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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

You Have to Read the Book

I think if you’ve read any of my opinion pieces in the past then you’ll notice that I’ve cultivated over the years a somewhat namby pamby style.  This consists of the following:

Step One: Ask a bunch of questions.

Step Two: Answer one.

Step Three: Ask a bunch of other questions based on that statement.

Step Four: Answer one.

Step Five: Ask a whole SLEW of questions (possibly contradicting the previous questions).

Step Six: Answer one.  Finis!

Well, a person’s got to take a stand on SOMETHING around here.  I’ve been weighing in on controversies left and right recently (which is so not like me that I’m going to blame the water here in Evanston).  In any case, here goes nothing.  Step back, people.  I’m gonna actually make a can’t-back-off statement about the state of literary criticism today:

You have to read a book to critique it.

Some of you are going to read this sentence and think I’m a blooming idiot for stating the obvious.  Others of you are going to be a bit peeved.  After all, we’ve just seen a variety of different written pieces discussing Laura Amy Schlitz’s THE HIRED GIRL, and not all aspects of that debate actually required that the participants read her book.  So let me clarify a little bit here.

First and foremost, I’m not singling out the HIRED GIRL discussions with this idea.  For as long as there has been book criticism there has been the question of whether or not a person declaring that a book is worthy or unworthy actually has to read it.  Take THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS.  After all, we’ve read reviews by trusted individuals saying it’s bad, quoting specific passages.  So when you read a lot of reviews and criticisms of a book online or in print, any book, you begin to feel like you’ve really read that puppy.  Moreover, if you have something to add to the conversation, you’d like to do so without taking time out to read something that will take you, at a minimum, a couple of days.  Internet debates only last so long.  Miss your window and the discussion has moved onto other things.

[UPDATE: Initially my example was MEIN KAMPF and then someone pointed out that this is a fairly terrible example, and I happen to agree. MEIN KAMPF is not a children’s book for one thing, so why the heck am I including it?  I’ve switched it to THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS in retrospect, but when you read the first few comments that’s what they’re referring to.]

So when I say you have to read a book to critique it, what I’m not saying is that you can’t discuss an aspect of the book or a point that someone has raised about it.  What I am saying is that you cannot make a blanket critique that it is good or bad, worth reading or not worth reading, without actually reading THE WHOLE THING (not just the beginning and not just bits and pieces) yourself.  Nor can you write a review, or discuss it within the larger context of literature as a whole.  You have to read the book.

Some folks are arguing that this shouldn’t be necessary.  If a book is consistently upsetting or insulting or filled with aspects that are objectionable to you (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) then why should you torture yourself by reading the whole thing?  I mean, what’s the likelihood that it’s all going to turn around for you by the end?  This argument is baffling to me, because if you’re going to critique a written work, don’t you WANT to find that potentially offensive or insulting material?  Take ERAGON.  Here’s a book I read back in 2004.  I did not care for it, but I read every last stinking page.  And because I did I was able to write the following in my review:

“It got to the point where I started keeping track of the times that Eragon went to sleep. As it stands, the book is a hefty 497 pages of text. Perhaps this could have been halved if Paolini hadn’t decided to spell out every single time Eragon beds down. Of direct references alone (not moments alluded to, though there were plenty of those as well) I counted 19. If you want to have some fun, read the first sentence of the 4th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 23rd, 27th, 29th, 31st, 34th, 35th, 36th, 38th, 39th, 41st, 45th, 48th, 52nd, 54th, 56th and 57th chapters. I’ve never witnessed a character that did so much waking up. Even more fun was counting the number of times Eragon is knocked unconscious. A book reviewer once commented that you can sometimes tell how good a book is by how many times its hero is knocked out. “Eragon” contains at least six such moments.”

I never would have known about any of this if I’d just stopped reading halfway through.  I might have been a happier individual, but I couldn’t have reviewed the book.

In many ways, critiquing a book on a single sentence or comments others have made about it is very familiar territory.  It’s what we face all the time when someone attempts to restrict a book in a library.  I’m going to ask the librarians amongst us to now think back to their MLIS training.  I don’t know about all of you, but when I was in library school I was taught that when facing a book challenge there are certain steps you have to take.  First and foremost, you never ever get defensive.  The person challenging the children’s or YA book has the interests of kids at heart.  They honestly and truly believe that it would be hurtful to the child in some crucial and critical way if they read this book.  So what do you do?  The very first thing you do is ask them a simple question: Have you read the book?  If they have not, you ask them to do so.  Then, if they would like to proceed with the challenge, you go to the next step.  Because if they want to remove a book from a library simply because they heard it was bad, or because they read a single sentence or saw some art out of context, then you know they’re not getting the full picture.

Context is key.  Sometimes reading a sentence without reading the rest of the book puts it in a terrible light.  Other times, it’s completely on track with the rest of the book.  You don’t really know which of the two it’s going to be until you pick that book up and take in every last sentence.  I think back now to the only Newbery Award winning book that is currently out-of-print.  Can you name it?  Maybe others have joined its ranks in the last few years, but I think I’m correct in saying that DANIEL BOONE by James Daugherty is the single most offensive children’s book I’ve ever read.  I reviewed it on Amazon in 2004 (2004 was a good year for my angriest of reviews, back when I was in my 20s and full of spitfire and vinegar) and in my review I quoted this passage, which in turn is quoting THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF DAVID CROCKETT:

“…I saw some warriors run into a house, until I counted forty-six of them. We pursued them until we got near the house, when we saw a squaw sitting in the door, and she placed her feet against the bow she had in her hand, and then took an arrow, and raising her feet she drew with all her might and let fly at us and she killed a man, whose name I believe was Moore. He was a lieutenant and his death so enraged us all that she was fired on, and had at least twenty balls blown through her…We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and it burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it. I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh were broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian when his dander is up that he had sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters”.

Now you might read that passage and think you shouldn’t read DANIEL BOONE at all.  And you’d be right!  It’s a terrible terrible book, and this section is indicative of the whole.  But the only reason I know this is because I sat down and read the whole thing.  Now I can bring it up every time we talk about offensive award winners, or books in the past with content inappropriate for child readers today.  But I could NOT do that if I just read that passage alone.  I had to read the book.  The horrible horrible book.

For some folks, it’s a point of pride when they haven’t finished a book.  They mention that they thought it was offensive and “not my kind of thing” and the indication being that if you did finish the book then you must like offensive books.  Another person I was in a debate with mentioned late in the conversation that they weren’t even sure if the book we were discussing was in print yet (it was).

I’m non-confrontational by nature but I’ll engage in a healthy swapping of ideas if the internet allows.  I can’t do that very well when I have all the information and the person I’m debating doesn’t.  Our different opinions and debates and conversations only really work when we all are working from the same basic starting point.

So that’s my controversial suggestion.  Reading books: It’s a good thing.  Give it a try whenever you are able.

[UPDATE 2: There is an amazing debate going on in the comments.  So much so that I want to recap a part of it here.

So folks are mentioning that I’m basically combining two different things in my post.  There is offensive and traumatic material on the one hand and there’s silly/annoying/badly written stuff on the other.  So when I write a title like “You Have to Read the Book” it sounds like I’m saying that when you’re reading something traumatic you have to keep going.  NOT my intention but of course that’s what it sounds like, so understandable that folks would be upset with that idea.  My point was that critiquing a book or reviewing it requires knowledge of the entire book.  But, I’m grateful for people mentioning that Eragon and Daniel Boone are two entirely different situations.  Read the comments for more thoughts on the matter.]

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. This is something I’ve thought a lot about, too, Betsy, and the place I’ve come to is: it depends. (Not quite as resoundingly definitive as your conclusion!) I’m going to take a wild guess that the instances of Eragon falling asleep weren’t personally traumatic to you. I hesitate to use that word, because I know how much baggage it’s taken on in current discourse– but I think there are instances where telling someone they have to read the book to address it can be a cruel request. You use the example of Mein Kampf. I’ve never read it. I won’t ever read it. This example might risk falling under Godwin’s Law, except that in my case I think it’s illustrative. I lost immediate family members in the Holocaust, and have immediate family members who are living survivors– of course I don’t need to read that book in order to say it’s bad. I also didn’t need to read Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time. I admire and appreciate the readers who did– I tried, and I had to stop because it was *painful*. I can tell you from what I’ve read, and plot summaries, that that book is wrong. To say that I have to finish in order to come to that judgment discounts both that pain, and the context I bring to the book where I really, truly *don’t* need to read the whole thing to make that judgment. I very much understand how this can appear a slippery slope, and how it goes against most basic understandings of critical engagement– but these are the issues people are trying to address in questioning the requirement to read a whole book, and I think they are truly complicated ones.

    • I have a different perspective as someone who also comes from a family of Holocaust survivors (and those did not — say my grandfather who was deported and killed as well as others who did not survive). I associate Mein Kampf with evil, but wouldn’t be able to weigh in on anything about it in particular having not read it. When I heard about Boyle’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I read it. Was it an easy reading given my family history? Not at all, but in order to comment on it I felt I had to read it in order to do so. There is plenty I cannot stomach and so I know to stay away from that material, but then I also stay away from specifically commenting on it.

      • I agree that I would not participate in a discussion about the particulars of Mein Kampf, or about specific aspects related to its content (in all honesty, I should confess that I’m having a little trouble with its having been chosen as a hypothetical.) I also understand that my experience is my own– some people DO want to read the book for all the reasons I do not. But it’s the notion that in this case I can’t judge that the book is wrong without having read it that I object to. To me, it seems self evident that I can.

        I think there’s a larger issue here, though, which is the way these conversation keep glossing over the notion of harm. Finding a book boring or repetitive and needing to slog through it to write a review isn’t the same as encountering a book that, you know, was involved in the murder of your family. Along that spectrum, what about a book that includes a scene a reader finds racist in ways that are directed against them– does that reader need to keep going in order to talk about their experience with the book? What about a reader who encounters a rape scene that describes the victim as being at fault, in ways that painfully mirror things the reader has been told about their own experiences– is that reader obligated to continue in order to talk about the scene and their reaction to it? In both cases, it’s possible that the book will provide greater context that would change the reading of those scenes. But I think the way the book did or didn’t welcome that reader at those moments is still important and meaningful. To go back to a specific example, I don’t think I needed to read the full text of For Such a Time to weigh in on the premise of an inspirational romance between a concentration camp commander and a Jewish woman, or my reaction to the opening scenes. Again, I wouldn’t be able to discuss the book in a comprehensive way, but I do feel qualified to judge those elements.

        I agree that there are issues with book critique becoming a game of telephone, and that there are without question places and discussions where a thorough reading is necessary– including ones where the full context matters. I just think there are also real concerns that keep getting lost here.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        This is my takeaway from the discussion, I think. Distinguishing between the two, when they get lumped together (by folks like myself, obviously). But talking about a scene in a book is different than talking about the book as a whole, isn’t it? Or is it not? Is a scene always indicative of the whole?

      • And I see that while I was writing this, other people responded saying similar things. Apologies.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        Hey, there is never any problem with folks stating an opinion.

    • Katherine Locke says:

      Sarah, I’m agreeing with you here, as yet another person who lost family in the Holocaust and doesn’t need to read Mein Kampf to know it’s a horrible, violent book that continues to perpetuate violence today.

      I’ve read almost every Holocaust children’s book out there, including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I think it’s worth noting how many of our bestselling and canonical Holocaust kidlit is not told from the perspective of a Jewish main character. That book, The Book Thief, Number the Stars (though written by a Jewish woman) and others center the narrative around a non-Jewish person and their feelings as bystanders. It is the Good German story told over and over again, which is undermining. We need to think critically about how we tell this story so we can truly say Never again.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        I would point out that there are lots of folks out there who adore THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS without having read it all the way through. Or they love the movie and equate it with the book. I happen to loathe that book, but I read every last page of it before I could say anything. You say you don’t need to read every book, but you do it yourself and it makes you a better critic.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      And here’s where the argument indeed breaks down. But is critiquing a book the same as critiquing the idea of the book? Which is to say, if you were to review that book, would you believe that you wouldn’t have to read it? But absolutely this is a complicated issue. Thank you!

    • I’m commenting on this quite late — so someone else might have pointed this out already. I think it is TOTALLY ok for a reader to not finish a book because she’s experiencing something traumatic or uncomfortable. And if she decides that she HAS to comment on that particular book, all she should state is how she cannot continue reading the book and thus cannot really evaluate the book for its merits or drawbacks because she has not finished the book. And then, hopefully, this reader will respect others who have read the entire books to conduct in-depth discussions — and reads/watches the debate from the sideline. What Betsy is asking is simply that in order to criticize or evaluate the WORTH of the entire literary work, one really cannot read just a small portion of it, or someone else’s comments about it, or someone else’s reactions to someone else’s comments about something that they might not have finished reading, etc. etc.

  2. Hi Betsy, New York misses you!

    I agree with a lot but not all of what you say. And I agree with Sarah. I think that this is not necessarily a “sauce-for-the-goose-is-sauce-for-the-gander” situation, because there is a power structure in this world that positions readers differently when they experience a text. You and I can read a book like Daniel Boone, which contains horrific racism towards Native people, without being on the receiving end of the blows delivered by that power structure. Sure, we might feel guilt and shame upon knowing that people who looked like us are delivering the blows, but reading that book will not re-traumatize us the way it will a Native reader.

    I guess I’d just ask you to consider that reading a book can be a really traumatic experience to someone on the “marginalized” side of the power structure, and that to draw a comparison between that and your being bored out of your mind by Eragon ignores the existence of the power structure and therefore trivializes that traumatic experience.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Good point. And I should say, I’m not saying a person has to read any book. I’m saying that if you’re reviewing a book or saying complex things about it as a whole that you should read it. I’m interested in the idea of a book as trauma. So maybe my terms are being unclear. When I say “critique” what do I mean? I’m probably being too broad by saying that you can’t say a book is good or bad without reading it (Mein Kampf again) but if you’re going to debate someone on it, it’s good to have all the info. That seems to be me saying two different things, though. So maybe I should rethink it.

    • Allie, I understand where you’re coming from and really appreciate the consideration of the power-structure in our society and especially when it comes to how we view “reading” and “readership.” However, I agree more with Betsy that we’re not asking people to finish books that they find difficult or even asking them to not mention that they find certain paragraphs or depictions make them uncomfortable/sad/angry, etc. (Believe me, I’ve had plenty of “WHAT” moments when it comes to seeing Chinese or other Asians depicted incorrectly in books and other media,) we’re only asking those who post publicly, critiquing specific books, to be more responsible and to have true and accurate information before making judgments over a particular title. I don’t believe that that is asking too much.

  3. Katherine Locke says:

    This is an extraordinarily privileged position to take. No one is ever obligated to read a book that they feel would be damaging to them due to inaccurate, poor, or violent representation or due to past historical and collective traumas.

    Your choice to use Mein Kampf is particularly telling. Your juxtaposition of Mein Kampf against Eragon is frustratingly and deliberately tone-deaf. The conversation around The Hired Girl, and other books, has been dominated by people unaffected by the improper treatment of marginalized people in that book, including yourself, instead of stepping back and making space for people who are affected to talk about the book.

    And yes, words and passages of the book have to be put in context. So does a book. A book that takes its place in a long and colorful history of conversion tales and conversion violence against Jewish people deserves critical approach, but those who are defending it, like yourself, owe it to the victims of thousands of years of conversion violence to listen and give space.

    You are part of the problem, and I wish you would step back away from the hyper-condescending think-pieces. Either let it go, or make an active attempt to listen to marginalized voices around this book, and others.

    And for G-d’s sake, don’t use Mein Kampf to prove a point. It only outs your true feelings.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Well, there is always the possibility that I can learn from my readers, is there not? I could walk around with my own opinions, refusing to take in alternate perspectives, or I could voice what I think and be corrected accordingly. You disagree with me. There are good reasons why. I like changing my mind on things, and this is a question I’ve had for a while. Perhaps I’m part of the problem as you say, but is it wrong to want to be part of the solution?

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        I should mention that Mein Kampf was an odd book to include since it’s not a children’s book and this is a children’s book discussion. You mentioned The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in a different comment which is a MUCH better example. I could go back and change the post but it would make the comments stop making sense, so I’ll keep it in. Still. Wish it had been that one.

    • I don’t think there’s any need to be uncivil. It’s clear to me that Betsy wasn’t saying everybody has to read books they don’t want to read, or that you can’t make any judgment of a book before you’ve read it (obviously, we have to make a judgment about whether or not it’s something we want to read). I believe what she is saying is that it’s not fair to a book, or other readers, to go around making public attacks on books we haven’t read…or, for that matter, to defend books we haven’t read.

      I’m incredulous that anyone could disagree with that, especially among book lovers. All opinions are NOT equal. Informed opinions are legitimate. Uninformed opinions masquerading as informed opinions are dishonest and unfair.

      • Jordan Brown says:

        I don’t think anyone disagrees with the idea that reading a book in its entirety is important to reviewing it. But to say that reading every word of a book is your only way into the conversation about something like this is troubling. On a foundational level, I’ve seen many, many, many people who have read books in their entirety and still fail to grasp their problematic aspects, so as far as a prerequisite goes, this one hardly holds up to statistical scrutiny.

        I believe the point Betsy thinks she’s making here is that “context matters”, and I agree with that. But because of this post’s position in the conversation that’s been happening for over a week now, this assertion is suspect when it’s being used to silence a number of people from marginalized groups who are all saying the same thing about the same group of passages in the same book. Your final line is quite telling: you’re absolutely right that uninformed opinions masquerading as informed opinions are dishonest and unfair, and that’s precisely what white folks are doing when we give “context, historical accuracy” as an answer to a Native American teacher who works with Native American kids who is trying to tell us that these passages are problematic.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        Well put, Jordan.

      • Katherine Locke says:

        I assume that you mean that the person who suggested we had to read Mein Kampf in order to critique it as an instrument of genocide and racial violence for the last 90 years is being uncivil, and not the Jewish person, objecting to the constant criticism this year that Jewish people must read repetitive violence and co-opting of their own stories and hurt in order to say enough is enough.

      • Jordan, I don’t want to silence anyone, but I do think that the more people who haven’t read a book speak publicly about the book, the more the actual book gets distorted in the public view. For instance, I take it from what you say above that you haven’t yet read THE HIRED GIRL. Does it make any difference to your understanding of the conversation that the criticism isn’t of a “group of passages” but of a two-line comment? Would it change your understanding to know that the book also contains other similar internal dialogue (e.g. “Father says the Irish are worthless”) which have not been part of the public discussion? Is it useful to be aware that the book’s theme is prejudice? Does it matter that a very good (and possibly in some ways problematic) book about one marginalized and mistreated group has become “about” a different group to many who haven’t, and won’t, read it?

        People have a right to read two lines excerpted from a book and then say they believe those lines should not appear in any book under any circumstance. But it seems a shame to have that replace actual, informed, contextual discussion of the book.

      • Jordan Brown says:

        You’re right, MR, I haven’t read THE HIRED GIRL, nor have I commented on it. For the record, I’m an admirer of Laura Amy Schlitz’s work in general, and I imagine that when I read this book, I will admire it as well. I’m here only to discuss the idea that there are intellectual justifications for a member of the majority to mitigate the opinions of members of a minority, particularly on matters of diversity. I have thoughts on the lines in question, but I don’t think they matter to this conversation. As for your questions: no, knowing that the controversial section is two lines (which I already knew) doesn’t change my opinion that, as a white person, I’m not going to cite “historical accuracy” as a legitimate refutation of the lived experience of a person of color. No, the fact that the book contains disparaging lines about white people that haven’t been incorporated into this conversation doesn’t change my opinion that the other lines are still worth talking about, on their own.

        As for your last paragraph, saying that it would be a shame if these conversations “replace actual, informed, contextual discussion of the book”, I can’t quite understand what you’re concerned about. The book is written by a Newbery Award winning author, and has been fantastically well-reviewed–are you honestly telling me that you believe these conversations have replaced, or could replace, the prevailing one? If so, let me set your mind at ease: here’s what happens when I search for “the hired girl” on Google, in order:

        – The Amazon page for the book (rating: 4.5 stars)
        – The Goodreads page for the book (rating: 4.2 stars)
        – The publisher’s page for the book (as you can imagine, they don’t bring this up)
        – A School Library Journal interview with the author (praise only, touches on prejudice but not in a critical manner)
        – The B&N page for the book (rating: 4.5 stars)
        – A link to the book trailer on YouTube
        – An instance of the phrase unrelated to the book
        – The book’s cover reveal (doesn’t touch on this)
        – The BookPage review for the book (Teen Top Pick, doesn’t touch on this)

        I have to get to the middle of the second page of Google searches before I find anything related to this conversation (after passing links to starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus).

        So to return to your statement: yes, perhaps, it might be a shame if this conversation actually did replace any other discussion of the book, either in this community or in the wider culture. But am I worried about that happening? Not one bit. In fact, it’s difficult for me to come up with any examples of a time that a minority opinion about a book (or any piece of media, for that matter) that the majority has deemed just fine has ever had a measurable effect on that book’s fortunes. Times when majority opinion has co-opted, mitigated, or simply destroyed work from the minority, though? Too numerous to count. So, again, I’m not entirely sure what you’re concerned about here. What damage do we do, listening to minority voices without mitigating them? What damage do we do, checking our knee-jerk reaction to defend passages that don’t bother us personally when we’re being told they might be problematic? What damage do we do, to simply listen? What damage do we do, allowing these minority opinions, shouted down time and time again, to actually exist and be heard alongside a book’s otherwise-universal praise? I honestly can’t see any damage being done to this book and its successes to have these conversations, especially if we, as intelligent, critical readers, can hold both ideas in our head at once: this book is lovely and important AND contains a troubling element or two that ought to be discussed without derailment. This book is worth reading and praising AND perpetuates unfortunate stereotypes where certain minorities are concerned. If we can achieve this state of mind, we won’t have to worry at all about one opinion replacing another. And I’d like that, because I have a guess as to which opinion is the one that eventually gets replaced.

      • MR–
        Just to clarify: I did read all of The Hired Girl, as did everyone else (that I’m aware of) participating in the discussion over at Heavy Medal. In that case and for that particular discussion, I did feel that reading the whole book was a prerequisite. And, having read the whole book and participated in the whole discussion, I can say that the objections were not only to one passage, that the lines about the Irish were discussed, and that there was also a great deal of time given to this idea that the book addresses the marginalization of one group (Jewish people) but not another (Native people.) Books may get mischaracterized, but discussions absolutely do to, and I think it’s important to go back to what’s actually been said in that case as well.

      • Thanks Jordan! I really admire and agree with what you said here, “What damage do we do, to simply listen? What damage do we do, allowing these minority opinions, shouted down time and time again, to actually exist and be heard alongside a book’s otherwise-universal praise?”

        I’ve been unpleasantly surprised at the inability to simply *listen* and *consider* the voices of people who might have something different to say because of who they are. It’s shocking.

    • YES, Katie. Yes.

  4. Completely and totally agree.

    I often feel this way when people (me included) engage in dinner conversations that begin with, “Someone told me about this NPR segment they caught the end of, and LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I THINK ABOUT THE MATTER…”

    There’s no requirement that we all have an opinion about everything. We can just listen sometimes. And if we want to weigh in, we should read the book.

    I’ve been guilty of this crime myself, of course. the web is so immediate and easy to participate in. But it’s a problem.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Betsy. One of my most dreaded phrases is, “I haven’t read the book, but…” Almost inevitably, generalized blanket statements follow, and any thoughtful discussion of the book is lost. It’s so unfair to the book, the author, and the rest of the discussion group, whether it’s online or face-to-face.

    I appreciate Sarah’s point of view, but i think Monica hits on the crucial point: if a book is too painful to read, of course don’t read it; but then refrain from commenting on that particular title.

  6. I understand why you feel that “You have to read a book to critique it.” Particularly as regards the specific issue of challenging a school or library book. In order to properly document my contempt I had to read Never Let You Go through three or four times. But that was merely a stupid book, not a painful one. There are a great many books that I abandon early on, and I do identify them as such, with “not my cuppa.”. Sometimes there’s something personally revolting: an author whose books I otherwise love starts out one with a chapter long fart joke. I just can’t make myself read it. There are many people who can’t read books because certain plot points are too meaningful to them: child abuse, animal abuse, rape, car wrecks, death by cancer, adoption. I know one guy who can’t bear to read italics. No reader owes it to the rest to reveal how very painful such a reaction may be. But no one’s empathy is perfect: no matter how hard one might be trying to be sensitive and considerate of others, all of us let a stereotype slip through. And someone needs to point out that “she’d be so pretty if she just lost weight” is horrible, and happy slaves in Gone With the Wind is horrible, and only including a disabled character if it is a plot point is horrible.

    As a professional reviewer and librarian you’re going to have a different perspective than those of us who read for ourselves and keep semi-public journals online. People who follow my reviews are looking for cute picture books and neglected classics and fun non-fiction. The rare rant about how bad I think a book is probably results in an equal number of people deciding to see if it really is that bad and others deciding to give it a miss. Which is entirely different from Debbie Reese’s audience.

    Tl;dr: “I couldn’t finish the book because REASON” is in my opinion a complete and valid critique.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I like that this is separated into two different ideas. As you point out very well, stupid books (Eragon) and offensive/traumatic ones (Daniel Boone) are not the same thing. I think some folks are seeing me saying “You have to read the book” and think that means that if the book is causing you pain you have to finish it anyway. I don’t mean that, and I should have been clearer. I mean that if you’re going to comment about the book as a whole, it’s good to read the whole thing, but you certainly don’t have to.

      • Betsy, I don’t think you didn’t make your opinions very clear. However, I wonder perhaps someone can just take one or two sentences out of context and hit you over the head with a 3000 ton hammer!

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        And it took THIS long for someone to say this? You win the cookie, Roxanne.

    • Kaethe, this veers off-topic, and I don’t disregard the fact that crises precipitate the very need for adoption, but it strikes me as problematic that you lump adoption in with themes of “child abuse, animal abuse, rape, car wrecks, death by cancer.”

      • Megan, I can see why “adoption” struck you. Most people view adoption as a social good. But a vocal minority has been pointing out for some time that socially disadvantaged women and girls are often coerced into placing their infants up for adoption and that others have had their children stolen from them. For some people an adoption plot isn’t a happy story about a lone child getting a loving family, it isn’t even neutral, it is a reminder of a personal trauma that is never forgotten, and/or a systemic attack on a minority.

        Apologies for going with the derail, Betsy.

      • (Last derail, I promise! I don’t see a way of contacting you otherwise Kaethe, or else I’d email or something.)
        I am well aware of the vocal minority you mention, and of the historical and contemporary complexities and tragedies around adoption that you highlight. I do not regard adoption as a “happy story.” I do see adoption as complex in ways that “child abuse, animal abuse, rape, car wrecks, death by cancer” are not, which is why I cited your inclusion of adoption in this list as problematic.

  7. “You have to read a book to critique it.”

    I agree with this statement. Let me explain why:

    I agree that to CRITIQUE a book, you must have read it. Meaning, you shouldn’t express opinions about the book’s content unless you are directly familiar with the book’s content.

    HOWEVER, you can of course NOT read a book, and justify that by stating what someone’s ELSE’s opinion was of that book–just don’t claim it is your opinion. Because it isn’t. Because you didn’t read the book.

    For example: I’ve heard that Eragon is terribly boring. Not: Eragon is terribly boring.

    To me, that distinction is important because we are sharing criticism in order to deepen our understanding of written works, and the only way to do that is if we understand whether the criticism is reflective of the book. Of course, no one should read books that border on abuse–because enough other people have, and we have heard and trust their opinions. But don’t espouse about what happens within the pages as though it is your own critical judgment if you haven’t read the book. Just credit the original critique, and all is good.

  8. This is a great topic, and my spring reviewing class thanks you in advance. While I discount–which is not to say dismiss–opinions offered on books not read or finished, I always have to remember how book discussion has changed with social media. The gamut of opinion, from Twitter snark about a book jacket to blogging-while-reading to personal essay to Goodreads to digitized professional reviews, is enormous and free-flowing. This is mostly a good thing. What works my nerves is people making greater claims for their opinions than their reading can support.

  9. Jordan Brown says:

    Do I think that “you have to read the book in order to critique it” is a nice ideal as far as standard literary criticism and reviewing goes? Absolutely. Do I think it serves as a viable standard for the silencing of marginalized voices in conversations about systemic racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia/ableism/etc in book publishing? Absolutely not, and that’s why your post lost me the moment it started (though I did read the entire thing). Katherine Locke has eloquently covered much of my feelings on this topic in the comments already, but I’ll add this to it: honestly, I don’t think it matters if we had been talking about THE HIRED GIRL or if we had been talking about breakfast cereal–the way in which the conversation about those passages of that book played out was depressingly typical in our society. On one hand you had people who are part of marginalized communities, who work with kids who are part of marginalized communities, saying “this is problematic, this is indicative of long-standing problems in our culture, we’ve seen this before and we know what it is”, and on the other hand you had a lot of people representing majority groups saying “context context context.” Again, the content here, to a certain extent, is irrelevant. Once again, someone drops something indicative of systemic racism into a book/conversation/whatever; people from marginalized groups, who have experienced repeated trauma because of this systemic racism, see it for what it is, while people from majority groups see it as an isolated incident with a ton of mitigating factors, whether it be “but, context” or “but, historical accuracy,” or “but, the author’s a nice person.” Can some of these things be true? Yes. Does it excuse the fact that we’re once again perpetuating a damaging cycle of coming up with reasons to silence those with personal experience in these areas? Absolutely not. This is the essence of privilege–that we white folks get to parse things like context and historical accuracy, and use them as reasons to discredit the opinions of marginalized voices.

    Once more: do I think you ought to read a book in order to give a thoughtful critique of it? Yes. But do I believe that people from a marginalized group can see instances of systemic racism in books without doing so? Absolutely, and it’s no reason to discredit them with think-pieces like this. But is that even relevant to this conversation, about the various insidious ways that we shut down and silence people? No. This idea, that someone needs to have read a book in its entirety to talk about the troubling ways in which it contributes to an already-existing culture of racism, sounds like just another hoop the majority is going to make the marginalized jump through in order to participate. That is the issue here, I think, and a point that many, many people seem to be missing.

    Finally, there is something that should be added to every conversation about this because after all this time it seems people still fail to grasp it. All together now: *We can respect and even enjoy a piece of media while still being critical of its problematic aspects.* Admitting that there is perhaps a problem with some passages of a book does not mean that the book is worthless, or that the author is a racist, or that we are racists for having read it and not had issues with it. I know it’s difficult to hold both ideas in our heads simultaneously–that we can continue to recommend a book as worth reading even as we point out and discuss places where insidious aspects of cultural prejudice slip into it–but this is imperative, and not only because these conversations are going to continue to dead-end like this until those of us in the majority can learn to do understand this.

  10. I think that your question “what do I mean by critique?” is helpful, and the right path to explore. I guess that I agree when it comes to professional reviews for journals: A professional reviewer should read the whole book before writing their professional review, for a review journal. But. But. But. I have some important caveats.

    1) I don’t think this extends to every review by every blogger. There are some bloggers out there who are upfront about their missions to evaluate books specifically for problematic content. And we mustn’t write off their responses to problematic content, even if they haven’t read the whole book. In my head, I’m envisioning a metaphorical situation where someone’s received a punch in the face that has caused him/her to step back and say “OUCH!”–I wouldn’t respond to that with “you need to finish receiving all the blows in this fight before you’re allowed to say ‘ouch’. Otherwise I will not believe that you have any right to the pain you’re feeling at this moment.”

    2) We privileged people mustn’t write off or downplay the pain people undergo when they read certain books that are re-traumatizing. And if someone from a marginalized group goes through the pain of a) forcing him/herself to read the entirety of a traumatizing book, b) reviewing it, and c) educating non-marginalized people on how exactly this book is problematic–well, we need to acknowledge that and be grateful. I’m thinking of some of the reviews on American Indians in Children’s Literature (Debbie’s information about Little House on the Prairie is really, really valuable) and Disability in Kidlit (like the one for The Fault In Our Stars), or how open Ellen Oh has been about books that romanticize depression/suicide and their traumatizing effects on her and her family. I (who has no experience with depression) need to respond to that by saying “Thank you. This was not something I understood, as a person who is privileged along this identifier. I understand that you underwent a painful experience so that I might learn something. I am listening and learning, and I will use this knowledge to be a better librarian, reader, reviewer, and person.”

    I guess my entire comment can really be boiled down to: When people say “ouch”, listen; learn to recognize gifts for what they are, and say “thank you”; and consider the possibility that books really can be traumatizing, don’t diminish or trivialize that, and learn from it.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I think that’s beautifully said and something we can all agree with.

      • Thanks, Betsy.

        Let’s all try to say those words–“this is beautifully said and something we can all agree with”–more often when we read blog posts that are people speaking up and saying “ouch, that hurt.”

    • Well said.

    • I so appreciate reading the evolution of this post as you “listen” to commenters.

      I’d add (or maybe this is just paraphrasing or reiterating what others have said) I think that some objections to your original post, Betsy, come from the idea that it silences those who feel *the most* marginalized, hurt, angered, outraged by a text. It adds insult to injury–or perhaps injury to insult. Sure, a professional reviewer needs to read the whole book…but I think that powerful, valuable critiques in other forums can arise from partial readings. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but I don’t have to drink a whole glass of spoiled milk to know it’s gone bad.

      Can refusing to finish reading a book, and sharing why (online, in class, elsewhere) be its own sort of criticism? Perhaps as a refusal to participate in or endure discourse that reinforces, rather than subverts, oppression? After all, texts don’t simply reflect culture, they create it.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        I figure if you can learn from comments then why even have them?

        This was the part of the post that I had the most difficulty clarifying and so I’d appreciate it if someone picked up this ball and ran with it. I should have spent more time trying to distinguish between a review/critique and discourse surrounding the element of the book that people want to talk about. Absolutely refusing to finish a book and then discussing that issue is great for conversation. But if you’re discussing the book as a whole, how can you do so if you haven’t read the whole thing? Ach. I still can’t quite get the words out perfectly, but I think you’ve touched on a part of it here.

  11. Sure, read the book. But can I also say that I think that authors have to be willing to take the heat!

    I was pretty disappointed by something that happened yesterday related to the book A Fine Dessert. There was a lot of discussion of the book on twitter yesterday where many, many voices of black people were upset, sad, outraged about the book. And I think those criticisms were fair, valid, and heartfelt. And when some of those people went to Sophie Blackall’s blog to leave comments—those comments that questioned her, the choices, or pointed out ways things could have been done differently—well, those comments are gone from her blog this morning. Only the supportive comments remain.

    If “read the book” becomes just another way to shut down voices we don’t agree with…that’s a problem. And if the voices of people who are different from you disagree with you— it is SO WRONG to just eliminate them completely rather than having a heartfelt moment of soul-searching about what it is they are trying to say.

    I know the internet can amplify and distort the loudest voices, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore real feedback about how books may be perceive in communities we aren’t a part of.

  12. I see critical comments on Blackall’s post now, and one post that “was removed by the author” (that would be the author of the comment, not Blackall). Were there more that went missing?

    The problem with “not reading the whole book” is that it can devolve into not reading the book at all, and then you have people arguing for or against a book based on what they saw on Twitter. This has long been a tactic among anti-progressive groups who circulate lists of books (with carefully curated quotations) to their members, who then bring these lists to local schools and libraries and ask that the books contained therein be restricted or removed. This is why it is standard policy among libraries to require a complainant to have read the whole book for her or himself.

    I also worry that by refusing to read (or finish) books intended for young readers on the basis of our own “traumatization” is a disservice to those young readers we serve, whether as authors, teachers, librarians, parents, or reviewers. Whether we choose to read a book or not, it will remain published and available to young readers. It seems like an abrogation of our responsibilities as adults to state that our own discomfort with something is enough to prevent us from fully doing our jobs.

    • All good points Roger.

      I guess I just don’t think it’s necessarily a shirking of responsibility to disengage from a text as a statement unto itself. It makes me think of Hilary Clinton’s drop-the-mic “NO” in the Dem debate: via @giphy

    • Librarians encounter people “who then bring these lists to local schools and libraries and ask that the books contained therein be restricted or removed”. But most of the reading public never does. And the vast majority of book reviews, conversations, comments, etc, are always going to come from people who *haven’t* read the book. There are what, a million books being published in English every year now? The average reader only finishes 10 books a year? It only seems reasonable to say “don’t challenge a book unless you’ve read it” until you imagine the title that makes *you* feel threatened. Intersectionality and privilege say some of us might have a hard time even imagining such a title, but some of us have already encountered a great many on required reading lists.

      If our first thought on reading a negative comment anywhere is “yeah, but did you read the *whole* book?” our second thought had better be to keep silent until we understand. We don’t have to agree, but if we can’t stop condescending long enough to acknowledge the validity of another point of view, then we aren’t serving anyone.

    • Sophie Blackall has deleted comments, as per her last comment on the post.

      • Sarah Cannon says:

        I commented on Ms. Blackall’s blog last night, just before seven p.m.. My comment was courteous and my language was appropriate, but I was not supportive of her illustrations in A FINE DESSERT. (I did read the whole thing, including the notes at the end.) While a supportive comment made at 8:30 p.m. was posted, mine was not.

  13. Mike Jung says:

    There was a time when I would have enthusiastically, wholeheartedly agreed that we can only legitimately critique books (or even selected passages of books) if we’ve read the entire book in question. I still do think that’s a valid principle within specific contexts that others have brought up here – when writing a review for inclusion in a professional journal, and so on. My feelings about that requirement as applied to readers on a global level, above and beyond that of professional reviewers, have changed over the past couple of years, however. Jordan Brown, Allie Jane Bruce, Katherine Locke and others have already articulated many of my own thoughts in a way I can’t improve upon, but eh, I’M GOING ANYWAY…

    The way that I’ve begun viewing discussions such as those about THE HIRED GIRL and A FINE DESSERT are not solely within the context of the book as a self-contained ecosystem – I believe they’re taking place on a much broader playing field. I believe more and more strongly each day that discussions of microaggressions and misrepresentations have an intense, long-standing, increasingly complex web of connection to the whole of society. When we talk about a single passage about (hypothetically speaking, yuk yuk) Native peoples in a novel, we’re not just talking about that passage, or about the book it appears in. We really are talking about the fabric of humanity on a grand scale: a multitude of personal stories of pain and grief; the history of contact, convergence, and conflict between communities and cultures; and the historical dynamics of power and privilege.

    We’re talking about a sweeping, deeply internalized culture of words and deeds that we’re immersed in from birth. We can certainly try to define those words and deeds as existing in a self-sealed vacuum, and of course many, many people do, because it’s a time-proven way of disarming objections and thereby perpetuating the behaviors. But that’s a denial of the emotional, psychological, and social reality of those words and deeds. They are interconnected; their destructive power springs from their pervasive, constantly repeated, doggedly guarded presence in all the mechanisms of our society.

    I happen to believe it’s possible to have powerful, visceral objections to a single aspect of a book and still love the book on a more holistic level. I often find these discussions to be stupefying in their complexity, and I see no reason why my feelings about a given book have to be any less complex. I can (and do) have thoughts and feelings about books that are framed within the context of THIS BOOK RIGHT HERE IN FRONT OF ME, and I imagine I’ll continue to do so. But that other frame, that other context, is always there too. That context of how a book in full, or just a select portion of it, is woven into the fabric of the society around us is always there. We seem to be having a lot of those bigger, interwoven conversations in our industry these days, and it’s important that we do. Do we have to read an entire book in order to carry out professional duties as reviewers, librarians, etc.? Maybe, probably? I find it impossible to answer that question with an unequivocal no. Do we have to read an entire book to discuss how one or more elements of that book affect us and build upon historical and contemporary patterns of behavior, perception, imbalance, or injustice? Do we have to read an entire book in order to join a discussion it’s provoked about the dynamics of power and privilege? No. That one’s easy to say no to.

  14. Thank you for removing the Hitler reference? I’ve never read it, but I don’t have to. It’s terrible because HITLER wrote it. That’s my review.

    You can have your rules for review in which you suffer through a book you don’t care for. That’s fine. But really? If the Book Riot girls decided to DNF a book because X reasons, they can still argue the reasons they stopped reading. That’s their review style.

    All you ended up doing by writing this post is offending Jewish people and friends.

    Trade journals: finish the book and review. That’s the job.

    Blogs, Booktube, goodreads, etc: no one HAS to finish a book to talk about the things that made them stop.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Yes, in retrospect mentioning the Most Evil Book in the World (not really up for debate, that one) wasn’t a great bit of planning. That said, I suspect I’ve done slightly more in writing this piece than offend my Jewish friends, but I’ll leave that to you to decide.

    • michael grant says:

      I’m Jewish (technically, my mother is) and I was not the least bit offended. I can’t even imagine why I would be.

      If Hitler says 2 +2 = 4 are we required to believe that’s false? Or can we suggest rather that ideas stand or fall on their own?

    • KT Horning says:

      Zoraida makes an important point. There is a difference (at least to me) between professional reviewing (where one MUST read the entire book, or else pass it off to another reviewer) and the kinds of reviews and comments we see on blogs, Amazon, GoodReads, etc. I tend to take most of the latter with a grain of salt — so many of these are author love letters / hatemail — UNLESS the blogger brings a particular expertise or relevant point of view to her critique that is rarely seen in mainstream review sources. For example, blogs such as American Indians in Children’s Literature or Disability in Kidlit. or Latin@s in Kid Lit all offer a level of criticism that goes beyond my own sphere of knowledge. Ideally these expert points of view would be seen more often in mainstream reviewing, too, but right now, we rely on these few bloggers to enlighten us.

  15. michael grant says:

    Got a review once, where the reviewer called me out for a passage where a male lead says to a female secondary character deep in depression and bulimia that she looked great. The implication being that he approved of her weight loss. The reviewer accused me of sexism.

    In point of fact, had the reviewer actually read the book (he or she quite clearly did not) they’d have seen that the scene was meant as an example of the male character’s cluelessness and failure to see what was happening with this female character.

    So I get denounced for making the very point the reviewer wishes I’d made and would have seen had that reviewer actually bothered to read the book.

    Yes: you have to read the book to review it. Yes: you have to give the author more than a cherry-picked quote to make his or her point. Yes: you have to have some faith in the reader.

    • Got a review where a girl thought my MC was pretentious and sexist and gross. She DNF’d my book and left a review that wasn’t so nice. There are other reviews where readers have enjoyed my MC and read the whole thing. That’s how things go, right?

      I didn’t finish 50 Shades, but I’ll talk about what I found problematic for hours. I finished lots of other books and will talk about them, too.

      We are not the people to police book discussion and conversation. Once they’re published, books belong to the reader.

      • michael grant says:

        I should probably have clarified that my example involved a professional review, not a kid with a blog. Someone who was actually paid to do a half-assed job.

      • Still feel that the readers who decide to blog/tweet/facebook message about any book are engaging in a larger web/context of the book that INVOLVES the author’s craft and intentions — especially if the intentions or craft are being attacked. So, not sure that the books, once published, only belong to the readers. I find it often in the young readers with whom I discuss books that they see what’s in THEIR own lives, as slightly triggered by a text, and insist on the “deeper” meaning hidden between the lines, while having a lot of trouble to actually sustain their views through actual textual evidences.

  16. Elizabeth Bird says:

    Hey, folks. Roger let me know that there is a way to tweak the site so that the comments are organized by date rather than by comment upon comment. Do folks have a preference? I rather like seeing the sub-conversations here, but in terms of future discussions would it be preferable to have them organized by time and date instead?

    • Mike Jung says:

      I prefer organization by date just because it makes it easier to find new comments, but I won’t start flipping over tables if it stays the way it is…

    • I prefer nesting with replies just because otherwise it will be hard to figure out which points are being discussed with subsequent comments.

  17. FYI, Don Tate has posted on Facebook his support for Blackall’s book–without, he notes, having seen it.

    • Through social media, the public is seeing things — like children’s books — that didn’t necessarily come to their attention before FB or Twitter.

      Wider visibility is a good thing. It means more opportunities for white institutions–from publishing to reviewing–to know what people of color think about books like A FINE DESSERT.

      You can insist that “you have to read the book” — but we can insist that “you have to read the world.”

      You have to look up from that book and see the people in the world outside your circles, and listen to what they are saying about books that omit and misrepresent their children and their history.

    • Roger,

      Here I am posting a comment on this blog, without having read the blog post itself — har–har–har…
      Anyway, if you reread my FB post, I was careful not to offer an opinion of Blackall’s book. 1, because I am a book creator myself, and 2, because I had not seen the book. Here’s exactly what I wrote…
      “I haven’t had an opportunity to read Sophie Blackall’s FINE DESSERT, but I’m a fan of the artist and her work, and I’m sure it’s a beautiful book.”

      I am a fan of Blackall’s body of work. I admit that. And because of that, yes, I’m sure it is a beautifully illustrated book. I did not comment on the story itself. My comments were in regards to my own work, my own books that deal with the topic of slavery, how I approach picturing the emotions (smiles, or not) of enslaved people. I kept the focus on me, intentionally.

      Do I support the book? Heck, I don’t know, I haven’t seen it. I *do* support the illustrator as an illustrator, as I know what goes into creating visuals for a book like this, the questions that goes through an illustrators head, some of the pitfalls.

  18. Betsy’s post insists that “you have to read the book.”

    For those who (MR, for example) may be assuming that people in the discussion that object to “two lines” did not read the book, two of us did. Sarah Hamburg read A HIRED GIRL and has been participating all along.

    I have, too. I have a full review of the Native content in the book here:

    I get that Betsy is not talking about that particular book, but I think it is important to note that, as others have said above, careful reading/analysis of the book is overwhelmed by the number of people who love the book and find ways to dismiss the objections. Doing that is why there has been so little change in the ways that marginalized peoples are depicted in children’s books.

    Betsy’s request that “you have to read the book” was one direction to take the discussion of THE HIRED GIRL. A different one that could make a difference in the overall depiction of marginalized peoples, is for Betsy to request that people read the criticism of those who objected. She could also ask readers to “read the world” as I suggested in an earlier comment.

  19. Don, I didn’t quote your post because it wasn’t public. Could you post it here? There was a lot of good stuff there.

  20. Roger, here is the FB post below, though I’m not sure if it is a fit for the main topic here (because I still haven’t read the post, lol!)…but since you asked:

    I haven’t had an opportunity to read Sophie Blackall’s FINE DESSERT, but I’m a fan of the artist and her work, and I’m sure it’s a beautiful book. Apparently there’s been some discussion about her portrayal of slavery, though it’s my understanding that it is not a book about slavery per se. One concern is about picturing enslaved people with smiles, and the implications thereof. The discussion had me thinking about my last few books, where I also had the challenge about portraying slavery.
    Broaching the subject of slavery can be a tricky one. In POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON, I pictured Horton on the cover with a glowing smile, although he is enslaved and not freed until later in life. On the first page of the book, I also pictured George with a (slight) smile, all the while, the text on the page reads that “George was enslaved.” That was a tough call, and I revised that spread many times. I worried about what young Horton’s expression might communicate to young readers (and reviewers) about Horton’s condition. In addition, if you flip through the book and count up his expressions, I’ve pictured Horton smiling more than any other expression. But, yes, I considered all of that.
    In the end, I had to stay true to Horton’s story, based upon solid research. Horton’s life was full of sadness, tragedy, disappointment, anger, misery. He was enslaved; it doesn’t get any worse than that. He had to perform daylong, backbreaking work that he hated, without pay. At seventeen, a lot was cast, and he was given away to another family member of his master, separated from his family. I made sure to include these sad realities in my text. But what Horton accomplished in his life in the face of miserable oppression was still inspiring to me.
    Yes, George was enslaved. However, yes, there were moments of happiness. As a toddler, he was happy while singing lively hymnals with his mother, as she tended the tobacco fields. He was also happy when he was in the presence of words — bible readings and songs sung at church, while composing poetry inside of his head, and later when he became published. Do you think that Horton did not smile as he held a copy of a printed book with his name on it as the author?
    Conversely, with THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH, I did not picture Lynch smiling until later in the story, after he was emancipated and begun to enjoy success as a free man. Does that mean he never smiled as an enslaved child? I don’t think we can say that. I think we have to remember that enslaved people were . . . people, with a whole gamut of human emotions. Even in the worst of circumstances, under the weight of terrible oppression, in the shadow of death threats, of beatings and lashings, resilient African Americans were also able to smile and laugh, as well as cry. On a personal note, some of the saddest people I know carry smiles.
    Again, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Blackall’s book. And apparently the discussion included more than smiling faces. But I totally understand and respect the challenges Blackall faced.

  21. I just wanted to second what Debbie has said. This is a general discussion about the imperative to finish books before discussing one’s opinion of them. But the context for this question comes out of the conversations regarding a specific title. While many here are considering the ways that people may gather opinions about a book from others without having read it, there is a parallel dynamic I see happening within the community where *discussions* about books are themselves successively mischaracterized and discredited. I see a lot in the above threads about “uninformed opinions” and their potential to damage a book. People also seem predominantly to be linking the concept of “uninformed opinions” to those who are actively questioning and critiquing books on the basis of their representation of members of marginalized groups, or their presentation of our collective history.

    In the case of the Hired Girl, it seems worth re-emphasizing that the majority of the active critique took place on Heavy Medal, among people who had all read the book, and who were all offering textual support for their readings. I would say that those offering critiques are often *also* informed by their own experiences– a form of information that is discounted again and again. (Or summarized out of context, or erased from comment sections, as with A Fine Dessert.) I find it disheartening to see those who work with children speaking of discounting the knowledge that comes from experience in young people’s readings as well. To me, this is part of what active marginalization is: the dominant group’s assertion that experiences and perspectives outside of its own are not real, and should not count– or that they’re the real source of harm. And, the power structures that support this. Even when people *have* read the book, there is still an operating dynamic that treats certain critiques, and in consequence certain discussions, as uninformed. I know this is true even in the difference between how I am heard, and how Debbie is. The effects of this aren’t limited to debates about children’s books among adults. Debbie has linked to the recent White House report on the status of Native children in our country’s schools. There are similar reports on what black children experience in U.S. schools. This week, we saw video of a police officer assaulting a black girl in her classroom– and even with videotaped evidence, many are still discounting that recorded experience. I agree with Debbie that the pressing problem isn’t people who haven’t finished the book, but those who repeatedly discredit the knowledge others bring to their readings: and the greater place and context this has in the world.

  22. I do have a concern regarding context. If an author writes about characters who would say or think offensive things, it creates an inauthentic piece to prevent those characters from saying or thinking offensive things. This does not mean that the author approves of these opinions or slanders. It may be that the book, as a whole, demonstrates that these opinions or slanders are terrible and can help the reader to think through the stereotypes. However, if the book is criticized for only these statements, which the author knows are incorrect and offensive, the book may not serve the greater purpose of helping to illuminate the problems created by the stereotypes. I know that there is a great resistance to using “historical accuracy” as an excuse for including offensive stereotypes in works of fiction. I think that we risk minimizing the harm caused by such stereotypes if we do not acknowledge their existence and discuss them. And we can’t acknowledge their existence and discuss them if we refuse to read books in which the offensive stereotypes appear. Or at least we can’t acknowledge their existence and discuss them as well as if we permit these books to help us in the discussion.

    • To clarify, no one should have to finish a book that is truly traumatic to that person. Outside the academic context, where students may be required to read books they dislike, no one is required to read any book. Each person should be free to state that he or she finds certain passages, written pieces, or concepts disturbing. Each person should be free to tell others why the idea or content is disturbing. It becomes a little more problematic when someone tells others they should not read the book based upon limited portions of the work, without an analysis of the entire work. The limited portions may indeed be indicative of the entire work, or the limited portions may indeed be so offensive that they overwhelm any value the book as a whole may have, but it seems that these issues cannot be resolved without a reading of at least a larger portion of the work. I am not referring to any recent discussion in particular, as it appears that many who have participated in recent discussions have read all or at least greater portions of the work.

      • Also, I believe without hesitation, that those in the culture with power should be required to read books that cause them pain. The history books in Texas need to tell us that the Civil War was about slavery. The culture in power needs to learn the history of slavery which was cruel and savage, needs to learn of the genocide of Native peoples, and needs to understand the residual effects of racism. Those who were and are the victims of slavery, genocide and racism may also benefit from knowing that works that examine these issues exist. It should be up to each individual to decide whether it is too painful to read a fictionalized account of such events and issues.

  23. Sarah, since I sensed that parts of your last comment addressed my example of working with young people and expecting them to be able to support their literary responses via the text itself, I feel compelled to respond.

    First off, I have to admit that as a Taiwnese Chinese who grew up as part of the dominant culture and who came to the US to study literature from a fairly dominant lens, I have only recently started to question many of my long-held views, about literature and about the society at large, which can be very rich and very limited at the same time. So, I am still very much learning.

    I want to clarify that I do know how important it is to create safe and encouraging spaces for young people to express themselves and to grapple with tough issues. I’d rather not be viewed as discounting young people’s experiences or be the cause of your dispair. I don’t know you or what you do, but I want you to know that I do work with young people from ages 9 and up. And yes. I am highly aware of the struggles and tribulations each child faces on a daily basis. Some of those 9 year olds are now grown ups who still keep in touch and continue to consider complex issues with me when we can. (Often thanks to social media.)

    I am also highly concerned with helping children to obtain and hone the tools to deal with life’s many difficulties. One of these tools is the ability to make sense through rigorous examinations of evidence and reasoning based on multifaceted considerations. I want to not only acknowledge and validate their feelings but also to draw out deeper thinking and consideration of the large context of the world in the book and their own world. I want to help them find ways to be resilient and to heal and to grow up healthily: in their hearts and their minds (and in their bodies as well.)

    So what I have learned from both this post and the comments here and from the Heavy Medal discussion over The Hired Girl is how I simply can’t presume that everyone would see the same issues the same way I do. And all these comments made me face what I hold truly dear in my mind: that young people have to be respected for their intellectual and emotional abilities to tackle and grapple with really tough issues and I have to continue support them and give them opportunities in a secure environment to express themselves. And I must continue to embrace divergent ideas that came from different backgrounds as a way to expand my own world.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Roxanne. I should say that I was speaking more generally, and not personally, but I can see how it read that way. I appreciate your thoughts on working with children (I do work with kids, too, but not in a classroom.) I think what I was trying to get at– and maybe this is what you’re getting at too– is the way that experience operates as a hugely significant piece of how *all* of us read, adults and children alike, but that some people’s experiences get positioned as fact based, and some as missing the facts. And that this disparity is related to power. (I certainly include myself here, in all respects.) I agree that awareness of how our experiences inform our readings is crucial– and this is one of the major themes of these discussions. My concern is that I often hear an acceptance of dominant readings as being “neutral” or somehow devoid of the influence of experience, and a parallel characterization of readings influenced by knowledge drawn from experiences of marginalization as being limited, or lacking all of the information. And, that this dynamic is evident not only in discussions about books, but in every aspect of the world we, including children, inhabit– and the assumptions behind it do damage.

      • michael grant says:

        “My concern is that I often hear an acceptance of dominant readings as being “neutral” or somehow devoid of the influence of experience, and a parallel characterization of readings influenced by knowledge drawn from experiences of marginalization as being limited, or lacking all of the information.”

        Very true. That’s about untested assumptions, presuppositions. Which is why I’d like to see some basics of philosophy taught in schools. I’d love to see more emphasis on epistemology, on logic, on analysis, the nature of truth and so on. But with philosophy comes doubt and I’m not sure school boards are excited about teaching kids to doubt. In fact I’d say the odds of philosophy making it onto middle school curricula is about the same as the odds of Rand Paul being elected president.

  24. I realized the use of “residual” was incorrect. I meant the continued and current racism which is based in our history.

  25. michael grant says:

    What Lee said, mostly.

    If you want kids to know about the past they are going to see some very disturbing things. They’re going to meet disturbing people. But you cannot teach about hate without showing hate. If I were writing, say, a death camp guard during the Holocaust, he would be a despicable creature. But I would also try to humanize him just a bit. Why? Because we learned at Nuremberg that evil is not the property of one-dimensional comic book villains. If evil did us the favor of wearing a fright mask, slavering and waving a machete, it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s the ubiquity of evil, its subtlety, its capacity to convince or at least disarm otherwise decent people, that’s the danger of evil.

    But to be able to make that point the writer needs some room, some space. Let’s talk Hitler. The man liked dogs and was so tender-hearted he was a vegetarian. If I write that in a book, it’s to make the point that evil is not Freddy Krueger, evil is a lout who weeps over puppies and murders children in front of their parents. Nuance does not detract from the effort to portray evil, on the contrary, nuance reveals the immediacy and reality of the threat .

    If I write a nuanced and (hopefully) effective portrayal of evil, the person who cherry-picks one paragraph and starts yelling about how Michael Grant thinks Hitler is a nice guy, is actually obstructing an effort whose goal they presumably agree with: teaching readers that Hitler was a bad person. It’s a form of literary trolling, drawing attention away from the book to the individual’s own agenda which may be admirable, but may just be, Look at me!

    If a book disturbs you, stop reading. My daughter is adopted and has (justifiable) issues with abandonment and found my own Gone, with its sudden disappearance of adults, to be too much. I have zero objection to that. But if she went online and denounced the book, yeah, that would be wrong. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. But if you want to position yourself as a critic the very least you owe your readers and the author is to read the book. It’s data first, then analysis.

  26. Michael Grant, I agree and would like to emphasize that it is necessary to teach about injustice and about injustices of the past.

    We have much discussion of white privilege these days. I believe that it exists and I believe that it is incumbent upon us all to acknowledge it and work toward equality and justice. We cannot do this if we refuse to read or write about the injustices of the past, or of the present. When we read and write about these, we, by necessity, will read and write about ugly speech, ugly stereotypes, and ugly actions. Already white people take the position that they personally have done nothing to create the privilege they are accused of having; therefore, there is not reason for change. We cannot expect people to understand systemic racism and inequality if we don’t discuss the past and the hateful speech and actions of the past. Otherwise, we end up in a place where racism exists, but most people are too polite to say it out loud, so we presume racism does not exist. This is the “I don’t see racism, so it must not be a problem” discussion. If we do not talk about the past, we will not work to diminish or eliminate inequality and injustice.

    • michael grant says:

      One of the events I write about in a series I have coming out is the Tulsa race riot of 1921. People unfamiliar with the reference might be inclined to see ‘race riot’ and get quite the wrong idea. It was in fact a massive, sustained and brutal attack on the Greenwood district, often referred to as the Black Wall Street. 10,000 people driven from their homes, hundreds dead, the neighborhood left looking like Berlin in 1945. I’ll just drop this one paragraph from Wikipedia to give some flavor:

      “Numerous witness accounts described airplanes carrying white assailants, who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. The planes, six biplane two-seater trainers left over from World War I, were dispatched from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field outside Tulsa. Law enforcement officials later stated the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect against a “Negro uprising”. Eyewitness accounts and testimony from the survivors maintained that on the morning of June 1, the planes dropped incendiary bombs and fired rifles at black residents on the ground.”

      That is to say, police were in planes dropping Molotov cocktails on fleeing black civilians. 50 years after the Civil War. We talk about Jim Crow, we talk about ‘strange fruit,’ but this wasn’t grinding humiliation, or even murder by a handful of rednecks in sheets, this was like something out of Syria.

      At that point Benjamin Davis Jr. would have been about 10, probably living in the DC area. Davis was the son of the army’s first black general and followed in his father’s footsteps. Young Davis (later, general Davis) was ostracized throughout his time at West Point – no other cadet would speak to him except in the course of duty. Nevertheless, he graduates and sets about pushing to allow black soldiers to fly. He founds the Tuskegee Airmen, who go on to fly against the Luftwaffe. The Tuskegee story is pretty well-known, but I think you get a better understanding of just how [expletive preemptively deleted] amazing Davis was, when you understand that he would have grown up knowing that he lived in a country where cops could firebomb black people with absolute impunity. (Modern day echoes? Yep.)

      To know that about your own country, to know that every white face at West Point was turned away from you, to nevertheless persevere, to actually fight for the right to fight against the white supremacist Germans while serving in an overtly and unmistakably racist American army… It’s hard to get your head around that kind of courage.

      Setting Davis in the context of his time and talking openly about the worst of it, the horror of it, that may be hard for some people to read, but you can’t really understand the courage and the patriotism unless you understand the context. And to understand the context you have to go not just to the events but to the emotion, to the hurt. You have to show the evil for a reader to understand just what had to be overcome. There will be pain.

      To rather pretentiously drop in a Bertrand Russell quote, ahem: “When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, providing privacy and solitude for them, and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.”

      And to toss another quote in there, this from James Baldwin: ‘People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.’

      We have to trust readers and we have to tell them the truth to the best of our limited abilities. Whether they like it or not, readers are living with the sequelae of history, they should be told the backstory.

      And, um, sorry to go on so long and for sounding like I’m the spokesperson for History Teachers of America. (So not.)


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