Children's literature might be for young people, but young adult novels often tackle difficult topics. Moreover, the children's literature and young adult community as a whole often deal with a lot of complex questions. Over the past week and weekend, there was a lot of discussion in the young adult community about Native representation in literature as well as the protocols for interaction between book bloggers and authors. And it all raised a lot of important questions.
The discussion started over a critique of the novel The Love That Split The World by Emily Henry, in which the protagonist is a Native American teen adopted by a white family. After news broke that Lionsgate was adapting the book into a film, scholar Debbie Reese, who runs the blog American Indians In Children's Literature, tweeted her thoughts about the book. She also indicated she'd been planning to review the book at length for a while.
In Reese's view, the novel was troubling both in the way it dealt with the adoption of Native children and the way in which Native stories were presented. In particular, according to Reese's analysis, the novel presented the Indian Child Welfare Act, a critical federal law that protects Native children in the US, as something to be circumvented, rather than as the critical legislation that it is.
Reese's critique was, as ever, insightful and well supported with ample evidence from the text. Reese herself did not tag Emily Henry, the book's author, in any of her tweets, nor does she seem to have tried to direct Henry's attention to her criticism, but the Storify of Reese's tweets was widely shared, and others on Twitter did tag Henry, sometimes very angrily, in some of their responses. And many, including fans of Henry's work, took issue with the critique.
Before long a new conversation emerged about the etiquette of tagging authors in negative reviews, about whether issues involving representation and diversity should have different rules for such things, and whether or not the type of scholarship Reese does on her blog and Twitter feed constitutes a "review" in the traditional sense.
For some, tagging an author in a negative review is always a breach, and understandably so. After all, if authors want to find negative reviews in order to gain additional insight, they can certainly seek them out on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites, but sending a negative review to an author is much more mean-spirited, as Reese herself acknowledges, and is likely why she did not personally direct her comments towards Henry herself.
However, if we are going to insist that bloggers not write negative reviews that might end up being sent to authors, that essentially means no one is allowed to write any sort of critical review ever. It's especially awkward, as well, given that people often also object to the idea of "subtweeting" reviews, as well, aka talking about people without tagging them.
Moreover, many feel that mediums like Twitter now give marginalized people a chance to respond to harmful stereotypes and misconceptions often found in literature, and that opportunity should be celebrated, not wasted. After all, it will hopefully allow authors to learn and to do better.
Many even question whether the work that Debbie Reese does on Twitter and her blog even constitutes a "review." Reese is herself a scholar, and she almost always writes about books with the specific purpose of examining their treatment of Native characters, history, and culture. In other words, she doesn't approach books as a traditional viewer might, and her work is perhaps more closely aligned with scholarship, rather than book reviews.
Reese's work is itself certainly very necessary, but many also worry that the sorts of conversations that spring up around it are not always constructive, in part because the arguing and negativity that can ensue isn't the most encouraging or supportive for people who are trying to learn.
Additionally, the discussions that follow often obscure the original point being made, as was seen this weekend as Reese's original points were buried under discussion of Twitter etiquette, as Reese also discussed on Twitter.
Overall, these are all important conversations to have, both in young adult literature and the literary community as a whole. The need for more diverse representation — as well as positive representation that does not support existing stereotypes or harmful tropes — is very real, throughout publishing. And even if these discussion are messy, hopefully we will keep having them in ways that will make an impact.