Yesterday I reported that Kirkus, one of the three “biggie” reviewing services that vets books for libraries and readers before publication, had removed a prized star from one of its reviews: that of American Heart by Laura Moriarty (out January 2018). It’s a “young adult” novel describing hypothetical America in which Muslims, as were many Japanese in World War II, are confined in internment camps, and how the protagonist (a white girl), originally in favor of those camps, changes her mind and helps a Muslim boy escape to Canada. It’s clearly an empathic, anti-nativism book meant to inspire thought and conversation.
After giving the book a “starred” review, which would boost sales, Kirkus was besieged by an online mob—many of them from the group YA Twitter that vets books for Leftist ideological purity—that was clearly enraged that the narrator was white. They accused Moriarity of penning a “white savior” novel, even though most of the critics could not have read the book. Moriarity described the incident on her Facebook page, and how Kirkus had put up a notice about why the star was removed. Here’s their notice:
It is a policy of Kirkus Reviews that books with diverse subject matter and protagonists are assigned to Own Voices reviewers—writers who can draw upon lived experience when evaluating texts. Our assignment of the review of American Heart was no exception to this rule and was reviewed by an observant Muslim person of color (facts shared with her permission). Our reviewer is an expert in children’s & YA literature and well-versed in the dangers of white savior narratives. She found that American Heart offers a useful warning about the direction we’re headed in as far as racial enmity is concerned.
The issue of diversity in children’s and teen literature is of paramount importance to Kirkus, and we appreciate the power language wields in discussion of the problems. As a result, we’ve removed the starred review from kirkus.com after determining that, while we believe our reviewer’s opinion is worthy and valid, some of the wording fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity, and we failed to make the thoughtful edits our readers deserve. The editors are evaluating the review and will make a determination about correction or retraction after careful consideration in collaboration with the reviewer.
At Kirkus Reviews, we will continue to evaluate editorial solutions for better reflecting the expertise of our reviewers and their uniform appreciation for responsible portrayals of marginalized groups. We appreciate the discussion of these issues and celebrate the free exchange of opinions and ideas.
This is about as Authoritarian Leftist as a company can be—to the extent that they choose reviewers with the correct “lived experience” (why didn’t a Muslim woman of color have that “lived experience”?) And as for Kirkus‘s claim that “some of the wording fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity,” well, based on what you can read below the clarity was fine—the problem was the “sensitivity”. That is, the reviewer failed to criticize the author for writing this book from a white girl’s point of view. It seems that Kirkus, which has substantial power to determine whether libraries buy a new book, and thus whether kids get to read it, is using ideological rather than literary standards to judge novels.
As Kirkus noted, the original starred review was written by “an observant Muslim person of color”—someone who could have dissed the book but instead awarded it a prized star on its merits. That wasn’t good enough. Kirkus removed the star and, as they admitted above, changed its review. Without having seen the original review, I guessed yesterday which sentence had been added to placate the Pecksniffs (see below). I was right, for Moriarty posted the original Kirkus review in a comment on this site yesterday. I reproduce the original and then the bowdlerized review below, putting in bold the sentences that were added after the star was removed. They are the ones you’d expect.
Review Issue Date: November 1, 2017
Online Publish Date: October 10, 2017
Price ( Hardcover ): $17.99
Price ( e-book ): $12.99
Publication Date: January 30, 2018
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-06-269410-2
ISBN ( e-book ): 978-0-06-269412-6
Fifteen-year-old Sarah Mary will do anything for her sensitive younger brother, but she never thought that would mean running from the law. The setting is the Midwestern United States; the time is the not-too-distant future. A Muslim registry is in effect, and Muslims are being bused to detention centers called “safety zones” en masse. This doesn’t bother Sarah Mary, a strong-minded, fiercely loyal, and protective teenager whose mother has abandoned her and her younger brother, Caleb, to their ultraconservative Christian aunt. (The whole family appears to be white.) Her indifference is forced to change when Caleb’s compassion for Sadaf, a Muslim in hiding, gets her involved in a plan to help this Iranian woman escape. Together, Sarah Mary and her new companion face extreme dangers, prejudices, disappointments—and unexpected kindnesses from their fellow Americans as they fight nearly impossible odds to get Sadaf through several states and over the border undetected. Moriarty creates a frighteningly believable setting of fear and violent nativism gone awry as she traces their journey to help Sadaf find the freedom she sought when she immigrated to the United States. By turns terrifying, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and touching, this book is so rich that the coincidences in the plot are easily forgiven. A moving portrait of an American girl discovering her society in crisis, desperate to show a disillusioned immigrant the true spirit of America. (Fiction. 13-18)
Review revised after mob takes issue; book data are the same, but the star was reemoved (changed or added bits bolded):
Fifteen-year-old Sarah Mary will do anything for her sensitive younger brother, but she never thought that would mean running from the law.
