Monday 3 October 2016

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On VOYA's Review of Run by Kody Keplinger

Run by Kody KeplingerTwo weeks ago, the US YA community and beyond blew up over VOYA's (Voice of Youth Advocates magazine - a magazine aimed at librarians) spoilerific review of Run by Kody Keplinger. The issue isn't with the spoilers (it's just a warning for you, I read the review before the book, so knew pretty much the whole plot beforehand), but with the last line of the review, which said "The story contains many references to Bo being bisexual and an abundance of bad language, so it is recommended for mature junior and senior high readers."

Understandably, a lot of people were upset by this line that pretty much says a book containing a bisexual character should be for older/mature readers. A lot of people complained, and VOYA didn't respond well to the criticism. Instead, they made things worse. I'm not going to rehash everything that happened, you can catch up at Bisexual Books (the link goes to the fifth post of a five part series that cover the events - this post links to each individual part. Note that in part 1, the text of the original VOYA review is shared, so skip the review if you don't want Run spoilt for you) and at Sorry Watch. In the end, VOYA deleted the review, all apologies, and shut down their social media accounts - all after screwing up badly.

Why am I talking about this two weeks after the fact? Because I wanted to be able to talk about it having read the book the review was about - and you can now read my review of Run. Before I picked up Run, I was angry. Discussion on whether it's right or not to give guidance on what age of reader a book is suitable for is a conversation for another time, I want to specifically talk about giving guidance that a book should be for older/mature readers because of the sexuality of a character. Sexuality is about the gender of the people someone is attracted to/falls in love with. It's not about sex, it's about identity. To say a book isn't suitable for younger readers because a character identifies a certain way? That's just straight up wrong. I don't know about you, but I started fancying people before I was ten-years-old. I think it's reasonable to assume that we have some idea of who we like at a young age, even if we don't have the vocabulary to articulate our sexuality then. But apparently, if you fancy those of the same gender, or the same sex as well as those of the opposite gender, that's not something that should be discussed until you're much older/more mature because... why? It absolutely makes no sense. As i said, sexuality isn't about sex, it's about identity. Sex may come into it eventually, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't when you're seven-years-old (age picked out of the air). And, actually, what would VOYA say in a reviews of picture books aimed at children, where a character has same sex parents? Or are those picture books for under 5s not suitable for children under 12, either?

But I wanted to also see if I could understand if there was something specific about Run that might have led to VOYA recommending Run to those 12 or over because of the character's bisexuality. I have now read it, and  I can say that, no, there is absolutely no reason why Bo's sexuality requires guidance for age. I want to go into more detail about this, but it means spoiling Run a little, so my thoughts are hidden under the button. Don't click if you don't want Run spoilt for you.

The point of VOYA magazine is to inform librarians about books they may possibly want to buy for their library, while advocating for youth. Well, bisexual youth obviously aren't to be advocated for. Their thoughts, their feelings? Inappropriate. Not for younger readers. Because younger readers shouldn't know about people who aren't heterosexual. Because 1. We don't want to go polluting their poor little minds, and 2. Obviously, all children are heterosexual, so they only need to see heterosexual characters represented in their books. They don't fancy people of the same gender, no. Nor do they have parents in same sex relationships, or aunts or uncles or cousins or grandparents who are, or identify as anything other than heterosexual. Of course not. They should be kept away from such difficult and hard-hitting topics until they're older and capable of dealing with them, because it's not like it's something that may already be part of their lives.

The attitude is absolutely appalling and completely reprehensible! It's such a disgusting attitude, but also so incredibly harmful - an example of just how harmful such attitudes can be was given by Annalee on The Bias in My Childhood Was Appropriate For Children, in which she talks about her experience of being outed as bisexual in middle school. On VOYA's review, she says:
"When you tell people that even acknowledging the existence of bisexuality renders a book ‘too mature’ for kids, you’re contributing to a hostile environment for bi and other queer kids. By treating their stories as dirty, you’re treating them as dirty. You’re not just denying the lived reality of bi kids; you’re depriving them of support they desperately need at a time when they’re trying to figure themselves and the world out. You’re normalizing the shameful cowardice I experienced when I needed help and couldn’t get it.

There is nothing shameful about being bi, and kids need to hear that. Not just bi kids—straight kids need to hear it too. In fact, they might need to hear it even more, because they’re the ones bullying queer kids to death."
But enough ranting. It's time to talk about how we can support Kody Keplinger and Run:
  • Buy a copy of Run or loan/request it from your library. Even if you buy a copy, it would be helpful to see if your local library has Run in stock. If it doesn't, request they get it in.
  • Read it, and then write an honest, fair review of it. On Goodreads, on Amazon, on any other online bookshop. You don't have to like the story; honest, fair reviews can still interest potential readers. There have been people who have read some of my negative reviews and then went out and got a copy of the book for themselves. If your review is fair, it can still do some good. But obviously, if you do like the book, sing it's praises.
  • If you enjoyed Run, tell your friends. Talk about it, recommend it, encourage people to buy/loan it themselves. Online as well as offline. Word of mouth does wonders.
  • In physical bookshops, try and turn it face out on the shelves. Face out books draw the attention of other shoppers.
Run isn't the only book that VOYA magazine has let down in the past, so you may want to try checking out the books mentioned in this Twitter thread from Pheobe North.

Also, if you're a professional reviewer or a book blogger, you might want to re-/read Malinda Lo's post Perception of Diversity in Book Reviews on Diversity in YA, so we can try and make sure we don't make the same mistake as VOYA.

Bigoted comments have no place in book reviews. I sincerely hope this doesn't happen again.


  1. Once again, I had no idea about this issue. I need to keep up with your discussions so I know what's going on in the bookish world!

    It's sad that the mere mention of sexuality can make a book be considered for "mature" readers. You're absolutely right that this isn't the same as sexual content!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    1. Haha! I only really post if I feel I have something to add to the conversation, or feel strongly enough to bring the topic to my readers' attention - after making sure I've educated myself about the topic, of course.

      Exactly! It's just bloody ridiculous, and so disgusting! I simply can't believe they wrote it, nor their reaction to the complaints they received.

  2. I absolutely agree with everything you've said, but as a bookseller working in a physical store, can I make a tiny amendment? Don't put the book face out in front of something else. If you can shuffle things a little and make room for it, brilliant. But if I see a book face out in front of a different title, I just put it back in its spot spine out. It won't do much good from there.

    That said, I'll definitely be making sure this book is face out when it comes in!

    1. Oh, of course, I didn't mean that. I'm a bookseller, too. People shouldn't be covering up other books - I never realised people would actually do this, it doesn't happen in my shop.

      Thanks for reading.