Few people like to think of themselves as gatekeepers—least of all librarians. Yet that’s exactly the position I found myself in a little over two years ago when I left my job in a children’s library, where I spent a large chunk of my days finding the right book for the right reader at the right time, to become the editor of School Library Journal (SLJ) reviews, where I now sit among a privileged minority of “experts” “tastemakers” and—yeah—gatekeepers, helping determine what books are good, great, even distinguished. Indeed, review editors can affect the larger conversation about books, selecting which titles merit professional evaluation—and which titles can be ignored. As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben so sagely warned, “With great power comes great responsibility.” What does all of this mean for diversity and representation within the pages of our magazine? How do I, sitting in a potentially powerful and privileged spot within the publishing ecosystem, ensure that our reviews not only shine a light on a diverse array of authors, illustrators, and subjects, but also surface stereotypes, cultural inaccuracies or insensitivities, or other problematic elements in text or illustrations?
SLJ publishes over 6,000 reviews every year—roughly 300 book reviews in every issue—almost all of them written by school or public librarians who work with kids and/or teens every day. Working with a team of three other book review editors, I must ensure that the reviews we publish are not merely grammatically correct and factually sound, but that they accurately and fairly describe and critique each work. In an ideal world with infinite reading time and no deadlines (If there is a heaven, I’m really hoping it’s this exactly), the other editors and I would read every single book we assigned from cover to cover. Realistically, beyond some of the picture books, most of the titles we send to our reviewers will not be fully read by an editor. As a result, we place an enormous amount of trust in our reviewers. We trust that they accurately describe the plot and characters. We trust that they carefully articulate both the positive and negative aspects of the writing, pacing, characterization, and so on. We trust that they recognize—and critique—stereotypes, caricatures, or culturally inaccurate or insensitive portrayals. But do they? And how would an editor who hasn’t read the book know if a reviewer missed something important? These are the kinds of questions that keep a review editor up at night.
About a year ago, Jason Low of Lee & Low Books asked me what our pool of SLJ reviewers looked like in terms of demographics. “Huh…,” I said, staring into the middle distance, my mouth slightly agape. “I have no idea. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever asked that question.”
Why not? Well, I had a pretty fair guess. SLJ, like many other professional review journals, recruits a fair share of its reviewers from the ranks of the American Library Association (ALA) membership, specifically its two youth divisions, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), as well as the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). Anyone who’s ever attended an ALA conference or meeting can attest to the general homogeneity: it’s largely White and female. Still, I couldn’t get Jason’s question out of my head. Sure, we might not be all that surprised by the results, but couldn’t a deeper look at the makeup of SLJ reviewers help us better understand where we stood and where we may need to focus our recruitment efforts? And wouldn’t greater transparency—owning up to those statistics and actively working to change them—be one important step in our efforts to bring more and better diversity to library shelves and, in turn, young readers?
Shortly after my conversation with Jason in late 2014, we sent out a survey to our active reviewer base (at that time, about 350 individuals) asking about their racial and ethnic background, age, regional location, sexual orientation, language(s) spoken, educational background, and gender—becoming one of the first participants in Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey. The survey was optional and anonymous. Approximately 250 reviewers responded, offering us unprecedented insight into their demographic makeup. When the results started rolling in, I’m sorry to say, I wasn’t all that surprised. Largely reflecting the overall statistics within the publishing world at large and professional reviewers specifically, at the time of the survey SLJ reviewers were largely White (88%), female (95%), and heterosexual (90%).
Though sobering, the data was also incredibly powerful for formulating focused goals. Beyond the clear mission to do better overall, we now had at our fingertips specific statistics. For instance, it was excruciatingly obvious that we needed to recruit more people of color. Specifically, we found that we had zero reviewers who identified as Native American. Not a single person. That blew me away. Here was something unacceptable that we didn’t and couldn’t know before sending out the survey—and something we could actively remedy almost immediately.
Over the following months, we made a conscious effort to diversify our corps of reviewers and target those areas where we knew we were especially weak. I’ll be honest, it’s not been as fast a process as I hoped. One of the requirements of being an SLJ reviewer is that you must be a librarian. Ideally, a working librarian with access to a wide ranging collection, and, even better, regular interactions with kids or teens. Though the profession is slowly becoming less homogenous, children’s and teen librarians still mostly look a whole lot like me: White, female, cisgender, heterosexual.
Despite the challenges, we’ve seen some excellent progress. Anecdotally, I can tell you we’ve recruited over 150 new reviewers, many of them from a rich diversity of backgrounds. We’ve reached out to organizations like REFORMA and local chapters of the Black Caucus to recruit new reviewers. We created a website, forum, and a monthly newsletter for SLJ reviewers which contains resources, training material, and best practices with a large focus on how to evaluate literature with an eye towards diversity and representation. We hold monthly online chats with our reviewers, often using those informal discussions as a way to talk about diversity and evaluation of literature. And, this summer, editor Shelley Diaz (recently promoted to lead the SLJ reviews team), will be organizing a free online course for reviewers centered on examining how we look at “diverse books” how we recognize our own blinders or prejudices when it comes to book evaluation, and how we clearly articulate both praise and criticism in professional reviews.
The next step is to gauge our progress: are we any more diverse now than when we first sent out the survey? That’s a relatively easy question to answer. We’ll look at the numbers and see how we’ve done; we plan to send a follow-up survey sometime in 2016-2017. But there’s another question that’s much harder to answer: how are our reviews doing? Are our reviewers better equipped to recognize and articulate positive and negative elements within text and illustrations? Are they spotting stereotypes and critically examining literature for bias? Are we, the review editors, doing everything we can to help support our reviewers in this essential work? Are we shining a spotlight on excellent titles from a diverse array of authors and illustrators? These questions are much trickier to answer. And they still keep this review editor up at night.