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Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews

This essay was originally posted in four parts on Tumblr.

By Malinda Lo

For the past few years, I’ve read hundreds of reviews for Diversity in YA. I read them to determine whether a young adult book has a main character who is of color, LGBTQ, and/or disabled, and thus is appropriate to include on DiYA. Sometimes the book’s cover copy reveals this, but often it does not — or it deliberately obscures it — and then I have to read reviews to figure it out.

The reviews I read range from Goodreads reader responses to blog posts to mainstream reviews (like from the New York Times) to trade reviews. Trade reviews are brief reviews published in trade journals such as Kirkus or Publishers Weekly, and I usually start with these for several reasons. First, they’re short, and because I do DiYA in my spare time, I don’t have the luxury to read lengthy critical essays on every single potentially diverse book that’s being published. Second, these brief reviews pack in a lot of detail including spoilers, which are often key to determining if a book has diverse content. Third, they’re edited by the editors of those trade journals, which means they should have been fact-checked. Sometimes trade reviews do contain errors, but generally speaking I believe they are reliable about the facts of a novel’s plot.

If a trade review only hints about race or LGBT or disability issues, then I turn to blog reviews and Goodreads to confirm my suspicions. But more often than not I find that trade reviews do include details about the book’s diversity, and lately it has become increasingly common for trade reviews to state a character’s background quite plainly. I appreciate this because that’s why I’m reading these reviews, and I think an up-front statement that a character is gay is much better than an insinuation that the story has something to do with sexuality. It removes some of the stigma from historically marginalized identities, and it helps those of us who are seeking out these books to find them.

Of course, not all reviews discuss diversity in a skillful way. Frankly, it’s hard to do it in one paragraph, and I recognize that. I’ve encountered reviews that reveal broader assumptions about race, LGBTQ, and disability issues, and sometimes those assumptions are based in unfortunate stereotypes. Over the past several months I’ve been keeping track of reviews that I felt did a disservice to a book’s diverse content, and revealed latent racist, heteronormative, or ablist beliefs.

These reviews reveal a few specific issues or perceptions about diversity: the idea that diversity in a book is contrived; the critique that a book contains too many issues; the question of believability; the demand for glossaries; and finally, unsupported assumptions relating to race. Continue reading Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews