Last week, just days before white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville, heated conversations about racism were already playing out on Twitter, triggered by the release of a Vulture treatise about the "toxic nature" of the young adult community written by author Kat Rosenfield. The article centered on the "takedown" of debut author Laurie Forest and her young adult fantasy The Black Witch, which was lambasted by members of the YA Twitter community after blogger Shauna Sinyard described it in a 9,000-word review as "the most dangerous, offensive book" she had ever read.
"Many members of YA Book Twitter have become culture cops," Rosenfield wrote. "The result is a jumble of dogpiling and dragging, subtweeting and screenshotting, vote-brigading and flagging wars, with accusations of white supremacy on one side and charges of thought-policing moral authoritarianism on the other."
The "takedown" of The Black Witch wasn't the first, nor will it be the last. Authors often become the targets of so-called "dragging" when readers or fellow authors feel that their book perpetuates offensive stereotypes. Some might call this censorship, but many members of the community would argue that this is a necessary — if ugly — step in the process of making YA more diverse.
Children's literature is an overwhelmingly white industry that is often unfair to marginalized authors. In a tweet posted just days after the Vulture article was published, Dear Martin author Nic Stone wrote of one friend's experience trying to sell an #OwnVoices manuscript, or a book about a marginalized protagonist, written by an author who shares that marginalization.
These stories are not uncommon, and the statistics that exist about diversity in children's literature back up Stone's claim. Fewer than 400 of the 3,200 children's books published in 2016 were written by and about people of color, according to data from the Cooperative Children's Book Center. Numbers this low are shocking, especially when you consider that children of color are projected to account for more than half the juvenile population by 2020.
Like any other community on an upward trajectory, the YA community is experiencing some growing pains. (Full disclosure: Both writers of this article have published YA novels and operate within the YA Twitter community.) As Rosenfield wrote, Twitter has become a minefield, and many YA authors and members of the community would agree that there is truth to some of her complaints.
But to dismiss YA Twitter as "toxic" is to ignore the foundation of the arguments: A concerted effort on behalf of the YA community to make sure that every child sees themselves accurately reflected in literature.
"The problem in the YA community isn't criticism, whether vitriolic or benign. It's the systemic exclusion of the stories of marginalized groups as told by marginalized creators," Justina Ireland, author of the upcoming Dread Nation, says. "Any article that aims to tell the full truth of the YA community and doesn't address the hefty price creators of color, especially women of color, pay in just existing in such a space is missing what truly makes YA toxic. It isn't vocal criticism. It's the same racism we've seen continually rear its ugly head since forever.”
The challenges that the YA community is experiencing are deeply connected to — and reflective of — the challenges Americans face as a nation. Questions of class, culture, and race erupt in the news and on our streets every day, and the white supremacist terrorism on display in Charlottesville is just one small battle in a war that’s sure to claim many casualties.
"The problem in the YA community isn't criticism, whether vitriolic or benign. It's the systemic exclusion of the stories of marginalized groups as told by marginalized creators."
Books have shaped the minds of American youth for centuries. And because books can have such a profound impact upon young minds, it is critical to take a hard look at book publishing's culture and agenda and make sure that it is reflective of America as it actually exists.
"YA needs to stop perpetuating the idea that only white stories and white lives are important," Ellen Oh, author and co-founder of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, tells Bustle. "YA needs to stop publishing problematic books that continue harmful stereotypes. We all need to do better."
Because of social media, the lines between being a reader and being a critic have become muddled. But as it always has been, literary criticism is an important part of the culture of readership. When a book contains harmful representation, unchallenged racism, or damaging tropes, it is the responsibility of readers, authors, and critics to talk about it. Decrying these conversations as “censorship” ignores the long, frustrating, and downright exclusionary history of marginalized creators in publishing. More shockingly, it ignores the fact that marginalized children are the ones who will truly suffer because of bad representation.
"YA needs to stop perpetuating the idea that only white stories and white lives are important. YA needs to stop publishing problematic books that continue harmful stereotypes. We all need to do better."
"I think threats, harassment, name-calling, vitriol — behavior that amounts to abuse — absolutely do damage to the person receiving them and to the greater discourse," says Victoria Marini, an agent at Irene Goodman Literary Agency. "But criticism is not abuse. The core conversation at the center of YA Twitter is about how to create literature that not only better represents and includes marginalized characters and authors, but better connects with this generation of readers and the issues they face, and it's extremely important and very necessary."
And given the numbers, it's clear that's not happening — yet. "Most YA books are about white people and are written by white people," says Justine Larbalestier, author of My Sister Rosa. "That's what must change and that’s what most of those so-called ‘toxic’ Twitter debates are about. A book is criticized and white sensibilities are hurt. I have seen authors describe perfectly polite tweets calling them on racism or some other 'ism' in their books as 'attacks' and 'witch hunts,' and, yes, 'toxic.'"
But Larbalestier also points to YA Twitter as the birthplace of movements like We Need Diverse Books, which can create real and lasting change in publishing. Moreover, the conversations taking place on Twitter — and spilling into "real life" discussions — can be valid, important, and impactful.
“Defenders of the status quo love to use 'free speech' as a shield against critique, accusing everyone who disagrees with them of censorship," Heidi Heilig, author of The Girl From Everywhere series, tells Bustle. "And in a post-Trump world, where white supremacists feel bold enough to rally in the streets waving torches, it's dangerous. When critique points out racism, homophobia, bigotry, the reaction is explosive. People are far more resistant to examining bigotry than they are to examining plot holes."
But do these "takedowns" actually impact book sales? That remains to be seen. "I can think of two or three occasions when this has resulted in real action on the part of the publisher," says Rebecca Podos, agent at Rees Literary Agency. "That's a pretty poor ratio. To lament the pain of authors whose books have been called out with no appreciable impact on their sales or reputations outside of Twitter, without acknowledging the work that marginalized authors and bloggers have been doing, is an act of willful ignorance."
So the battle continues to rage. A few months ago, author Julie Murphy came under fire for her book Ramona Blue. In the book, a character who identifies as lesbian falls for a childhood friend — a boy — and begins to wonder if her sexuality is fluid, and if she is attracted to girls and boys. The story was #OwnVoices, but Murphy initially chose not to vocalize that she is queer. “I felt very firmly about not promoting it as a bisexual woman,” Murphy tells Bustle. “I'm a white cis bi woman in a hetero relationship. Other than fatness, I don't pay the price of my marginalizations on a regular basis, and I didn't feel comfortable profiting off of my queerness because of that.”
But backlash against the book forced Murphy to come out more publicly as bisexual. "When I consider my sexual orientation, I've never thought of myself as in the closet," Murphy says. "I speak openly and casually about being bi, but it was never something I put in my Twitter bio or wore as some kind of badge. This situation pushed me into a corner. I had to get online and say, 'I am a bisexual woman who has experienced sexual fluidity, and I have something to add to this narrative.'"
Murphy was relatively unscathed by the controversy, but she worries about its implications for others. "It's something that cost me nothing to do, but what happens when an admission like that — maybe from a sexual assault survivor or someone else who can't afford to share their marginalization — does come at a price?" Murphy says. "In the end, I'm a white lady on the internet. Any takedown or dragging I experience will never be as severe as it would be for a woman of color."
More recently, author Sandhya Menon faced backlash online over her YA romantic comedy, When Dimple Met Rishi, when some readers labeled her female protagonist as abusive. “It's difficult, as a woman of color, to write the kind of romantic, fun, contemporary YA that has traditionally been reserved for white teens," Menon tells Bustle. "[The protagonist], to me, really isn't unlikable or abusive at all. Strong, independent, sure of her own mind, willing to throw coffee at strange men who approach her out of the blue? Yes. But I don't view those as unlikable or abusive character traits."
"I'm a white lady on the internet. Any takedown or dragging I experience will never be as severe as it would be for a woman of color."
Far more telling, it seems, are the criticisms Menon's gotten about the characters' race. "I've gotten so many comments questioning why I'm writing Indian-American teens falling in love and whether it's racist of me not to include non-Indians in the primary couple relationship,” Menon says. “That’s something I haven't seen white authors writing exclusively white couples being questioned about.”
The bottom line? “Characters of color — like authors of color — are simply judged on a different scale than white characters and authors,” Menon says. “When people who've historically held positions of privilege feel their privilege threatened, or like they won't get a 'free pass' anymore, they can sometimes perceive that as reverse discrimination rather than an evening out of the playing field.”
Marginalized voices seem to encounter the most pushback when they’re making visible strides in the world of publishing. In the past few weeks, bestselling authors like Jenny Han (To All The Boys I've Loved Before) and Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give) both felt the wrath of disgruntled fans after the casts were revealed for the movie adaptations of their books.
"When people who've historically held positions of privilege feel their privilege threatened, or like they won't get a 'free pass' anymore, they can sometimes perceive that as reverse discrimination rather than an evening out of the playing field."
Although three Asian-American actresses were cast in Jenny Han's book-to-movie adaptation, the author still received pushback because they were not specifically of Korean-American descent, as they are in the book series. Angie Thomas heard similar complaints about the movie adaptation of her No. 1 New York Times bestselling novel The Hate U Give when the lighter-skinned Amandla Stenberg was cast in the lead role.
“The people who get dogpiled on Twitter are women of color — more often black women," says L.L. McKinney, author of the forthcoming A Blade So Black. "Racial slurs, sexist insults, threats promising bodily harm — this happens to authors who are women of color all the time, and people are mad because someone gave them a negative review?”
McKinney, whose first book doesn't hit shelves until 2018, has already experienced this firsthand. "White authors are scared someone will say something mean about their book," she tells Bustle. "People like me? I have to think about someone showing up at a conference I’m attending looking to make good on their promise to 'stab me in my lying n----r mouth.' But we’re the toxic ones for pointing out how a book perpetuates racism and racist stereotypes that deem us less than human and result in messes like what’s going on in Charlottesville.”
The key thing to note about these incidents? More often than not, the authors experiencing threats and "takedowns" are women of color or women with other marginalized identities.
Just ask Ellen Oh, who has been the subject of more than one Twitter "takedown" herself. “There is nothing quite like the intensity and ferocity of social media hate when you take a public position on something that is deemed controversial," she says. "But then again, I really didn't think the idea of having more diversity in children's books would be considered controversial enough to receive death and rape threats, gross photographs of decapitated people. But the absolute worst were the hateful comments I received about my children.”
Oh, who most recently published the middle grade novel Spirit Hunters, faced so much hate from readers that she left Twitter altogether for a while. “It was so awful that I was actually afraid of opening messages,” Oh says. “I just couldn't handle it, and I deleted my original Twitter account.”
She returned to Twitter only to do the work she had already committed to, including the successful #WhiteWashedOut campaign, which challenged the whitewashing of Asian characters in Hollywood. “I will say this, I know who the worst instigators were, and I have a visceral reaction when I see their avatars online,” she says. “Sheer rage. But I just didn't want to give them the satisfaction of running me off social media.”
Dhonielle Clayton, author of the upcoming The Belles (and co-author of the Tiny Pretty Things series with the co-writer of this article, Sona Charaipotra), sees online activism as part-and-parcel of being a YA author today. "The status quo is no longer acceptable, and women of color have been working to make the industry shift," Clayton tells Bustle. "We will not be quiet. We will not go away. If the word 'toxic' was colloquially used in the 1960s, white people would've labelled the Civil Rights movement as such. This is what happens when you challenge white supremacy and its systems, and yes, children's books are tools of white supremacy."
"If the word 'toxic' was colloquially used in the 1960s, white people would've labelled the Civil Rights movement as such."
