Amid increasing controversy around author e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s most recent book, When We Was Fierce, and her use of a made-up dialect along with what some deem as stereotypical characters, Candlewick Press has postponed publication of the book.
“After discussion between the author, her agent, and Candlewick about the dramatic contrast between the pre-publication reviews as compared to many of the social media and blog responses to When We Was Fierce, we decided together to take some time for further reflection and thus postponed publication,” said Tracy Miracle, executive director of publicity and marketing campaigns for Candlewick Press, in an email to School Library Journal (SLJ).
The decision is just one that follows a line of recent concerns around representation of characters in stories, from Scholastic’s decision to pull A Birthday Cake for George Washington to discussions around the use of the word “tribe” alongside images of children in natural surroundings with feathers in their hair, in Lane Smith’s There Is a Tribe of Kids.
Some in the literary community are now wondering if publishers will start to lean away from titles and subjects that could invite heated debate—or instead choose to enlist sensitivity readers to pore over manuscripts while also seeking more #ownvoices submissions, which are considered books about diverse characters, written by those in the same diverse group.
Candlewick Press’s Miracle says the publisher not only supports the mission of #ownvoices, but also actively welcomes submissions from writers who “…work from their own diverse life experiences and stories,” she says. Additionally, in terms of sensitivity readers, the publisher has “employed outside readers in the past and will continue to do so. The decision is made on a case by case basis, generally between the editor and author,” Miracle says.
In the case of When We Was Fierce, some educators, librarians, and authors found that sensitivity lacking. Jennifer Baker, Minorities in Publishing podcast creator and member of We Need Diverse Books, is one. She posted a guest review of a pre-publication copy of When We Was Fierce on the blog, Crazy QuiltEdi, calling the title “off-the-mark” with narration that was “deeply insensitive,” she writes.
Although she is emphatic that she is not attacking author Charlton-Trujillo, she joins the ranks of educators and librarians, including K.T. Horning and Edi Campbell, who have also posted on why they have found the book problematic. Baker herself hopes to see more stories told from diverse viewpoints. But to Baker, Charlton-Trujillo’s novel was “glaringly offensive,” she says.
“When We Was Fierce was highly problematic from the inaccuracies to this very arm’s length approach, [and] the stereotyping of black characters specifically,” she says. “The made up dialect the author used was so egregious, it is horrible.”
When We Was Fierce tells the story of 15-year-old T and the decision he makes, after watching the beating of a disabled teen, that puts him and his friends in danger. Early reviews lauded the story, from Publishers Weekly calling the book a “heartbreaking and powerful modern American story,” to Kirkus referring to the novel as “…a compassionate, forceful look at the heartbreak and choices these black boys and men face.”” Amazon still lists the book with an August 9 publication date. (SLJ has held its review for now.)
But Baker is unclear on how the novel could have been seen as anything other than problematic. Nor does she see how the story could be revamped, even as Miracle says they are talking about possible next steps with Charlton-Trujillo, and will discuss those plans “..when we and the author are ready to do so,” she writes.
“It’s too offensive,” says Baker of the book. “It is not salvageable.”
Even as Candlewick Press says it has used outside readers to review manuscripts, Baker believes more must be done. At a recent American Association of University Professors’ panel, she learned that some university presses, including, she says, Duke University Press and The MIT Press, are looking not just to increase diversity in their books, but also putting structures and guidelines into place to ensure goals, aligned to a clear mission statement, are met.
“I think the industry is looking at this with a BAND-AID approach,” she says. “Diversity in books seems easy. They’re getting books with this content. But they’re not making sure this content is respectful, responsible, and accurate.”
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