July 18, 2019

Confessions of a Sensitivity Reader

“As a children’s book critic and a fairly clueful Jew, I’ve been asked several times to read non-Jewish and non-Jewishly-observant friends’ book manuscripts to make sure they’ve gotten the Jewish stuff right before they’re published. And I’m happy to do it. Nothing burns my matzo brei like seeing easily fixed mistakes in books aimed at an impressionable audience. And such mistakes are sadly common. A recently published picture book about Passover mentioned macaroons, but the artist painted a lovely stack of pastel macarons. (Tastier! Yet wrong!) Another Passover book depicted the Seder plate being carried triumphantly to the dinner table mid-meal, as if it were an entree. (The Seder plate is a ritual object that’s in use before the start of the meal.) A popular middle-grade fantasy novel set on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century mentioned butcher shop signs in Hebrew. (Nope. Hebrew was the language of prayer; Yiddish was the language of daily life and commerce.) A much-acclaimed young adult novel, when discussing the weekly Torah portion, called it a parshat rather than a parsha. (The latter means “portion”; the former means “portion of.”) A board book about hats of different cultures made errors about kippot. (They’re not just worn by men, and not everyone calls them kippot.)

These flaws indicate a lack of familiarity with the particulars of Jewish life, but they’re not toxic. Some authorial choices, however, are. The picture book Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf posits that Jewish children would be better off with some intervention from Santa and a Jew-pitying North Pole elf. (The way to deal with small Jewish children’s feelings of being left out at Christmastime is not by having a goyish elf rescue them and show them that Santa loves them.) A dystopian young adult alternative history by a Christian writer spins a fantasy about a Jewish teen shapeshifter who escapes a concentration camp, falls in love with a hot Evil Axis boy, and enters a cross-continental motorcycle race on a quest to kill Hitler. It was utterly trivializing about the Holocaust and got a starred review from Publishers Weekly. So that was nice.

Lately, conservative thinkers have been expressing horror and outrage over the notion of “sensitivity readers”—an unfortunate term for people like me who read manuscripts, at an author’s request, to make sure the author hasn’t inadvertently written something ill-informed or wrongheaded. Sensitivity readers (other, better terms include “expert readers” and “authenticity readers”) are representatives of an oft-marginalized group who try to ensure that the portrayal of the group—be it Jews, people of color, LGBTQ people, or people with physical disabilities and mental-health issues—is not dimwitted. Sometimes a sensitivity reader is a friend of the writer’s; sometimes it’s an academic; sometimes it’s a person of a given background who’s paid $250 to $500 to read a manuscript and provide feedback and advice. Authors need not take the advice of their sensitivity readers. No book contract has ever been canceled on the advice of a sensitivity reader. Sensitivity reading is not censorship.”

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