SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

SCBWI Interview with a Sensitivity Reader: Phoebe Farag Mikhail

 

After a spate of articles in publications like the Guardian and New York Times, sensitivity readers have once again become a point of discussion, and contention, in some writing circles. But often these conversations are missing a crucial voice—that of the person hired to do this important work. We sat down with SCBWI member Phoebe Farag Mikhail, who opened up about her experience as a sensitivity reader.

 

How did you become a sensitivity reader?

I’m actually new to the field. I’m a published nonfiction author, an aspiring children’s book author, and a book blogger, so I have been in touch with the writing and publishing community for several years. Recently, a writer friend posted a request for an “Arab Christian” sensitivity reader from a big six publisher, so I applied as an Egyptian Christian, which is part of my identity and also something I have written and published about. I’ve also done a sensitivity read for a smaller publisher for the same purpose.

I love reading, so any job in which I get paid to read something I might already be interested in reading is a dream job. The process itself was straightforward: I made my case for why I could serve as a sensitivity reader for as broad a community as Arab Christians, and the publisher sent me the terms and eventually the book itself. In another situation, I was sought out by the publisher who knew my Coptic religious and cultural background, agreed, and was sent the book to read.

 

What is your process like when you analyze a manuscript? 

First, I print the whole thing out. I keep a pen and a pack of Post-Its handy. As I read, I use the Post-Its to mark the areas where my specific group is mentioned—or where a character representing that group has a scene. Depending on the content, I might have a comment or question I jot down right away. After I finish the book, I go back to the pages I have tagged and ask myself questions like, “Does this tell only one story about this particular group? Is this something a character with this identity would say or do? Does the description of a historical event consider different perspectives? Is the narrative sympathetic or critical to a colonial or racist perspective? Does the narrative ignore or belittle the presence of a specific group where it should be appropriately mentioned?” Then, I go through the manuscript on the computer and put my thoughts on specific words and scenes using the Comments function. I type out my overall thoughts and impressions in a document, pointing out a few examples and asking the author to read through the more detailed comments in the manuscript itself. Finally, I send the document with my overview and the manuscript with my comments to the publisher.

 

What is it like analyzing delicate topics in someone else’s work? Have you experienced pushback by writers or editors when you feel something isn’t working?

I have not yet received pushback—quite the opposite. In one case, the publisher immediately made a change in the manuscript when I pointed out an inaccuracy, and then searched the manuscript to ensure an inflammatory statement about my cultural and religious community was not used anywhere. This was very gratifying, and I left that experience with a great respect for the publisher and author who wanted to get things right. In the other case, I requested to see if the author had considered my feedback before agreeing that my name be mentioned in the acknowledgments. The publisher sent me the author’s edits, and I saw substantive changes based on my comments, so I was happy to be acknowledged. Ensuring my feedback was thoughtfully considered meant that my sensitivity read wasn’t a box to check and an easy way to deflect criticism after publication—the way some recent controversies have played out.

 

Recently, some sensitivity readers have announced they will no longer provide these services due to bad experiences with writers. Do you see this as an industry-wide problem?

As a newer sensitivity reader, I can’t speak to whether this is an industry-wide problem, but I understand the kinds of conversations and experiences that would lead someone to stop providing this service. If an author only chose to explain away their word choice, defended the use of particular stereotypes for plot purposes, or ignored all comments and used the sensitivity reader as a shield for future criticism, I can see why a sensitivity reader would get frustrated. We’re not in this field to shout into a void. We’re doing this to help authors and publishers grow in knowledge, understanding, and empathy toward our communities.

 

What do you wish all writers knew about sensitivity readers?

I recently read a newly published book about an aspect of Egyptian history that included British and French colonization. That book could have been published 150 years ago. The author took on the colonialist attitudes of the people he wrote about rather than being critical, made a few inaccurate claims about my community and its language, and left unnamed several important Egyptians who were also part of its subject. I kept reading for the information but felt enraged the whole time. I would not recommend that book to anyone despite the very interesting history he shared in it. The author would have benefitted greatly from a sensitivity reader or two if he had requested one—and probably also a cultural competency training!

I can’t presume to speak on behalf of all sensitivity readers, but I wish all writers knew that I would not be enraged reading this author’s book if I were his sensitivity reader prepublication. I would approach the task understanding that he might be knowledgeable about his subject matter but not as well-equipped to talk about the culture and country he was describing sensitively. I would assume he requested the sensitivity read to learn and grow—and as someone who comes from a lesser-known community, I am always happy to help people learn about us and be better equipped to write about us fairly and accurately.

I also hope all writers recognize that a sensitivity reader doesn’t replace the work a writer should do to learn about and understand a group or community. A sensitivity reader doesn’t replace the need for writers to do research and the work of decolonizing their thinking, being anti-racist, and building their own empathy and cultural competence. All my sensitivity readings have been requested toward the end of the publishing process, so while my comments might educate an author on some things, the most important education should happen earlier in the process.

 

In addition to serving as a sensitivity reader, Phoebe Farag Mikhail is an SCBWI member and a children’s book author writing about Middle East and North and East Africa culture and history. She is represented for kidlit by Miranda Paul of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. She has written articles for Talking Writing MagazineFaithfully MagazineSojournersPlough, and Christianity Today. She is also the author of an adult nonfiction book, Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church (Paraclete Press, 2019). You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @pkfarag.