Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.
These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.” “The industry recognizes this is a real concern,” said Cheryl Klein, a children’s and young adult book editor and author of “The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults.” Klein, who works at the publisher Lee & Low, said that she has seen the casual use of specialized readers for many years but that the process has become more standardized and more of a priority, especially in books for young readers.
Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate – fueled in part by social media – in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.
Last year, for instance, J.K. Rowling was strongly criticized by Native American readers and scholars for her portrayal of Navajo traditions in the 2016 story “History of Magic in North America.” Young-adult author Keira Drake was forced to revise her fantasy novel “The Continent” after an online uproar over its portrayal of people of color and Native backgrounds. More recently, author Veronica Roth – of “Divergent” fame – came under fire for her new novel, “Carve the Mark.” In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.
This potential for offense has some writers scared. Young-adult author Susan Dennard recently hired a fan to review her portrayal of a transgender character in her “Truthwitch” series.
“I was nervous to write a character like this to begin with, because what if I get it wrong? I could do some major damage,” Dennard said. But, she added, she felt the voice of the character was an important one that wasn’t often portrayed, so she hired a fan, who is a transgender man, just to be sure she did it right.