Sensitivity Readers: What We Do, What to Expect, and How to Work With Us by Yamile Mendez
Since 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCCB) has been documenting the number of books written by African American authors in relation to the total books published in a certain year. Since then, it expanded its research into the number of books written by people of color and First/Native nations authors. In 2015, this heart-breaking graphic depicting the CCCB’s statistics went viral. As the saying goes, a picture says more than 1000 words, and this picture summarized the non-inclusive state of kidlit publishing:
Since then, the numbers of books depicting “diverse” characters have increased, but not the numbers of books written by people of color or Native/First Nations. The numbers show that oftentimes, when there is a child from a traditionally marginalized community portrayed in a story, chances are the author wrote outside of their identity.
Why Sensitivity Readers?
Now, let’s be honest, authors write outside of their identity all the time. I’ve never been a soccer player or a ballerina, but my characters are soccer players and ballerinas. However, I’ve always made sure I asked beta readers with backgrounds in these activities or identities outside of mine to make sure I was being true to the story, that it was accurate and that I didn’t dip into harmful stereotypes.
Even before I knew about “sensitivity readers,” I was looking for the expertise of specialized beta readers to improve my stories.
While the term “sensitivity reader” was recently coined by author Justina Ireland, writers and publishers have been using their services for years. In fact, Stacy Whitman states in the Lee and Low blog that their publisher has been hiring the services of specialized readers for over twenty-five years to make sure the representation of characters outside the author’s identity are correctly depicted. Justina Ireland compiled the database WRITING IN THE MARGINS that connects sensitivity readers with authors. The readers are labeled by areas of expertise and their reading fee.
Because doing sensitivity readings is such an emotionally, and time demanding job, the reader needs to be compensated. Most readings start at $250, and they vary according to the level of input expected from the reader. Many times, I’ve swapped critiques with other author friends.
I’ve been doing sensitivity readings informally for years, but I’ve been on the Writing in the Margins database since late 2016. Since then, I’ve done dozens of consultations for writers at the beginning of their careers, New York Times best-sellers, and publishing houses. The work is emotionally draining and time consuming (as I’m reading deeply to understand the writer’s intent and how it translates to the page), but I love contributing to the process in bringing to the world the best story the author envisions.
Getting Started with A Sensitivity Reader
Usually clients find me through the Writing in the Margins database, or through word of mouth. Many of my clients are referrals. After they contact me with a brief description of their story, I send them a copy of my industry-standard contract, which states the reading fee, the reading timeline, and what the author can expect from my critique.
Author beware of a sensitivity reader who doesn’t state a deadline for you to get your critique back! Payment is usually sent through paypal or Venmo when the reader commits to the consultation.
Because of my background in Latin American studies, I focus on the accuracy of character development and setting, including history. It’s important for the author to realize that identity goes deeper than language, culture, and skin color. Sadly, many times an author will resort to yellow/brown/black painting a character without regard for the history of their country of origin or the situation in the story setting. A character of Latinx heritage from the Caribbean has a completely different culture from one that hails from South America. When the author resorts to harmful stereotypes seen in media, including books, it shows. In these cases, the person who loses the most is the reader. Harmful representation, even when unintentional, especially when it’s unintentional, affects the child who is either looking for themselves in a story, or the child looking at their neighbor through the window the story has opened.
What to Expect From A Sensitivity Reader
When I do consultations, I make marginal comments with my initial reactions to the manuscript. I also include a detailed letter, explaining my comments and if needed, delving deeper into my feedback. I devote a two-week reading period for each project, sometimes longer depending on the length of the manuscript. After I send my letter to the author, I ask that they take a day or two to let the comments sink in before they come back with questions. Different sensitivity readers have different policies for follow-up consultations. Usually, the follow-up email response or phone call takes less than an hour. If I need to re-read extensive sections of the manuscript after revision, there will be a separate fee.
Collaboration Between Writer and Sensitivity Reader
My comments are never meant to override the author’s voice or censor their story. I do make sure their foreign language is spelled correctly, or that I flag stereotypes or harmful tropes. In many instances, when the manuscript has already been under contract, I’ve been asked if my name could be included in acknowledgements as part of the consultation team. I’m always honored to say yes when I had the chance to see the revised version of the manuscript, but an author shouldn’t expect the sensitivity reader to agree. Make sure you ask your reader first, as you would with any other reader.
I was thrilled to see that super-star Sandra Cisneros thanked her “cultural readers” in her book Woman Hollering Creek, and that even though Andy Weir didn’t have access to an astronaut who’d been stuck in Mars and grew potatoes to survive, he had the input of several “readers” to make sure his science and numbers were accurate enough for his novel The Martian to be believable.
I’ve been at both sides of the “sensitivity reader” experience. I’ve been immensely blessed by the generous, honest feedback that makes my stories better. Even when I feel the reader didn’t understand my story, or that a particular piece of feedback isn’t’ relevant to my project, I always consider every piece of critique because in every instance, it’s opened my eyes to aspects of my story I hadn’t seen before.
Writing books is always a collaborative endeavor, and a sensitivity reader is just another tool in the writers’ box that can take our stories to the next level.
Yamile (pronounced sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is a 2017 Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA grad, a 2014 New Visions Award Honor Winner, and a 2015 Walter Dean Myers Inaugural Grant recipient. Her novel THE REEL WISH is a Utah Arts Council 2016 honor. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, she now lives in Alpine, Utah with her husband, five children, and three dogs. Connect with her at @YamileSMendez or yamilesmendez.com.