Thursday, November 6, 2014

White Ladies Editing Kids' Books


Like most people who work in publishing, I'm a white lady. Why does that matter? Lots of reasons, but here's one reason it's mattered lately.

Do any indigenous people
from California work at Lerner? No.
That's why this book had a content consultant.
I've been working on a slew of educational nonfiction books, and a fair amount of them are not about white people. This is great, because US history, good citizenship, and American culture (the topics of the books in question) are not all about white people. It's also great because the kids who will read these books are not all white. (And because those who are white need to see more than whiteness in their educational materials. And on. And on.) But I am white, and that means I'm not necessarily the most qualified person to decide if certain books are handling their subject matter appropriately. Nor, frankly, is anyone else in my office. Not because we're not intelligent, informed, sensitive people, but because inevitably, there are things that research can't tell us about a cultural background and experience different from ours. And the same limitations apply to many of our authors.

Since I don't control who works for Lerner, let's leave the workplace diversity conversation for another time and talk about how we white ladies try to deal responsibly with manuscripts that white ladies are likely to mess up.

1. We hire content consultants--experts who identify with the particular background in question--to review and comment on manuscripts.

2. We listen to our content consultants. No point in hiring a consultant if you don't take that consultant's advice. Obviously, there are limits to the changes we can feasibly make to a book: it can only be so many pages long, it can only be written at a certain reading level, it can only cover a certain chunk of standard curriculum material. But usually, consultant feedback is compatible with those limits. For instance, it turns out Sacagawea wasn't kidnapped and enslaved by the Hidatsa; she was taken as a war captive and probably adopted into this enemy tribe. A few simple wording swaps are perfectly doable and make a world of difference. 

3. We think twice. When I'm working with a manuscript about a subject I don't know intimately, I google. I look at the author's sources. I look at other credible sources. I reread word choices. I search for gaps and simplifications. I don't assume that, because a manuscript is well written and engaging, it's covering all its bases. I don't assume that, because the author is intelligent, educated, and a conscientious researcher, all the facts have been interpreted objectively and all perspectives portrayed appropriately. I try above all to avoid the classic white-person mistake of assuming

Naturally this is an imperfect system (see above workplace diversity deflection). I still make mistakes, of course. And I'm deeply grateful when those mistakes are caught by a content consultant, or a fact checker, or the colleague who crossreads the manuscript, or the book's editorial director, or even our eagle-eyed copy editor. Making good books is less about what you know than it is about being aware of what you don't know. As white people, we Lerner editors have blind spots. But we're working hard to make sure that our books don't.

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