This essay was originally an evaluation of a controversy that I had to write for my publishing class at university. Because it is important and a big issue within the YA community at the moment, I thought I would post my essay on my blog. This was only a 2000 word essay for class, but I have added a little more information for this post, as well as pictures, etc. (So you don’t feel like you’re reading an essay) 😀
Please keep in mind that I have not read The Continent (or the other books I make reference to). I wanted to, but all ARCs of The Continent have been removed because the publishing company is currently working with the author to rewrite the novel and fix the issues that have been voraciously discussed by the book blogging community, as well as by other authors. (As of just now, I have been approved for a review copy of The Black Witch from Netgalley. I am very excited to read it and see if my experience relates to the reviewers I have quoted.) All of the information I have gathered is referenced and was sourced from reviewers who HAVE read the book (unless stated otherwise), as well as experts in the field, such as authors and scholars.
I will state that I am white, and do not pretend to understand what it is like to have one’s culture represented in the manner I discuss. I am not an expert on racial discourse and hope I don’t come across like I think I am either. This is simply an essay I had to write for university about representation in the publishing industry and the power of bloggers and reviewers.
Please read the whole essay before commenting (or try to – it’s long). I look forward to discussing it with everyone! 😀
Racism in YA and the Power of Bloggers and Reviewers
On November 7 2016, Harlequin TEEN announced that they would be postponing the publication of a debut Young Adult (YA) novel titled The Continent, due to an unprecedented amount of negative feedback in relation to the novel’s representation of racial stereotypes.
The feedback was sourced from Advance Reading Copies (ARCs), which led to an immense online discussion about the harmful representations of race within YA novels. The discussion sparked a boycott of the novel and an online petition calling for the delayed publication of The Continent ‘from its January 2017 release for additional editorial work focused on the troubling portrayals within of people of color [sic] and native backgrounds’. The petition was ultimately successful as Harlequin TEEN tweeted that they ‘have listened to the criticism and feedback and are working with the author to address the issues that have been raised’. While the use of racist tropes within a YA novel is, even today, unfortunately a common occurrence, the significance of this controversy cannot be ignored as it highlights the power that bloggers and reviewers have in their ability to influence a publishing company and force them to make a change.
‘For her sixteenth birthday, Vaela Sun receives the most coveted gift in all the Spire—a trip to the Continent. It seems an unlikely destination for a holiday: a cold, desolate land where two “uncivilized” nations remain perpetually locked in combat. Most citizens lucky enough to tour the Continent do so to observe the spectacle and violence of battle, a thing long vanished in the peaceful realm of the Spire. For Vaela, the war holds little interest. As a smart and talented apprentice cartographer—and a descendent of the Aven’ei herself—the journey is a dream come true: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve upon the maps she’s drawn of this vast, frozen land.
But Vaela’s dream all too quickly turns into a nightmare as the journey brings her face-to-face with the brutal reality of a war she’s only read about. Observing from the safety of a heli-plane, Vaela is forever changed by the sight of the bloody battle being waged far beneath her. And when a tragic accident leaves her stranded on the Continent, Vaela finds herself much closer to danger than she’d ever imagined—and with an entirely new perspective as to what war truly means. Starving, alone, and lost in the middle of a war zone, Vaela must try to find a way home—but first, she must survive.’
The Continent by Keira Drake follows Vaela Sun who, for her sixteenth birthday, is gifted a trip to the Continent. When her plane crashes on the way there, Vaela is the sole survivor and must navigate the ‘cold, desolate land where two ‘uncivilized’ [sic] nations remain perpetually locked in combat’, and somehow find a way home. Despite the fact that The Continent is a fantasy novel, many early reviewers felt that the ‘uncivilised’ peoples at war – who were frequently referred to as savages in the book – were based on Japanese and Native American peoples. The inclusion of racial stereotypes within a YA novel is dangerously problematic as YA readers ‘view characters in young adult novels as living and wrestling with real problems close to their own life experiences as teens’. Young Adult literature is targeted for readers between the ages of 12 and 20 and ‘offers a unique window on societal conflicts and dilemmas’, as well as providing ‘a roadmap of sorts’ for adolescents coping with these conflicts in real life. As YA researcher and editor Michael Cart explains, ‘Teenagers urgently need books that speak with relevance and immediacy to their real lives and to their unique emotional, intellectual, and developmental needs and that provide a place of commonality of experience and mutual understanding.’ The popularity of YA fiction relies on its frequent utilisation of first-person narration as well as the empathetic point of view of an adolescent protagonist. In Australia, Children’s fiction – including Young Adult – makes up 8.2 per cent of the publishing market share as a whole; and it is one of the fastest growing and best-selling categories in the Australian book industry. But, if The Continent controversy is anything to go by, YA readers are becoming disheartened and exasperated by the industry’s lack of sensitivity, and these readers – many of whom are bloggers and reviewers – are becoming aware of the power they have in making or breaking future books. A quick look at The Continent’s Goodreads page proves that this is true: with 883 ratings and 173 reviews, The Continent currently has a 3.0 star* rating – and it won’t be published for another year.
Drake has created two warrior cultures within her fantasy novel. The first are the Topi, similar to the native American tribe the Hopi, who have ‘rich reddish-brown skin’, painted faces, and who get ‘dangerously drunk’ around a campfire, then attempt to rape the protagonist after attacking her with arrows. The second warrior tribe is the Aven’ei, inspired by Japanese culture, who are a group of ninjas with ‘almond-shaped’ eyes, and who struggle to speak English. When writing fantasy fiction, it is almost inevitable that the author will be inspired by real life cultures in the creation of their fantasy world. For example, George R.R. Martin was inspired by British culture and the Wars of the Roses for his world-famous A Song of Ice and Fire series. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. This only became a wide-reaching issue in regard to The Continent because the author based her fantasy cultures, which were intended to be barbaric, violent, and uncivilised, on existing cultures who already have such damaging racial stereotypes. Drake had taken, either ignorantly or maliciously, two progressive ethnic groups and categorised them as primitive, while the protagonist hails from a Caucasian culture. According to many reviewers, this encourages the idea that white people are more cultured than people of colour, which is an extremely damaging thing to suggest, even subconsciously, as it could affect the reader’s perceptions in real life (especially for adolescent readers). As educator Rudine Sims said, ‘the literature we choose helps to socialize [sic] our children and to transmit to them our values.’
Dr Debbie Reese, editor and publisher of American Indians in Children’s Literature, was appalled by the causal use of racist stereotypes within The Continent. In response to the novel, Reese explains that this type of representation affects young Native Americans because it suggests that this is the only narrative they have. In a series of tweets, Reese explains that representing native people as ‘savages’ also adds to the negative perception of Native Americans by white people. How is an adolescent Native American supposed to connect with and see a reflection of themselves in the pages of this YA novel, when said novel reinforces that aggressive, uncivilised stereotype, and uses his/her culture as a ‘teaching tool for a white person’s morality’? Kiera Drake responded to the discussion surrounding her choices by explaining that the Topi were “inspired by the Uruk-Hai (Orcs) from Lord of the Rings … [and] in no way [were] … meant to represent Native Americans.” But reviewers find a flaw in her logic as the Uruk-Hai are ‘not people… They’re a nameless army created by an evil wizard.’ Drake might not have meant to offend anyone, but the fact remains that many people did find parallels between the Topi and the real-life racial stereotypes often made about Native Americans.
Another contentious issue raised by reviewers was the use of the ‘white saviour’ trope, which seems to form a large part of The Continent’s plot. In the novel, Noro, Vaela’s Aven’ei love interest, petitions her to leave the Continent and go back home to stay safe. Vaela responds with, ‘I would never be parted from you. I give you my word that I will return. And when I do, I will bring peace to the Continent. One way or another, I will bring peace.‘ The specific portrayal of non-white civilisations, at war with each other for centuries, only considering peace due to the intervention of a single white person plays into colonial narratives. To suggest otherwise, as the author did, displays a massive disconnect between what the reader interprets and what the author/publishing house intended. Kiera Drake stated that her novel ‘is not about a white savior [sic] … The Continent was written with a single theme in mind: the fact that privilege allows people to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.’ Yet reviewers are boycotting her novel for that exact reason: that her privilege came into play when she actively made the decision to create ‘savage’ cultures based upon existing races.
The Black Witch
‘Elloren Gardner is the granddaughter of the last prophesied Black Witch, Carnissa Gardner, who drove back the enemy forces and saved the Gardnerian people during the Realm War. But while she is the absolute spitting image of her famous grandmother, Elloren is utterly devoid of power in a society that prizes magical ability above all else.
When she is granted the opportunity to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an apothecary, Elloren joins her brothers at the prestigious Verpax University to embrace a destiny of her own, free from the shadow of her grandmother’s legacy. But she soon realizes that the university, which admits all manner of people—including the fire-wielding, winged Icarals, the sworn enemies of all Gardnerians—is a treacherous place for the granddaughter of the Black Witch.
As evil looms on the horizon and the pressure to live up to her heritage builds, everything Elloren thought she knew will be challenged and torn away. Her best hope of survival may be among the most unlikely band of misfits…if only she can find the courage to trust those she’s been taught to hate and fear.’
Unfortunately, The Continent controversy is not a lone case. The Black Witch by Laurie Forest has faced the same backlash response from early reviewers in regard to racism. Shauna from The Bookstore Babe, a reviewer and bookseller, calls The Black Witch ‘the most dangerous, offensive, book [she’s] ever read. It’s racist, ableist, homophobic, and is written with no marginalized people in mind [sic].’ The novel’s protagonist, Elloren Gardner, is supposed to go through a redemption arc ‘in which deeply seated prejudices are uprooted and the main character learns. But … she doesn’t learn. Even with … 30 pages left … those pages were filled with some of the most vile and vitriol [Shauna had] ever seen from a protagonist’. Dozens of reviewers are calling for a boycott of The Black Witch on Goodreads and their personal blogs, which will undoubtedly affect book sales. The book was only released on May 2 2017, and yet its Goodreads page already has 1,231 ratings and 509 reviews which combine to form a 2.25* star rating. Not all of these reviewers have read the book – in fact, a large percentage of them have not, as the wide gap between ratings and reviews proves. Like for The Continent, many reviewers are basing their opinions on what early access reviewers have found while reading the novel and formed their own opinion; as Silvia, a blogger and reviewer, explained: ‘I haven’t read this book and I’m not going to, so this review is purely a way to spread the word about the problems (mainly: racism and homophobia) that other people have found.’
What is quite interesting, or worrying, is the fact that The Black Witch is also being released by Harlequin TEEN, leading many reviewers to question the morality of the editing team and the publishing house as a whole. As Shauna eloquently justified for her review, ‘I‘m doing this not to tear down a single person, but to tear down a system that publishes books like #THEBLACKWITCH. The publishing system needs to change.’ Another reviewer made the claim that, ‘This book’s editor is the same editor that worked on THE CONTINENT and didn’t see any problems there, so that should tell you something about the vetting process THE BLACK WITCH went through.’ Perhaps a company like Harlequin TEEN might have had more power in their publication process and choices less than a decade ago, but with the rise of online reviewers and their blogs, who are able to express their opinion months before a book is published and then have that review accessed by people all over the world in an instant, publishing houses would do well to listen to what the readers want as opposed to what the company thinks will just sell. There is no point in wasting money, time, and resources on a novel that has the potential to be popular if reviewers will then boycott it, and the company, due to the way the novel mishandled a sensitive topic. As the European Journal of Marketing found, ‘blogs are a mainstream media world-wide and as a collective, rival any traditional media [sic]. The blogosphere is now so large that it is considered an accurate barometer of consumer opinion.’
According to Publishing Research Quarterly, in the United States there are more blogs created each day than there are books published each year. Blogs work like ‘filters’ and make it easier for publishers to identify pertinent information: they allow publishers to follow certain trends, engage with readers, listen to bookish conversations, and even provide free advertisement for books.  It’s a powerful market with unlimited potential and by far the easiest way to generate publicity for a new novel. The website Netgalley is one such way publishers engage with bloggers and reviewers: Netgalley works as the middleman and allows bloggers/reviewers the chance to read and review ARCs, then sends that feedback to a specific publishing company, while the reviewers also post on their personal blogs.  It is a win-win for everybody. As Meredith Nelson explains, ‘blogs are opening new, low-cost channels for book publicity and advertising,’ and they already have a powerful and large community behind them. And yet, when books like The Continent and The Black Witch are tapped for publication, bloggers and reviewers still feel like publishing companies aren’t listening to them.
All the Crooked Saints
‘Saints. Miracles. Family. Romance. Death. Redemption.
The book takes place in the 1960s in Bicho Raro, Colorado and follows the lives of three members of the Soria family—each of whom is searching for their own miracle. There’s Beatriz, who appears to lack feelings but wants to study her mind; Daniel, the “Saint” of Bicho Raro, a miracle worker for everyone but himself; and Joaquin (a.k.a. Diablo Diablo), who runs a pirate radio station at night.
“The Soria family are saints as well, and the miracle they perform for pilgrims to Bicho Raro is as strange as most miracles are: They can make the darkness inside you visible. Once the pilgrims see their inner darkness face to face, it’s up to them to perform another miracle on themselves: banishing the darkness for good. It can be a tricky business to vanquish your inner demons, even once you know what they are, but the Sorias are forbidden to help with this part. They’ve all been told that if a Soria interferes with the second miracle, it will bring out their own darkness, and a saint’s darkness, so the story goes, is a most potent and dangerous thing.” – Maggie Stiefvater, EW interview.’
One of the most heated and ongoing online debates focused on racism in YA fiction is centred around best-selling author Maggie Stiefvater’s new novel All the Crooked Saints, which is slated for release this October. What is very interesting about this case is that no reviewers have been given access to an ARC as of yet; but, out of the 64 people who rated the novel on Goodreads, 25% have given the book a 1-star rating*, and some are calling for a boycott. Maf from Bookworm Wonders, a YouTube book reviewer, explains that she is ‘going to … give this [book a] 1 – star because … Maggie cannot be trusted to write diverse characters. Also, can we talk about cultural appropriation because this [book] has it written all over it [sic].’ There was also much debate around racial stereotypes in Stiefvater’s previous novel The Raven King, and many reviewers are disheartened and angry that she, and Scholastic Press (the company Stiefvater is published under), seemed to not have learnt their lesson.
The traditional role of the publisher is to be the ‘gatekeeper of culture and the arbiter of the … decisions that go into making a book public’. Publishers are seen as the providers of culture – they acquire information that the public deems valuable and important, and they create a lasting symbol of society’s views in the form of a text. So what kind of statement is Harlequin TEEN making about society when they publish novels like The Continent and The Black Witch? As the three controversies prove, readers are demanding more from publishing companies – it is no longer enough for a YA novel to feature the tropes that have become associated with the category. Readers, through bloggers and reviewers, want publishing companies to use their roles as the arbiters of culture to start making a positive change and begin representing culture the right way, not just the way that will make them the most money. If The Continent controversy is anything to go by, bloggers – a massive community of reviewers who influenced a powerful and long-established publishing house in postponing the release of a book for an entire year – now have that power.
In an open letter to Keira Drake, Zoraida Córdova, YA author of Labyrinth Lost, perfectly encapsulates The Continent controversy: ‘For anyone who claims that a “book is just a book” and that this is “just fiction,” reconsider. What was the last book that changed your life? What was the last book that allowed you to feel represented? […] Words matter. That’s why we hold authors to a higher standard when their words cause pain to others.’ By analysing the controversy surrounding The Continent, as well as The Black Witch and All the Crooked Saints, it is abundantly clear that book bloggers and reviewers have developed a massive amount of influential power. Publishing companies, specifically those that publish Young Adult fiction, would do well to consider the power of this online community and the sheer number of voices that are clamouring to speak up about important topics, and insist that published texts begin to reflect the obvious demand for positive representations of diversity.
*As of 16/04/17.
 Harlequin TEEN, Twitter post, 7 November 2016, 3.25 p.m., https://twitter.com/HarlequinTEEN/status/795769068410327040
 Riley Redgate, “Delay Publication of THE CONTINENT,” The Petition Site, accessed 16 April 2017, http://www.thepetitionsite.com/en-gb/942/983/744/delay-publication-of-the-continent/
 Keira Drake, “The Continent (The Continent, #1,” Goodreads, accessed 16 April 2017, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30075733-the-continent?from_search=true
 Jess, “A Review of The Continent by Keira Drake (Harlequin Teen),” Book Rook Reviews (blog), 7 November 2016, http://www.bookrookreviews.com/home/117-a-review-of-the-continent-by-keira-drake-harlequin-teen
 T.W. Bean and N. Rigoni, “Exploring the intergenerational dialogue: journal discussion of a multicultural young adult novel,” Reading Research Quarterly 36 (2001): 235.
 T.W. Bean and Karen Moni, “Developing Students’ Critical Literacy: Exploring Identify Construction in Young Adult Fiction,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 46.8 (2003): 638.
 Rebecca Ciezarek, “What young adult fiction looked like in 2015,” The Conversation, 29 December 2015, https://theconversation.com/what-young-adult-fiction-looked-like-in-2015-51812.
 S.K. Herz and D.R. Gallo, “What is young adult literature anyway? Can it be any good if students like it?” in Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and the Classics, (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996), 8.
 SPN Admin, “Disruption and Innovation in the Australian Book Industry,” The Small Press Network, 9 February 2016, http://smallpressnetwork.com.au/australian-publishing-industry-is-fighting-back-against-digital-disruption/
 Drake, “The Continent,” Goodreads. – as of 24/4/17. On 19/4, there were only 818 ratings – the number of ratings has increased despite the fact that no one has since read a copy of the book.
 Zoraida Córdova, “An Open Letter on Fantasy Worldbuilding and Keira Drake’s Apology,” YA Interrobang, 7 November 2016, http://www.yainterrobang.com/open-letter-fantasy-worldbuilding/
 Ishaan Tharoor, “How Game of Thrones Drew on the Wars of the Roses,” The Guardian, 29 May 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/29/game-of-thrones-war-of-roses-hbo
 Mishma, “So, What Exactly is the Deal with The Continent? (Review + Discussion),” Chasing Faerytales (blog), 5 November 2016, http://chasingfaerytales.blogspot.com.au/2016/11/the-continent-keira-drake-review.html
 Redgate, “Delay Publication,” The Petition Site.
 Holly G. Willett, “Rifles for Watie”: Rollins, Riley, and Racism,” Libraries & Culture 36.4 (2001): 487.
 Debbie Reese, “A Native Perspective on Response to Kiera Drake’s The Continent,” Storify, accessed 19 Apr, 2017, https://storify.com/Debbie_Reese/a-native-perspective-on-response-to-kiera-drake-s-
 Kiera Drake, “The Continent – First Response,” YA Interrobang, 5 November 2016, http://www.yainterrobang.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/the-continent-keira-drake-first-response.pdf
 Córdova, “An Open Letter,” YA Interrobang.
 Mason Deaver, Twitter post, 6 November, 2016, 9.07 a.m., https://twitter.com/masondeaver/status/795311579734691843
 Drake, “First Response,” YA Interrobang.
 Shauna, “Review: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest,” Bookstore Babe (blog), 16 March 2017, http://b00kstorebabe.blogspot.com.au/2017/03/review-black-witch-by-laurie-forest.html
 Laurie Forest, “The Black Witch (The Black Witch Chronicles #1),” Goodreads, accessed 24 April 2017, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25740412-the-black-witch?from_search=true
 Silvia, “Review of The Black Witch,” Goodreads, 17 March 2017, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1944469588?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1
 Ben Alderson, “Review of The Black Witch,” Goodreads, 18 March 2017, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1931701703?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1
 Skadoosh, “Janine asked this question about The Black Witch (The Black Witch Chronicles #1),” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/questions/1013221-why-is-a-book-that-includes-this-text–/answers/516907-this-book-s-editor-is. I have not been able to confirm if this is accurate, but many people now believe it is due to this answer. This undoubtedly shows the power reviewers have in manipulating public opinion.
 Gayle Kerr et al., “Buy, boycott or blog: Exploring online consumer power to share, discuss and distribute controversial advertising messages,” European Journal of Marketing 46.3 (2012): 388.
 Meredith Nelson, “The Blog Phenomenon and the Book Publishing Industry,” Publishing Research Quarterly 22.2 (2006): 3.
 Nelson, “The Blog Phenomenon,” 5.
 Maggie Stiefvater, “All the Crooked Saints,” Goodreads, accessed 24 April 2017, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30025336-all-the-crooked-saints
 Maf (Bookworm Wonders), “Review of All the Crooked Saints,” Goodreads, 21 March 2017, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1948569908?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1
 David Godine, “The Role and Future of the Traditional Book Publisher,” Publishing Research Quarterly 27.4 (2011): 335.
 Córdova, “An Open Letter,” YA Interrobang.
Bean, T.W., and Karen Moni. “Developing Students’ Critical Literacy: Exploring Identify Construction in Young Adult Fiction.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 46.8 (2003): 638-48.
Bean, T.W., and N. Rigoni. “Exploring the Intergenerational Dialogue: Journal Discussion of a Multicultural Young Adult Novel.” Reading Research Quarterly 36 (2001): 233-48.
Godine, David. “The Role and Future of the Traditional Book Publisher.” Publishing Research Quarterly 27.4 (2011): 332-337.
Herz, S.K., and D.R. Gallo. “What is Young Adult Literature Anyway? Can it be any good if students like it?” In Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and the Classics, 7-12. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Kerr, Gayle, Kathleen Mortimer, Sonia Dickinson, and David S. Waller, “Buy, Boycott or Blog: Exploring online consumer power to share, discuss and distribute controversial advertising messages.” European Journal of Marketing 46.3 (2012): 3887-405.
Nelson, Meredith. “The Blog Phenomenon and the Book Publishing Industry.” Publishing Research Quarterly 22.2 (2006): 3-26.
Willett, Holly G. “Rifles for Watie”: Rollins, Riley, and Racism.” Libraries & Culture 36.4 (2001): 487-505.