifically spelled out, and possibly assuming wrongly.

Yeah. In my 2017 book, WHAT GOES UP, the head of NASA is a mixed race (black/white) guy, but I never mentioned it. It just didn't fit--every scene he's in is tense and I didn't want to slow things down to describe him. I tell readers his height--exactly the same as another character's--because that's relevant to characterization. I'm sure everyone will assume he's white.
#23 - December 02, 2016, 03:28 PM
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It would be more searchable that way -- a better resource for readers, booksellers, librarians. 

*gasp* How amazing would it be to have a searchable resource for this? That would be super, duper helpful.
#24 - December 02, 2016, 07:52 PM

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Sometimes readers misread even when the text is specific (e.g., Rue in The Hunger Games).

OMG I still can't get over that. All these years later. :(
#25 - December 03, 2016, 01:56 AM
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