The setting is the Midwestern United States; the time is the not-too-distant future. A Muslim registry is in effect, and Muslims are being bused to detention centers called “safety zones” en masse. This doesn’t bother Sarah Mary, a strong-minded, fiercely loyal, and protective teenager whose mother has abandoned her and Caleb to their ultraconservative Christian aunt. Her indifference is forced to change when Caleb’s compassion for a Muslim in hiding gets her involved in a plan to help this Iranian woman escape. Together, Sarah Mary and her new companion face extreme dangers, prejudices, disappointments—and unexpected kindnesses from their fellow Americans as they fight nearly impossible odds to get her through several states and over the border undetected. Moriarty creates a frighteningly believable setting of fear and violent nativism gone awry as she traces their journey to help Sadaf find the freedom she sought when she immigrated to the United States. Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective worldbuilding device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter. Still, some will find value in the emotionally intense exploration of extremist “patriotic” ideology, the dangers of brainwashing and blind spots, and some of the components of our nation’s social fabric that threaten to destroy us, such as segregation, greed, mistrust, and mob mentalities.
A thought-provoking, chilling read with a controversial premise.
(Fiction. 13-18) (Ed. Note: The review of American Heart has been edited for clarity and to provide additional insights from the reviewer from its original appearance on kirkus.com, which was removed from the site with this statement.)
Note that the first bolded sentence is precisely the one that, I guessed, had caused the star to be removed. Then there’s the weaselly qualifier “still, some [presumably those who are ideologically untutored] will find value. . .” with the addition of all the implicit criticisms of the Trump administration. The original last sentence about the book being a “moving portrait” is now changed to “a thought-provoking, chilling read with a controversial premise.” Now that’s a library-buyer’s nightmare.
And really, Kirkus criticizes “mob mentalities”? Really? For it was a mob mentality that caused Kirkus to bow to social pressure, remove the star, and change its review.
Sadly, this hasn’t appeared on library and book sites, and it really should, for it’s a form of censorship based on conformity with Authoritarian Leftist culture. People should know that Kirkus is up to this kind of nonsense. The only place, in fact, that you’ll find any mention of this incident is on right-wing sites like The National Review, which reports this:
Struggling to grasp how this [plot] could possibly be offensive? Well, struggle no more. On Goodreads, reviewers take issue with the fact that Sarah-Mary decides to help. This, they argue, is reflective of an offensive “white savior” narrative by which Moriarty suggests that minorities such as Sadaf need someone white to save them. Here is the top-rated review, for example:
f*** your white savior narratives
f*** using marginalized characters as a plot device to teach the white mc [sic] how to be a decent person
f*** you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer in order to be worthy of “humanity”
f*** this book and everyone who thought it would be a good f***ing idea
Now it’s possible that the book is not sufficiently meritorious to deserve a star, at least according to the lights of objective readers (but few have read the book). But one person did—the reviewer—and yet she was overruled by a group who hadn’t read the book but didn’t like its ideology. It is that narrative, in which books are judged publicly by whether they conform to the Leftist mores of the moment, that I object to. And that is why books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are being censored (removing the word “nigger” and replacing it with “slave”, for instance), removed from curricula, or removed from school libraries. We face a future in which all new books must conform to a certain political viewpont to be worthy of approbation or review. And that will be a sad and sanitized culture, one in which books will not be controversial or inspire argument and thought.