Here I learned another important, if obvious, lesson: You cannot please everyone. The only thing I could do was to listen to the critiques, heed my own instincts, and write the best book I could. There was no forced compliance, just me and my manuscript and a second chance.
While I chose to embrace the criticisms I received, and to rewrite my book, many authors choose to do otherwise, and that is their prerogative. Either way, a Twitter pile-on of the sort I experienced is not the appropriate way for criticism to be delivered. The hateful messages, the maligning of my character in tweets and articles across the internet, an organized campaign to find, attack and harass online anyone who had ever given my book a good review: None of this is acceptable. Authors, bloggers, readers, editors — these are real people, and this kind of behavior can have devastating consequences not only professionally but psychologically.
Twitter callout culture is a shameful stain on the young adult book community, and yet these incidents happen again and again, typically before a book is even published. And here’s what makes the least sense of all: I’m fairly certain that we all want the same things. We all want great books, breathtaking storytelling, characters we can love and hate and mourn, themes that make us think and reconsider aspects of the world as we know it. Stories that are diverse and inclusive, so they might be enjoyed by all.
So how do we get there? How can we leave this prepublication callout culture behind and move toward establishing more productive, thoughtful and important conversations between authors and critics? I don’t have the answer, but I am hopeful that we can reach a solution.
Keira Drake is the author of “The Continent.”
Two years ago, a children’s book I wrote about the making of the atom bomb was criticized on social media. I was accused of erasing and misrepresenting Native Americans, a crime I did not commit but of which I was nonetheless found guilty in the online court in which I was charged and sentenced. My book, “The Secret Project,” which was published to glowing early reviews, is a 32-page, 600-word picture book; the critics were upset that on one of those pages I referred to a Hopi katsina doll carver rather than someone from a pueblo geographically closer to Los Alamos. Moreover, I had “erased” indigenous history by implying that there were no Native Americans in the region surrounding Los Alamos. (The first words of the book, on a page showing a desert vista, were “In the beginning, there was just a peaceful desert mountain landscape.”)
After these reviews appeared, along with one on Goodreads that no one seems to have fact-checked citing historical “errors and omissions” in my book, one journal amended its starred review with a new assessment stating that the controversy surrounding my book effectively put it out of contention for a Caldecott Medal, the prestigious award for illustration. (The images in my book were drawn by Jeanette Winter, a professional children’s book illustrator who happens to be my mother.)
I’ve had a lot of time to think about my experience, and a lot of time to ponder the best response to social media “critics.” Many of those who attack a book or an author are not professional book reviewers — some admit that they haven’t seen the book that offends them. Four years ago, internet critics attacked another children’s book on the grounds that it was racist. That book, “A Fine Dessert,” contained images of smiling slaves (something that, for the record, I’m no fan of). The author of “A Fine Dessert,” Emily Jenkins, offered an apology and donated her advance to a nonprofit called “We Need Diverse Books.” However, the illustrator of “A Fine Dessert,” Sophie Blackall, defended the book, writing on her blog: “I cannot ensure my images will be read the way I intended, I can only approach each illustration with as much research, thoughtfulness, empathy and imagination as I can muster.” Evidently, her career as an illustrator (and author) has not suffered. One year after “A Fine Dessert” appeared, she won a Caldecott for a different book. And this year she won another.