When Laura Moriarty decided she wanted to write a dystopian novel about a future America in which Muslims are forcefully corralled into detention centers, she was aware that she should tread carefully. Her protagonist is a white teenager, but one of her main characters, Sadaf, is a Muslim American immigrant from Iran, so Moriarty began by diving into Iranian books and films. Moriarty explained via email that she asked two Iranian immigrant friends to read an early draft and see if Sadaf seemed authentic to them, and whether the language and accent fit with their memories and experiences. A friend of Pakistani and American descent who is a practicing Muslim gave additional feedback. Moriarty asked a senior colleague at the University of Kansas, Giselle Anatol, who writes about Young Adult fiction and has been critical of racist narratives in literature, to read the book with a particular eye toward avoiding another narrative about a “white savior.” And after American Heart was purchased by Harper, the publisher provided several formal “sensitivity reads,” in which a member of a minority group is charged with spotting potentially problematic depictions in a manuscript.
None of this, as it turns out, was enough to protect American Heart from becoming the subject of the latest skirmish in the increasingly contentious battle over representation and diversity in the world of YA literature. American Heart won’t be published until January, but it has already attracted the ire of the fierce group of online YA readers that journalist Kat Rosenfield has referred to as “culture cops.” To them, it was an irredeemable problem that Moriarty’s novel, which was inspired in part by Huckleberry Finn, centers on a white teenager who gradually—too gradually—comes to terms with the racism around her. On Goodreads, the book’s top “community review,” posted in September, begins, “fuck your white savior narratives”; other early commenters on Goodreads accused Moriarty of “profiting off people’s pain” and said “a white writer should not have tackled this story, and neither should a white character be the center of it.”
The backlash escalated last week, when Kirkus Reviews gave American Heart a coveted “starred review,” which influences purchases by bookstores and libraries. Kirkus’ anonymous reviewer called the book “by turns terrifying, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and touching,” and praised its “frighteningly believable setting of fear and violent nativism gone awry.” The book’s critics were not pleased with the commendation. “Kirkus Reviews of books reinforce white supremacy,” author and activist Justina Ireland, who had posted a critical review of the book on Medium, wrote on Twitter. “I’m sick to my stomach over this, and I’m so sorry Muslim folks have to contend with one more reminder that their humanity is negotiable.” BookRiot published a list of “Books by Muslims to Support Instead of Reading ‘American Heart.’”
Kirkus, apparently, was listening. Over the weekend, the publication took down the brief review and replaced it with a remarkable three-paragraph statement from editor in chief Claiborne Smith. He pointed out that the original reviewer was a woman, a Muslim, and an expert in children’s and YA literature—the kind of profile that would privilege her opinion of the book in many circles. Nonetheless, “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,” Smith wrote. “The editors are evaluating the review and will make a determination about correction or retraction after careful consideration in collaboration with the reviewer.”
The sudden and unusual decision to remove a review for emergency “evaluation” was shrouded in mystery. The reviewer remains anonymous, and Smith declined to elaborate on the decision process or what prompted the reevaluation. In an email, he referred to specific elements of the review that Kirkus found “problematic,” particularly “some reductive wording and the omission of a clear callout that the Muslim character is portrayed exclusively through the filter of a white protagonist.” (Online, some critics had bristled at the review’s reference to Sadaf as a “disillusioned immigrant.”) He added that while Kirkus values “audience feedback” and responds to “oversights” with correction, “we do not bend to peer pressure or cultural criticism.”
In an astonishing piece published in New York magazine this summer, Rosenfield reported on the “growing dysfunction in the world of YA publishing,” focused on a YA fantasy novel called The Black Witch. The piece looks even more prescient in retrospect. Online critics’ accusations about The Black Witch were similar to those lobbed at American Heart: that a protagonist spent too long—about 350 pages, in that case—on her journey to enlightenment. When Kirkus gave that book, too, a starred review, it faced so many demands for a retraction that it ran a follow-up essay on the difference between a racist, ableist, homophobic, misogynist character and a racist, ableist, homophobic, misogynist book.
None of this necessarily means that American Heart is an artistically successful book or that its white protagonist’s awakening is convincing or valuable. It certainly doesn’t mean that the publishing world wouldn’t benefit from a wider diversity of authors, critics, and executives. But Kirkus’ decision to take down a published review in the wake of online backlash is disturbing—a suggestion that individual writers and critics must hew to an increasingly narrow definition of woke-ness to be deemed acceptable. “To me, it seems clear they are bowing to pressure from this small but very vocal group of people who want to protect young readers from stories and ideas they find harmful,” Moriarty said.
On Monday, Kirkus posted a revised, more critical version of the review, “edited for clarity and to provide additional insights from the reviewer,” that stripped the book of its star. “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,” the revised review concludes, “such as segregation, greed, mistrust, and mob mentalities.” Suddenly, a book about blind spots and mob mentalities feels more urgent than ever.