Around the time when diversity became the cause célèbre for young adult fiction’s most passionate activists, trade reviewer Kirkus implemented some unique rules to establish its bona fides at the forefront of the movement: characters were to be explicitly identified by race, religion, and sexual orientation in every YA book review moving forward; furthermore, the writers of those reviews would be selected according to their race, religion, and sexual orientation as well, critiquing texts for sensitivity in addition to entertainment value. A statement on the Kirkus website reads:
“[Because] there is no substitute for lived experience, as much as possible books with diverse subject matter and protagonists are assigned to ‘own voices’ reviewers, to identify both those books that resonate most with cultural insiders and those books that fall short.”
The implementation of these policies hasn’t been without hiccups, but overall, Kirkus had more or less successfully positioned itself as a reviewer striving to be sensitive to pressing contemporary concerns about diversity and representation in YA—right down to the use of the word problematic to describe books that aren’t adequately woke.
It was with these policies in place that Kirkus published its review last week for American Heart, a YA novel by author Laura Moriarty. American Heart takes place in a dystopian future where the U.S. has rounded up and relocated its Muslim population to internment camps in Nevada. Its protagonist, Sarah Mary, is a 15-year-old from Missouri who doesn’t question the validity of the ban until she meets a Muslim woman on the run, an Iranian immigrant and professor named Sadaf. In a story loosely modeled on Huckleberry Finn, Sarah Mary ends up traveling north with Sadaf in the hopes of helping her escape to Canada.
For some members of the YA community, the premise was objectionable from the get-go (the first Goodreads review, left on September 7, begins with “fuck your white savior narratives”). But after a research and review process including multiple sensitivity reads, Moriarty was prepared to stand by her work, and the notoriously prickly Kirkus gave the book a starred review. Published on October 10, it described American Heart as “terrifying, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and touching” and “a moving portrait of an American girl discovering her society in crisis.”
Only a few days later, the review was pulled amid continued criticism of the book from community members. The review was replaced by a statement from Kirkus’s editor-in-chief Claiborne Smith explaining that the editorial board and the reviewer—described as “an observant Muslim [woman] of color” and “expert in children’s & YA literature [who is] well-versed in the dangers of white savior narratives”—were “evaluating” the review. Shortly thereafter, Kirkus published an amended review that retracted the book’s star and condemned Moriarty’s choice to write the story from the first-person perspective of a white teenage girl.
“Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective worldbuilding device,” read the new review, “but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”
On Tuesday, after Moriarty posted the text of both reviews in a comment thread on her personal Facebook page, the magazine reportedly called her publisher repeatedly to demand that she take the comments down. (Smith describes this as a standard fair-use issue—authors and publishers are only permitted to excerpt 35 percent of a review for marketing purposes.)
In an emailed statement, Kirkus initially framed the amended review as a simple editorial correction. But as the controversy heated up and questions began to swirl about the potential suppression of the original reviewer’s opinion—and what this means for future reviewers, of any background, who unreservedly like a book that YA’s influencers find offensive—Smith spoke exclusively with Vulture to explain the magazine’s perspective.
Kirkus was well-aware from the start that American Heart was something of a lightning rod, which Smith says was not a concern. “As you know, we’re no stranger to controversy,” he says, referring to the recent outrage surrounding Kirkus’s starred review for The Black Witch. And the response to this controversy, according to Smith, stemmed from a long-standing policy of listening when readers have something to say: “We do investigate [criticisms] and consider all of those claims.”
Yet while investigating criticisms may be business as usual, Smith admits this is the first time during his tenure that a review has been pulled and altered in this way. And while the Muslim woman who wrote the original review was involved in the editing process—“the decision to retract the star was made in full collaboration with the reviewer,” he says—altering the review does not appear to have been her idea in the first place. According to Smith, Kirkus concluded internally that edits would be made before reaching out to the reviewer.
“We wanted her to consider if changing what we thought was sort of reductive word choice, and adding deeper context, is something she thought might be appropriate,” he says, though he emphasizes it was ultimately her call: “I did not dictate that to her. She made that decision on her own.” (The word choice in question likely refers to text in the original review that referred to Sadaf as “a disillusioned immigrant,” which some commenters took exception to.)
Kirkus’s critics are skeptical of that claim; among the more cynical takes on the controversy is that Kirkus used the reviewer’s identity as a shield, only to then suppress her voice when it didn’t toe the line. Smith bristles at that: “It’s like no one believes that this reviewer has a mind and can change her opinion. Is that so difficult to believe?”
The answer isn’t necessarily clear. Would Kirkus’s reviewer have changed her mind independently, even if the review hadn’t been pulled for evaluation? Or did she feel pressured to alter what had proven to be a deeply unpopular opinion when asked if she wanted to, even without explicit instructions to do so? What is clear, though, is that the choice to un-star American Heart reflects something noteworthy about Kirkus’s framework for critique—one in which a book’s value is determined not just by the quality of its storytelling, but also by its politics. The sentence added to the review indicates that writing the book from Sarah Mary’s point of view remains an admirable choice from a craft perspective (“an effective world-building device”), but wrong from a moral one (“it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter”). And while Smith says the call-out of said problematic element is not meant to dissuade readers from reading the book—“If readers don’t care that this novel is only told about a Muslim character, from the perspective of a white teenager, that’s fine”—he acknowledges that Kirkus does care, and does judge books at least in part on whether they adhere to certain progressive ideals. When I ask if the book’s star was revoked explicitly and exclusively because it features a Muslim character seen from the perspective of a white teenager, Smith pauses for only a second: “Yes.”
The way this latest controversy has unfolded suggests that the magazine hasn’t fully figured out how to navigate a shifting literary landscape where issues of free expression, reader expectation, literary quality, and diversity of both identity and opinion are all jostling for position. Smith continues to describe the change to the American Heart review as a “correction.” He readily agrees that Kirkus’s response to the American Heart backlash has left virtually no one satisfied, but he says the magazine won’t be changing course. If anything, Kirkus has a compelling reason to assert itself even more strenuously as a progressive tastemaker; the magazine just launched Kirkus Collections, where librarians can purchase titles that have been prescreened for quality, entertainment value, and problematic elements.
And while “every case of negative reaction is a little bit different,” they’ll continue to monitor criticisms, Smith says. And if it comes to it, to revoke stars, although they’ll be taking steps to avoid that. “Obviously we don’t like having to make corrections after the publication of a review,” Smith adds. “The plan is to beef up our editing of reviews in this section, to have further eyes before it goes to print.”
In the future, I ask, is the goal that no problematic book will escape un-called-out?
“That’s certainly the goal!” Smith says, with the caveat that Kirkus’s critics aren’t infallible. “I mean, we’re human beings.”
See also: The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter