Most authors would feel elated to get their hands on the first copy of their newly published book. For Adam Pottle, flipping through the pages of his latest work filled him with dread.
The Saskatoon writer is asking people not to buy The Most Awesome Character In The World, which launched on Sept. 30, as it contains illustrations of an Asian character who’s been described as a racist stereotype.
Pottle told HuffPost Canada that after he saw the images for the first time, his requests to remove the offensive artwork were denied by the book’s publisher, U.S. company Reycraft Books.
“The last couple of weeks have been enormously dispiriting,” he said. “I was very much looking forward to sharing this story about the power of imagination. Now, I feel like I’ve been robbed... I don’t want people to get the idea that this is something that I support. It makes me really uncomfortable.”
Story celebrating Deaf kids marred by offensive artwork
Pottle’s first children’s book drew on his own experiences as a Deaf person seeking authentic media representation.
“When I tried to find stories about Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing children, they were always tragic and sad,” he said.
Pottle decided his first children’s book would cover just that, as its protagonist, Philomena, is a Deaf girl who feels limited by her hearing aids. After her father gives her a book featuring an unhappy Deaf girl, she comes to a realization: “That’s not my story.” From there, Philomena sets out to pen her tale, featuring a lively cast, including a special friend with superpowers.
The message of this story remained unchanged when Pottle first received an advanced copy of his book before publication a few weeks ago. However, he noticed that one of the characters Philomena befriends appeared to be drawn like an Asian stereotype. In images shared with HuffPost and visible on the agency page belonging to illustrator Ana Sanfelippo, the character in question appeared to be an Asian girl in a wheelchair wearing a kimono with her hair styled in two buns.
“She looks very different from the other characters,” Pottle said, noting that other human characters are drawn in contemporary North American clothing.
Pottle consulted with a sensitivity reader, who also agreed the artwork was culturally insensitive. When he asked the publisher to remove or edit the character, Pottle claimed that the publisher rejected his request on the grounds that they didn’t find the Asian girl’s depiction offensive, as it was based on two wrestlers’ outfits and “Princess Leia’s hair buns.” They also denied his requests for a Deaf illustrator, he said.
HuffPost Canada reached out to Reycraft Books for comment on Pottle’s comments. At the time of publication, the company had yet to do so.
Reviewers also call the art stereotypical
Early reviews of the book by Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal also criticized the character’s illustration.
“The human characters are racially diverse—though one unfortunately plays into Asian stereotypes—and some use wheelchairs,” the Kirkus reviewer wrote.
Notably, Reycraft Books featured the commentary by Kirkus Reviews on the book’s webpage, but omitted the sentence loaded with criticism.
Feeling helpless, Pottle decided that his only course of action would be to encourage a boycott of his beloved project on Twitter.
Being unable to promote a book that doesn’t align with his values has taken a toll on Pottle, who says he’s in a “strange and absurd” position and although he didn’t draw the images, he feels responsible because his “name is on the cover.”
“People have been incredibly supportive and I’d like to thank them, someday in the future I can give them a story I’m proud of. One that Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing kids can read without this image being there,” he said.
Deaf creators to support
For readers looking to immerse themselves in positive Deaf representation, Pottle highly recommends the children’s graphic novel El Deafo by Cece Bell.
Deaf Toronto-based artist Maryam Hafizirad is also a long-time favourite for her work with mixed media.
Pottle, who is the author of the well-received novel Voice and two others, hopes that the attention on his situation doesn’t detract from the need for inclusive worlds that all children seek in fiction.
“I don’t want to encourage the idea that we celebrate one culture at the expense of other cultures,” he said. “I want to celebrate together.”
CORRECTION: This story originally stated that Robbin E. Friedman wrote the Kirkus review. Friedman wrote the School Library Journal review. This error has been fixed.
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