Reviewer’s Assumptions about Audience

By Kathy Short, Director of Worlds of Words

mainstream audience for reviewsHaving written book reviews for various publications, I am aware of the difficulty of succinctly conveying a summary of the text, description of the illustrations, discussion of themes, and evaluation of the book in a few sentences. Many book reviews are one short paragraph, providing little space to convey much of a sense of the book. My conversations with other educators over the past several months have led me to wonder about the unwritten rules for writing these reviews that have developed out of a need to be so brief. I wonder if we have fallen into some practices as reviewers that send unintended messages to the mainstream audience for reviews.

Yoo Kyung Sung is writing her dissertation on a postcolonial analysis of picture books published in the U.S. that focus on Korean-American protagonists. Part of her analysis included reading and analyzing the reviews of these books. She found that none of them evaluated the cultural authenticity of the books or raised questions about authenticity or accuracy, even though there were some serious problems in most of the books. Reviewers seemed to accept that the books were authentic, particularly if written by a Korean American; a stance that is understandable since none of the reviewers were cultural insiders.

What I find particularly interesting is that Yoo Kyung found that the reviewers assumed a particular audience and intention. They assumed a non-Korean-American audience as readers of the book and so focused on the ways in which the book could build multicultural awareness for a broad mainstream audience for reviews. They particularly highlighted themes that are shared across cultures, such as adjusting to a new school or dealing with a bully. On one hand, this decision makes sense because this type of review would persuade a larger group of librarians or teachers to purchase the book. Also, Yoo Kyung points out that these reviews could reflect the audience that the authors of the books had in mind — that even when the authors are insiders, they are writing to a broad mainstream audience for reviews rather than to Korean-American children. Clearly, there are major market implications and publishers would want to reach this broader market.

On the other hand, this constant focus on speaking to a mainstream audience is a matter of concern. Rudine Sims Bishop argues that authors of color who write for children within their own culture often write to enhance children’s self-concept, challenge existing stereotypes, and pass on the central values and stories of their culture to their children. Authors writing outside their culture for a broader audience often intend to build awareness of cultural differences and improve intercultural relationships. Both intentions are significant, but they result in different stories for different audiences. By always focusing on multicultural awareness within reviews, the needs of children from within a culture and these differing intentions are overlooked. Reviews that only focus on cross-cultural connections may also unintentionally devalue the needs of readers within a culture.

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10 thoughts on “Reviewer’s Assumptions about Audience

  1. Thought you may be interested in this relevant message from PaperTigers:

    This year PaperTigers.org will be recognizing, for the first time, a special set of books that embody our mission to promote cross-cultural understanding, and it would be great if you could help us by suggesting 3 to 6 of your favorites to be considered for the set that will receive the “Spirit of Paper Tigers” seal.

    This seal will signal the quality of the books – books that “stand out”. What is really special, however, is that these outstanding books will then be distributed to those who otherwise would not have access to them.

    Our aim is straightforward: we aim to select a set of 6 books – 3 of them from the younger picture book range and 3 from the middle-reader range – that we will send to schools, local libraries etc in areas of need in different parts of the world. We will also talk about these six books in our December issue of PaperTigers and on our blog.

    Here are our criteria:

    – Books that reflect the multicultural or cross-cultural focus of PaperTigers, i.e. books that promote knowledge of “the other”, books that encourage empathy and understanding

    – Books that kids enjoy reading!

    – Books in English, or bilingual with English as one of the languages

    – Books in the picture book and middle-reader range, roughly 4 to12 years

    – Books that, in this first year and for practical reasons, were published in the United States and/or Canada between the beginning of June, 2008, and the end of June, 2009.

    At this stage our Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set project is a modest one, but we are excited about it. We hope to build it up into something bigger in the future. We also hope that, in the schools or libraries that receive the sets of books, arrangements will be put in place for the children themselves to choose – from within the set – their favorite picture book or their favorite middle-reader book. We would then present the choices made by the young readers on our site and blog.

