Kirkus Reviews retracted a starred review of the forthcoming novel American Heart after the book became the center of an online imbroglio for its supposed insensitivity toward Muslims.
Kirkus released an editor’s note saying that the review was by an "an observant Muslim person of color" but nevertheless failed to satisfy their standards for "sensitivity." The vast majority of the book’s online critics appear to have not read the unreleased book, but their attacks on its "white savior" narrative caused an uproar.
"We've removed the starred review from kirkus.com after determining that, while we believe our reviewer’s opinion is worthy and valid, some of the wording fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity, and we failed to make the thoughtful edits our readers deserve," Kirkus editor in chief Claiborne Smith wrote.
Kirkus now has an "edited" version of the review, which no longer gives the book a star but does call it "problematic," while praising certain aspects of it.
The controversy around American Heart has spread through social media and has led to a slew of negative reviews on the website Goodreads, mostly by people who have not read the book. Many Kirkus commenters have stood by their criticism of the book, while some have questioned the journal’s decision to retract the original starred review.
Author Laura Moriarty posted a statement on Facebook denying that American Heart is a "white savior" narrative and asking people to suspend outrage until they’ve read the book. She also said that such organized anger is not an "isolated incident" but is part of a trend of politically based outrage among readers of young adult fiction.
The book involves U.S deportation of Muslims to camps, and the main character is a white woman who initially trusts this action but later changes her mind and helps those who are imprisoned. Some have expressed hostility about this plot being a "white savior" narrative in which Muslim characters are robbed of agency.
Moriarty, however, claims that she explicitly wrote the white character not to be a savior.
Moriarty said Kirkus’ decision to retract the original review "surprised and disturbed" her, and she argued that anyone who values free speech should concur. She suggested this form of politically based suppression is a kind of "dystopia" that harms young readers.
"One dystopia currently in play is that books for young people are being suppressed based on a political group’s interpretation of whether or not the *idea* of a book falls in line with their narrow guideline of what is ‘acceptable’ for young readers," Moriarty wrote.
Many welcomed Kirkus’ decision, however, saying Moriarty’s novel is harmful to Muslims.
"Glad to see Kirkus trying to course correct," one commenter wrote. "I've spoken to many Muslim readers-—some of them authors themselves—who found this book incredibly harmful and dehumanizing."
Others found Kirkus’ response not to be far-reaching enough.
"This isn't the first time something like this has happened," one commenter said, complaining that Kirkus could be harming children by approving of American Heart. "Kirkus' habit of listing the ways the reviewer is a woman, or Muslim, or whatever in defense is tantamount to saying ‘my _____ friend said it was okay/doesn’t care.’ That doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t fix it."