Confession — and this is a really hard one to make — but when I read reviews in trade journals like SLJ, Kirkus, and others, my tendency is to believe the reviewer is white.
This comes from a few factors. First, librarianship and reviewing tends to be heavily white. Second, I’ve seen so many calls specifically seeking out reviewers of color that I tend to not think about the pool of existing reviewers who are people of color. And third, perhaps most important and vital to express, is that I’m white and as much as I try to be conscious of the world around me, I live in a world where white dominates and thus, it’s my default. It’s difficult to say that because I know so many passionate folks of color who write excellent, thought-provoking criticism and who are passionate about children’s and YA lit.
And yet, I still fall into that trap.
A few weeks ago, I picked up Fiona Wood’s upcoming YA novel Cloudwish. I’ve spoken highly of Wood’s previous novels, and this one made me excited. The story is about a young Vietnamese Australian named Vân Uoc who grew up in a poor part of Melbourne with immigrant parents. Their dreams for her included not just getting a solid education and going into a well-paying field, but they also want her to live in a well-to-do suburb. Since they didn’t have this and since they were immigrants, it’s what they want most for their daughter.
This is not an uncommon theme.
Vân Uoc, on the other hand, has begun school at a prestigious secondary institution, where she’s enrolled in the fancy and highly-competitive and challenging IB program. She’s on scholarship and the pressure on her to do well is even higher than it already was. But Vân Uoc has found herself falling in love with art and creation; rectifying her love for art and making it and thinking about it with the hopes and dreams of her parents is one of the biggest challenges in her life. She doesn’t want to disappoint — her name, by the way, means “Cloudwish” — and yet she doesn’t want to forgo what she’s passionate about, either.
The story also includes a hefty dose of romance. Vân Uoc has fallen for a white boy in her school. She’s been mad for him for a while, but she believes he’s entirely out of her league. But when the story begins, some kind of strange spell falls over Vân Uoc, and suddenly, that boy is interested in her.
At this point, the story feels like it could fall into a number of problematic tropes. The poor immigrants’ daughter is loved by a white boy who has simply fallen under a spell. The implications of that whole thing are terrible.
Yet, as we discover through the course of the story, it’s not a spell or any magical thinking that draws Vân Uoc’s crush toward her. It’s real, genuine interest. Vân Uoc, it turns out, is the one who has begun overthinking and overcomplicating relationships, and it’s not only with this boy. It’s with her parents, it’s with her friends, and it’s with other people who she interacts with regularly. This mirrors something we discover at a crucial turning point in the story: Vân Uoc’s mother and her sister have been estranged for many, many years, and it’s Vân Uoc’s mother who has overthought the reasons their relationship became what it was.
The book is not perfect. It relies on some secondary character development too much from the other books set in this world, and there are times when the way Vân Uoc talks about romance and feelings felt a little over-the-top (that, I suspect, is my personal issue — I believe it to be true to the character’s voice). It’s not a bad book, but it’s not the knockout that Wood’s other reads have been for me.
I finished the story, and then I did what I tend to do for new and forthcoming YA books: I sought out the professional reviews. This is how Kirkus reviewed the book:
My first reaction to the review, and the comment I made, was that it was harsh. There isn’t holding back on this, and the more I read the review, the more I disagreed with a number of aspects to it. Not that they were wrong; rather, I disagreed.
Nearly immediately, a number of women of color noted that the review was not “harsh.” And I’m glad they took the time to not just say this, but to explain why it was not harsh. As one woman said to me, the book messed up someone’s culture, and that hurt is hardly shown as harsh in the review.
Hearing this made me pause. They’re right. It’s not a harsh review.
It’s simply a review I find problems and disagreement with.
Kirkus Reviews, for anyone who isn’t aware, offers its critiques anonymously. This presents an opportunity to talk about books in a way that a signed review may not. Kirkus has a reputation for being sharp and being honest, two reasons why I find Kirkus to be such a great resource.
