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Before a book gets published, an editor typically takes a look and recommends changes. If it's a big book, there may be several editors - and now, also, sensitivity readers. NPR's Lynn Neary explains what they are.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Dhonielle Clayton is a sensitivity reader. Her specialty is books for kids. She vets five to six a month and prepares detailed critiques of each one.
DHONIELLE CLAYTON: My shortest critique has been three pages, single-spaced.
NEARY: In at least one case, she recommended a major change in the plot.
CLAYTON: One woman who has a YA fantasy with all black and brown people - and she had slavery in it. I told her that she should remove it. I said that if it doesn't have any bearing on the world, why must the institution of slavery follow black and brown bodies even into fiction? And so she changed it.
NEARY: Clayton thinks any author writing across cultures should use a sensitivity reader. But she says it's especially important when writing for kids because they're so impressionable. Kate Milford writes fantasy novels for preteens. She says she uses sensitivity readers the same way she uses any expert.
KATE MILFORD: It's an extension of the same research that I would do for any book where I'm writing something that isn't within my personal store of knowledge. So my last book was set on a privateer during the War of 1812. And I spent three years researching that, but I still lined up two experts for feedback.
NEARY: Milford's next book is about a Chinese boy adopted by a white family. She asked a number of people, including adoptees, to vet the book for her because she had questions that needed answers based in experience.
MILFORD: And it's not that I can't empathize or do the imaginative work myself, but I want accuracy. I want a fuller story. And frankly, I would mind less if someone pointed out an error in how I've described a schooner than I'd mind if someone pointed out that I'd been inaccurate or insensitive in writing about a transracial adoptee.
NEARY: What began as an informal practice has become more systematized with the creation of a website, Writing in the Margins, which lists sensitivity readers and their areas of expertise. Writer Hillary Jordan is wary of that development.
HILLARY JORDAN: You know, if this is a source for a writer who has no other way to get it, then great. But I feel that if it's a risk-management tool of some sort, I find that troubling.
NEARY: Jordan is author of "Mudbound," a novel which has been made into a movie to be released this year. The story is told by characters, both male and female, black and white. Jordan says she was intimidated writing from the perspective of black characters, but a teacher told her - you can't be afraid of your own work.
JORDAN: Writing literature is inherently risky. And the further you get from your own experience, the riskier it is. But no one can inoculate you against these risks because they're part of the process.
NEARY: Jordan says things have changed since her book was published almost a decade ago. People are more sensitive now, she says. But literature can't come from a place of fear.
JORDAN: It comes from curiosity about how other people live. It comes from the desire to break down the barriers between us. And I just don't know how you do that if you have someone looking over your shoulder and sort of coughing slightly to let you know when you're off.
NEARY: Jordan worries that what begins with good intentions can end in censorship, an idea sensitivity reader Dhonielle Clayton rejects.
CLAYTON: I'm not in the business of censoring people. I'm in the business of checking to make sure what they're doing does not have harm and repercussions for the people that they are writing about because people don't realize the power of words and the power of bad representation. It can haunt people.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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