I have finally got my conference paper down to 12 pages! Unfortunately, in my effort to include as many quotes from my interviewees as possible, I cut a really strong passage and *forgot* to paste it into the footnotes. Crap. In that passage I analyzed a troubling review Ship of Souls received from a Canadian bookseller—and one of her critiques was the “unnecessary” inclusion of crude language (“crap” and “pissed off”). I use crap in order to avoid using “sh**”—which is what lots of kids use every day. But that was a minor issue for me. I had more of a problem with her description of Hakeem as “a stereotypical black jock.” She did note that he was Muslim, but made no mention of the fact that he’s biracial (Senegalese father, Bangladeshi mother), that he’s determined to graduate from high school AND college despite his athletic ability, and that he dreams of becoming a chef and opening his own restaurant someday. If he really is a stereotype, I’d love for this reviewer to list the other books that feature a kid like Keem. She couldn’t, of course, (especially not in Canada, where there are NO books about contemporary black boys) which was the point I was trying to make in my paper. Bad reviews are part of life for an author; generally we read them, fume a bit, and move on. But when there are only two review journals for children’s literature in the country, you really need those reviewers to be on point.
I wanted to say something in my conference paper about the competency of reviewers—cultural competency, which for the most part has nothing to do with race. As I tried to explain to the editor of the journal that ran the review, I’m not qualified to teach Black Studies because I’m black—I’m qualified b/c I’ve been trained in the field. And several other reviewers—white and black—have noted that the cast of kids in SoS is remarkably diverse. They note that, I think, because they’ve read enough speculative fiction and African American kidlit to know just what’s stereotypical and what’s not. Queer kids of color don’t often see themselves reflected in MG/YA lit, so my choice to have Nyla question her sexuality was deliberate; this particular reviewer felt the “odd reference to lesbianism” was “unnecessary to the story.” But this was the comment that stunned me:
…Canadian children will have to do some quick double think to incorporate the views of the American Revolution presented here in which their ancestors are clearly portrayed as the enemy of the brave Americans.
I still don’t know how to process this remark. Is the reviewer saying that Canadian children will feel conflicted because they’ll conjure British loyalists while reading the book? There are no references to the British in my novel—in fact, the patriot ghosts recount fending off German soldiers (Hessians). So what’s the problem? And I have to wonder which Canadian children she’s worried about. I seriously doubt that black children in Canada would read this story and experience anxiety around their loyalty to the Crown. There were black loyalists, of course, but I doubt that’s what she’s talking about. I suspect this reviewer worries that WHITE Canadian children will be unable to identify with the African American protagonists, and will therefore align themselves with the whites who aren’t even present in the novel—the British. Good grief. This reviewer gave Ship of Souls two stars out of four, yet still declared it “recommended.” Thanks.
Other African Canadian authors made more concise statements about the issue of race and reviews, so I’ll focus on them in my paper. Which it’s time to get back to…