    Your suggestions, along with those of others who have strong interest in books for young readers, will help us have a better picture of what is out there. So, over to you, now: if you could possibly send me your favorites by July 1, that would be a great help.

  2. Salina Wilson says:

    I see both ends of the argument. I understand why an author would write a book for a wider audience, but I also understand the importance of writing for the culture of the writer’s background. The reviewers of these books need to differentiate the two alternatives so that the reader understands the purpose and audience of the book. This, among other thingsk,will help teachers to plan thier lessons. Reviewers have a large responsibility which I’m afraid many have not realized, and Dr. Sung points out.

  3. Theresa says:

    Both sides of the spectrum are important, but it equally important, I am learning, that we select books with care and hopefully knowledge of the message we want to convey to our students. Either point, the bottom line is that quality writing that is accurate and authentic is first and foremost.

  4. Rae Etta Zuniga says:

    These are all interesting and important points to keep in mind as we examine children’s literature with a cultural lens. Too often, we just pick up a book to read to children that has some sort of cultural theme and never truly consider the hidden implications or the author’s intended purpose or audience. I appreciate the awareness I am developing as a teacher of students who have many cultural backgrounds as I more closely examine the books I chose to share with those students. I’m learning to critically look at the authenticity and accuracy of the story as well as the author’s background and intended purpose for writing the story. I will no longer just assume the book is appropriate because it was on the shelf!

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I have definitely seen the need to choose books that are respectfully written about cultures. Authors need to make sure that they complete their research and write their stories in a respectful way as to not offend anyone. As a teacher, I also see the need to read books and make sure that are appropriate for my audience and provide opportunities for my students to research cultures to see if the author is being respectful within the text.

  6. Carilyn Cash says:

    As many others have already said, both sides of the argument are valuable. All cultures should have books written about them so that the cultures can be shared with others and passed down from generation to generation, however, the authors who write these books need to make sure that they are portraying the culture they are writing about correctly. Teachers believe that authors and publishers have done the research needed to make the books authentic and use these books to supplement or sometimes even guide lessons. Reviewers also need to be responsible for judging the authenticity of these books, and for that to happen, reviewers need to know and understand the culture of the book that they are reviewing!

  7. tabitha kline says:

    Writers should be responsible for cultural authenticity. Publishers should check the authenticty. Teachers need to be aware of this issue and choose books accordingly.

  8. Annette Fiedler says:

    I do agree with your thoughts ladies. All the information that I have learned this semester about cultural authenticity has been intriguing. I am now more aware of text, as well as visual images that conveys cultures. I am now aware of how to choose books more accordingly for the cultural aspect of children’s literature. Teachers read reviews on books in order to implement them into the classroom, this is where cultural authenticity and accuracy in reviewing must be focused towards. The reviews that I have read thus far this semester have proved either very vague to very imformational. This is also true for authors of all multicultural children’s literature.

  9. Alicia M. Fagan says:

    In my effort to provide my students with an opportunity to to see the world from others perspectives, I am afraid that I have introduced books to my students that have not been culturally authentic. I have relied on reviews not ever taking into consideration the background of the writer, and not thinking about the marketability of the book vs. the authenticity. There is no clear solutions or easy way to meet all the needs of readers. I think that as educators we need to take some responsibility in researching what we are presenting to our students and deciding if it is accurate and meets our students needs.

  10. Genny O'Herron says:

    Who is the “we,” who is the “them?” I appreciate being challenged in my dominant-white-paradigm thinking that unconsciously assumes that books, reviews, etc. are written with mainstream-me as audience. These kinds of assumptions are subtle and it is good to examine this basic question more thoughtfully: who does the writing for whom–who’s story is told??? It’s the kind of critical thinking that I try to spark in my students–this blog gives me another avenue to be more conscious myself.

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