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Kirkus Changes Review After 'American Heart' Draws Outrage As 'White Savior Narrative'


Navigating the world of young adult literature is becoming a fraught adventure. The latest skirmish started when critics of the yet to be published novel "American Heart" took to Twitter to denounce the book for cultural insensitivity. And then, the influential Kirkus Reviews got involved. NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Laura Moriarty got a starred review in Kirkus for her novel "American Heart," she was happy a critic liked her work and pleased because a good review in Kirkus can help sell books. So when Kirkus later changed the review and, in a rare move, took away her star, Moriarty says...

LAURA MORIARTY: I was stunned. I couldn't believe it happened. I'd never heard of a reviewer doing that.

NEARY: Kirkus' decision to remove the star came after the Twitterverse and Good Reads website exploded with sometimes vitriolic anger at Moriarty's book. The novel is set in a future where Muslims are sent to detention camps in Nevada. In a deliberate homage to Huckleberry Finn, Moriarty's narrator is a 15-year-old white girl who has to overcome her own prejudice to help a Muslim woman named Sadaf escape. Moriarty's critics said she had created an offensive white savior narrative.

MORIARTY: That's why I lost the star. And I want to mention what's obvious here is if I would've written Sadaf's voice, I would've been protested for that. I mean, I'm sure of it. I would've been appropriating a Muslim voice. And so there's really no way to win here. And so what they're telling me is you are not allowed to write the story.

NEARY: Moriarty believes there is no question that Kirkus caved in to the critics. Kirkus Editor-in-Chief Clayton Smith says that's not the case but acknowledges he was aware of the online furor.

CLAYTON SMITH: We were listening to what was going on. And when something is brought to your attention, you have an obligation as a journalist to pay attention to that.

NEARY: All Kirkus reviewers are anonymous. But Smith says a Muslim woman with expertise in young adult fiction was assigned to the book and agreed to take a second look at her own review.

SMITH: She rewrote the review. And when she brought up this deeper context that the novel is told exclusively through the filter of a white protagonist about a Muslim character, we added that to the review and we removed the star and published this revised review.

NEARY: Smith stands by his decision, though he says it has not satisfied the critics of the book or of the original Kirkus review. And he's frustrated that some of these critics have not even read the book.

SMITH: You sort of want to raise up your hand and say, well, wait a second (laughter).

NEARY: Go read the book?

SMITH: Go read the book (laughter).

NEARY: YA novelist Justina Ireland has read "American Heart."

JUSTINA IRELAND: It's just a bad book.

NEARY: Ireland is concerned that as publishing attempts to diversify books for kids and young adults, it is ignoring the very people who should be at the center of that effort.

IRELAND: People of color are tired. I think people of marginalized backgrounds are just tired of having our stories told in such a poor manner and then people getting mad when we critique it. I don't think white writers know what they're signing up for because, I'll tell you what, it's hard enough to tell our own stories having lived with those experiences, you know, it's exhausting to be told - you're important; your voice matters - and then be discredited at every single turn.

NEARY: Laura Moriarty says the takeaway for white writers is don't even try to write about people who are different from you.

MORIARTY: Well, that's exactly the environment that is being created right now. And Kirkus just really, really pushed things even farther in that direction.

NEARY: But says Justina Ireland, if you really wanted to write about a diverse world, you need to be in it for the long haul.

IRELAND: If your good intentions fall short of the reality the first time and that just kind of puts you off the sauce, then why were you here in the first place? I mean, if I'm trying to run a marathon, I'm not going to stop because I had one bad run day. It's a lifetime.

NEARY: And when asked if white writers should just not write about people of color, Ireland says, I would love it if they got it right for a change.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.