The problem, though, is not knowing who the reviewer is or what their expertise is without it being laid out in some capacity.
And, if I’m being fair, that’s not a problem at all.
The problem lies in the eyes of the readers, like me, who default to white. Who not only default to white, but who then expect explanation for the reviews as they stand.
As I’ve learned through social media, the reviewer of Cloudwish is Vietnamese American. She has an expertise by her own cultural heritage. She was given this book for review in part because of that, which is a wildly smart move on Kirkus’s part. That information about the reviewer, however, is privileged. I don’t know it and you don’t know it unless you know the reviewer or you’ve been told.
Which turns back to the problem above: readers like me who default to white not only will default to white, but then we want explanation and a defense of why a reviewer chooses to point out what they do and criticize it. That’s unfair on every level, and it’s a huge problem with trade reviews, period.
I feel privileged to know the reviewer is Vietnamese American and I feel privileged to have been told that my take on the review being harsh was explained to me. No one owes me that, and indeed, I feel lucky to have the capacity to ask women (and men!) of color for input and feedback on books, as well as feel lucky to read the smart critiques by these same people. The world is better for having so many places to seek out information and opinions and perspectives. That is exactly how we learn, how we grow, and how we better represent the world as whole.
Back to the Kirkus Review.
It feels unfair to see a review that equates Asian Americans — a huge, wide array of people and cultures and experiences and backgrounds — with Vietnamese Australians. The reviewer does something smart here in not centering the review on white readers, yet, it doesn’t touch upon the differences in racial relationships that exist in countries outside of America. Where these stories could be tropes in the US setting, they aren’t necessarily the same in an Australian setting.
There are, as of this writing, only two readily findable stories in YA that are about the immigrant Australian experience. Those are Cloudwish and the forthcoming Lucy & Lihn by Alice Pung (published in Australia as Laurinda). Pung is the daughter of immigrants herself and writes an #OwnVoices story, whereas Wood is not in the same position, but she writes having done significant research (as seen in interviews she’s done during the book’s Australian publication, as well as in her acknowledgements). It’s hard to wrestle with the ideas of what does or does not make a trope in storytelling when the stories that exist about a group of people are not abundant. It’s entirely possible that a story like Cloudwish resonates with Vietnamese Australians and provides a window into an immigrant experience unlike that of a Vietnamese American…or Asian Americans as a whole.
I’m also bothered by the idea the book was written with “a hidden diversity checklist.” Yes, there is diversity in this book, and yes, Vân Uoc’s friend is a lesbian. But these are teen girls who live in Melbourne, Australia. There’s not a stretch to the reality of what their lives look like here. And the conflict itself, while arguably tired in American-set stories, is arguably not so in a story set in Australia. Especially when these stories are not in abundance.
That all said, I appreciate this review notes the inconsistencies that exist in the story and think that that criticism is enormously helpful. Being unaware of cultural norms, knowing that honorifics were missing and that italics and language were inconsistent is worthwhile (both of those things, especially the second, are potentially fixable). These are things that any reviewer who knows anything about Vietnamese culture would know and things that an outsider like myself — and like the author — would and could miss.
So what of these conflicting thoughts and perspectives? What of the intersections that are wide and powerful and the ones which are tricky to navigate in nuanced ways?
The answer is: I don’t know.
But what I do know is this: there needs to be a bigger discussion about how we talk about diversity and inclusivity when it comes to criticism of books and representation. That first takes acknowledging one’s own biases and blinders and blunders. It requires creating a space where critics of color feel safe and comfortable laying out their problems with a given story and not only feeling safe, but feeling heard. The third is listening with respect on every side.
Reviewing and critically assessing literature is a skill and a talent, but it’s not something you necessarily get a degree or experience in in any way other than reading a lot and thinking about reading. Experts at reviewing children’s literature have a variety of backgrounds while holding on to the same goals: talking about what does and does not work in a book that’s being marketed for young readers. What separates those who review for trade journals from those who use a blogging platform to do the same thing is essentially word count and the end goal of the reviewer. What do they want to get from reviewing? Are they doing it for themselves? For a broad audience? For a specific audience?