Clayton, the COO of We Need Diverse Books, has frequently found herself at the center of Twitter controversies, including one involving a review from Sinyard. (She later removed her review.) Clayton decided to confront controversy the head-on, starting a hashtag called #MyBeautifulTruth to remind readers that, no matter what’s on the page, the author is separate from the book. “I wanted readers to understand that that there are things they don't see when they meet or interact with authors, and to realize that authors often put much of themselves into their books," she says.
As a white woman in publishing, The Witchlands author Susan Dennard knows her road has been far less fraught than those of women of color. But when she experienced pushback on her novel, she chose to do something about it: She listened. “As a white woman, I have privilege I did nothing to earn,” Dennard tells Bustle. “My experience will never be the same as someone from a marginalized group, so I cannot truly represent such perspectives, which is why it's so important to give diverse voices the microphone, and to listen when they say, 'Hey, you got this wrong,' or, 'This was harmful, and here's why.'"
"My experience will never be the same as someone from a marginalized group, so I cannot truly represent such perspectives, which is why it's so important to give diverse voices the microphone."
In the Vulture article, an anonymous New York Times bestselling author tells Rosenfield, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid for my career. I just feel unsafe, to say much on Twitter.” Is that fear warranted? Why are writers willing to hire scientists, doctors, and other experts to ensure the accuracy of a scene, but not willing to put in the necessary work to ensure that people from marginalized communities are written accurately?
Done Dirt Cheap author Sarah Nicole Lemon believes that most writers are more afraid of being called out than of actually getting representation wrong. “I do fear being wrong, causing harm, getting called out, and being shamed,” Lemon says. “But I respect [people of colors'] history and identity and stories and how I will not be able to just sit down and write that character without careful thought and intense research. My fear does not control me from doing what I know is right.”
Lemon acknowledges, too, that what you leave off the page matters just as much as what you put on it. "'To write just white is a political choice, too,' a white friend told me once,” she says. “It's true. You cannot escape the consequences of your choices. So I study, write, rewrite, get sensitivity readers, and ask dumb questions. I try to tackle the structure, not just the symptoms. And I write alongside the fear, knowing at the end of the day, the choice to write only white people or write the world as it is are both political statements.”
"'To write just white is a political choice, too,' a white friend told me once. It's true. You cannot escape the consequences of your choices."
And perhaps, when it comes to creating representations of cultures that are not your own, maybe a little healthy fear is a good thing. "It’s important for people to realize where that critique is coming from — often from a place of watching someone hack apart your culture or your identity," says Patrice Caldwell, an editor at Disney Publishing and founder of the PoC In Publishing group. "I think it’s remarkable that Twitter takedowns are forcing publishers to pay attention to potential problematic representation in a way they haven’t before — it certainly helps as a minority in the industry walk into a meeting and say, 'Don’t do this because 'X' might get dragged.' The fear of the 'dragging' can help back what you’ve been trying to say in various meeting all along. But I also want to make sure we’re always uplifting diverse voices who are getting it right, too."
Sometimes, though, that fear of being called out translates to further marginalization of women of color, online and off. "I see a really disturbing trend of outspoken POC, especially black women, being described as 'scary' and 'dangerous' online," says Rhoda Belleza, an editor at Macmillan. "But scary and dangerous why, exactly? Because they tweeted they didn't like your book? Because they want to demand better representation in children's literature? It's especially disheartening when they're accused of harassment for retweeting a bad review or threading together some thoughts. As if to exist in the world as a woman of color with a voice makes you inherently threatening. I guess we are [threatening], to the status quo."
McKinney, for one, refuses to be silenced, no matter what story she decides to tell. “I’m a Black Woman living in America. My very existence is political. It always has been,” she says. “The whole 'keep YA kind' nonsense is just another means of control to try and silence people who would speak up about the injustices running rampant in the industry."
And perhaps being honest will pay off. "Some of the most vocal people I know are doing quite well career wise. One's even sitting on the New York Times bestseller list," McKinney says.
Where does the YA community go from here? Keep writing. Keep trying to be better. And one thing is for certain: Do not let critical conversations about race and representation be dismissed as "toxic drama."
Bustle reached out to Laurie Forest for comment, but had not heard back as of publication time.