Pulling ‘Blood Heir’ Before Publication Just Might be OK
Amélie Wen Zhao’s publishing story is all about your lens.
For some, the debut young-adult author’s fantasy novel Blood Heir, slated for a June release before Zhao pulled it last week, fell victim to overzealous political correctness and censorship. “Heir” was targeted, they say, by inaccurate claims of racism.
For others, including some high-profile authors of color, “Heir” was flawed from the get-go, with unacceptably racist passages. They maintain Zhao made the correct choice to withdraw the book in response industry critics, who included the co-founder of the We Need Diverse Books organization.
I’ve been reviewing children’s and young-adult books for more than a decade now, and I think Zhao made the right call. The dust storm of controversy, parsing individual passages, misses the point.
This isn’t about whether Zhao intended to write a racist book. Nor is it about whether I, other white reviewers, or the still overwhelmingly white publishing industry think she wrote a racist book.
Fellow authors of color, who’ve made it their mission to ensure that young people read diverse and inclusive books, called Zhao out for her storylines. They work to flout commonly-held views, calcified by privilege. They have a perspective that most in the industry don’t have.
These aren’t random readers. Nor do they cast themselves as unimpeachable: one of the most vocal critics of “Heir,” author L.L. McKinney, acknowledged on Twitter that she asks others to read her work to ensure she’s not unwittingly including homophobic tropes.
The vitriol doled out to McKinney and WNDB’s Ellen Oh in the aftermath of their criticism is particularly shocking even by Twitter standards. Both locked down their accounts after receiving threats like the one sent to Oh that called her “slanty-eyed” and compared her to female genitalia.
The industry has changed
Criticism isn’t banning. It doesn’t mean any hint of controversy gets erased. It means that we listen when these authors raise an issue, in part because we may not be able to see it for ourselves. If the industry were capable of doing this on its own, there wouldn’t be a need for a We Need Diverse Books movement.
Zhao’s publisher didn’t pull “Heir.” Zhao did, issuing an apology to readers. She retains her three-book contract with Delacorte Press/Random House, which has been open in saying they’ll continue to work with her.
When I first started reviewing kids’ books, I did things I don’t do today. I referred to certain titles as “perfect for boys/girls,” perpetuating the idea that boys (or girls) won’t read books about girls (or boys). I failed to look for the “bury your gays” trope. And I paid little attention to whether I was including authors of color when I did blurb-y roundups for summer reading or holiday gift-giving.
None of this was intentional. But once I knew better, I changed the way I approached these reviews. Good intent doesn’t excuse harmful impact.
McKinney, Oh, and others called out the unwitting impact of Zhao’s words. Rather than turning on them, we should pay attention.