In any case, there’s a problem with professional reviews. And it’s something that isn’t working on a number of levels: for the professionals reading the reviews (many of whom, like me, read those reviews being from white reviewers which is only one of many issues here), for the books being reviewed (and assumptions made about them or nuance missed within them or, in some cases, plain old factual stuff in the books being interpreted incorrectly or overlooked all together), for the reviewers (who are confined to a limited space to convey a lot of information), and, ultimately, the readers who do — or do not — have that book waiting for them on a shelf in a library or in a classroom.
Cloudwish was beta-read by a Vietnamese Canadian prior to being put into production on this side of the world. I’ve also read reviews and heard from other Vietnamese Canadians and Americans who have read the book who have given it a thumbs up. To them, it’s authentic and true. It’s a story they wanted to read. It’s a story they enjoyed reading and found to be solid in terms of representation. Solid being a way of saying just that: it’s solid. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect nor universal. But to these readers, it’s not harmful or painful.
Knowing that the same book was read by a Vietnamese American for a Kirkus review doesn’t change those reader’s opinions. But it does render the need to talk about the challenge of having the pressure of talking about representation put onto one person, writing a single review, attempting to speak for a wide swath of readers and through their own experiences. Will this book be purchased by libraries? Will it be overlooked because of a review like this, despite the readers who’ve picked it up and enjoyed it and identified with it and despite the fact that some of the criticism overlooks some nuances?
In a situation like this, everyone loses.
To turn the page a little bit, a number of online critics have been thoughtfully discussing When We Was Fierce and the problems of language and representation. Zetta Elliot has a great round-up of the discussion of the book, with links to reviews from readers and writers of color concerned about numerous things in the text. These have been some of the most thoughtful, extensive reviews I’ve read in a long time, offering great nuance to a discussion about a book that received at least one starred review from a trade journal.
And word came earlier this month that Candlewick, the book’s publisher, decided to postpone the book’s impending publication so the author (and presumably her editor) could work through the problems being discussed online.
The voices which spoke up were heard. Without their collective discussion and without their willingness to put their opinions on the line, openly and frankly, it’s possible this book would have never been seen through that light. Gatekeepers reading just the trade reviews would see a positive review and purchase the title, which would then be on the shelf for readers to access; the flaws, the very things many readers and critics of color found hurtful, would have been overlooked or ignored.
It wasn’t harsh for those critics to share their opinion. It was vital that they did so. The ultimately outcome is unknown at this point, but the fact something happened is a step in the right direction.
Would the same have happened in a trade review, even if written by a reviewer of color, with 200 words?
I can’t say.
But what I can say is that I’ve seen online critics talk in depth about representation that has hurt them personally and seen them be torn to shreds, even years after posting their criticism. The books they’ve been hurt by are the same books that received glowing reviews in trade journals, earned numerous awards, and continue to be reprinted, repackaged, and referenced over and over again as essential literature for young readers.
Change needs to happen, and it needs to be throughout the entire system. We need more spaces for critics of color to feel safe sharing their experiences with a book, as much as we need to understand how the system of reviews as a whole works — or doesn’t. We need self-awareness of the problem from every angle, and those of us who are white need to take the time to assess where and how we’re approaching criticism. What is it that bothers us in a review we read? Is it something the reviewer said, something about the way they said it, or is it something that we brought to the review ourselves?
What I do know is this: explicitly stating the race of characters in a review isn’t the way to change what a review does or says. It’s a first step, or maybe even half a step, in acknowledging the problematic nature of our culture’s tendency to default to white. Much more needs to be done, and much of that work falls upon those of us who are in positions of power via our careers, our voices, and our skin tones, to be better. More, we need to work together to do this. It’s not enough to call for diversity; it’s about acting in accordance to the world around us and considering the implications of each and every one of our words, our stories, and our perceptions.