I thought of writing a private letter to the editor of the journal in question and in fact did draft a letter. In that missive, I pointed out how irresponsible I thought the review was. I suggested that when people see an opportunity to comment on race that they will say the most outrageous and clichéd things without any true thought at all just to seem as if they are somehow socially aware. I affirmed that as a black woman who edits books, I am certainly sensitive to how African Americans are depicted and perceived in books, especially those I personally edit.
I revealed that the author and I had had multiple conversations about how to ensure that all the characters in this book were three-dimensional and in particular this African American character. I pointed out this character's innate kindness and sense of justice and the great thought that this character put into helping the "well-to-do" protagonist at tremendous risk to himself (a point the reviewer took issue with) before taking the risk, and that this black character decided to help because at the end of the day this character is human, and not a black role-player. I pointed out the very distinct characterization work that the reviewer must have missed and the organic bond that was formed between these characters from very different backgrounds.
I railed against what I saw as a wrong-headed and clichéd point about race--the assumption that when a black character appears in a book told from a white character's perspective that their relationship couldn't possibly be complex or nuanced, which to me reflected more about the reviewer's feelings on race than any characterization misdeed by my author. I assured that my author had handled the characterization of this black character with love and care (that I felt that love and care), fully developing him and his struggles, and giving him a back story that explained who he is without resorting to stereotyping. I assured that my author had, in fact, shown that this character is likeable, conflicted, and again human; that reaching out to this white protagonist had actually nothing to do with race. I challenged the assertion that this black character had led to the growth of the white character (as the growth belonged completely to the protagonist). And also questioned that even if this character did have a hand in a white character's growth, so what? The fact that this character is black makes this problematic? I reject that. This reviewer's focus on this character's color and the socio-economic status of the protagonist misses the point of this relationship completely and to focus on race does this book that is not at all about race such a disservice.
But most disturbing is that this review and others like it could potentially discourage other writers who may not be of color from including characters of color in their work. And it could potentially discourage editors from acquiring books that feature people of color, especially when the author is not of the race in question. A review like the one I railed against in the letter I drafted may have come from a very good place in wanting to ensure black characters are not relegated to subservient roles, but because the reviewer was (in my opinion) more concerned about making that point than actually considering the truth of the character work on the page, it's a review that may actually do more harm than good and that saddens me, because, to me, it means we're still not having honest conversations about race in children's literature, but just making empty points. And this is not to say that I discourage reviews that critique how diverse characters and experiences are incorporated into children's narratives. In fact, I welcome it and any nuanced discussion that follows because of it. I just want the reviewers to play fair and consider every element on the page, and definitely consider whether the review is ultimately responsible or reckless.
In the end, I didn't send this letter. Sour grapes and all, but I did recommit myself as an editor, a reader and a black woman working in an industry where, again, those who look like me are few and far between to encourage and support all my writers in incorporating characters of color in their work when it's organic and to especially encourage my writers who are not of color to continue to include a diverse cast of characters in their narratives and/or write outside their experience (responsibly) if they so wish. And hope the next reviewer gives them a fairer shake.