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Do sensitivity readers censor or elevate fiction?

People shop in the newly opened Amazon Books on May 25, 2017 in New York City.
People shop in the newly opened Amazon Books on May 25, 2017 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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If you’re writing a Young Adult novel with diverse characters, then it’s likely your book will go through various editors, fact checkers and beta readers, and nowadays, a sensitivity reader.

Sensitivity readers look over a manuscript and give edits on race, gender, religion, disability, sexuality and other variables to vet the story for stereotypes or inaccurate or insensitive portrayals.

In the new landscape of instant social media feedback, children’s and teen book publisher’s are increasingly turning to sensitivity readers to pre-empt negative backlash. Sensitivity readers have been the subject of some recent debate, critiqued as “thought police” and criticized for potentially discouraging writers from imagining characters outside of their own demographics.

On the other hand, sensitivity readers have been lauded as quality control, especially in a publishing landscape that’s mostly white. Some authors have said they prefer the feedback of sensitivity readers to make sure they’re not creating harmful stereotypes.

We talk to a sensitivity reader and a YA fiction author about the role of sensitivity readers in publishing and in an author’s creative endeavour.

Do sensitivity readers censor an author’s vision or improve it? Are current readers too sensitive to “problematic” portrayals in fiction? If you’re a writer, how do you negotiate writing about characters whose race, gender or other demographics are different from your own?


Sherri L. Smith, young adult author and faculty at Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing program and Hamline University’s MFA in Children’s Writing program; her recent book is “Pasadena

Ebony Wilkins, sensitivity reader, assistant professor of English at National Louis University in Chicago and young adult author; her book is “Sellout