The American public loves everything just a little bit dark and twisted these days ― superhero movies, comedies, and even children’s books. So Bad Little Children’s Books fits right into the market: Billed as “Kid-Lit Parodies, Shameless Spoofs, Offensively Tweaked Covers,” the rather hefty volume is a children’s book for adults in the form of an old-fashioned Little Golden Book.
On closer inspection, the book is packed with racist, xenophobic, and religious bigotry ― neither a successful spoof nor acceptable.
The book compiles dozens of schmaltzy children’s book covers edited with new titles, subtitles, authors, and slightly tweaked images. Even the relatively innocuous spoofs fall fairly flat on the humor front; “My First Little Boob Job” and “The 3 Little Future Bacon Strips” are such half-hearted jokes they barely elicit sighs of acknowledgement, let alone chuckles.
More disturbing are the many insidious and overt instances of bigotry ― perhaps intended to poke fun at racial, religious and ethnic stereotypes, but in practice only emphasizing them:
On a pure craft level, the publisher and creators of the book should be embarrassed by how lazy and hackneyed it is to use “Asians suck at driving” as the punchline.
Though the book, published by Abrams Image, an imprint of Abrams Books, actually came out in September, it was resurfaced today by a BookRiot blogger, Kelly Jensen, who was deeply troubled by what she found inside: “Dark horror and dark comedy really appeal to me. But there comes a point when ‘funny’ becomes straight up hate and when that hate is straight-up racist,” she writes. She also points out that the Islamophobic images don’t appear in previews provided by the publisher, “nor do they show up in solid searching (by a librarian, no less).”
Bad Little Children’s Books is attributed to one Arthur C. Gackley, though this is transparently a pseudonym. (His author bio notes that he “was likely washed out to sea or fell penniless into an abandoned wishing well shaft in the winter of 1978.”) However, the images, children’s book covers with vulgar alterations, bear a striking resemblance to several published in 2012 by author and illustrator Bob Staake. One bears the title “Dead Whales Can’t Wave Back” over an image of two children waving at whale backs surfacing in the sea. Darkly funny enough, right? Then the subtitle: “And The Japanese Are To Blame.” Wholly unnecessary for the adult-level humor, but definitely racialized and offensive.
As Jensen notes, edgy children’s books for grown-ups aren’t inherently bad; in fact, they’re pretty popular. (Carrie Bradshaw even, accidentally, pitched one about a little girl named Cathy and her magic cigarettes on “Sex and the City.”) The sweet innocence of a children’s book ― a mainstay of all our childhoods ― gives an extra kick of subversiveness to any dark humor layered over it. That’s why the so-called kids’ book for adults Go the Fuck to Sleep, in itself not a particularly funny statement, became a smash hit. It parodied bedtime stories for young kids while capturing, in profane language, what many parents might really be thinking while reading yet another saccharine tale to their squirmy tots.
But it’s not enough to just label a work “spoof” or “satire,” as I wrote earlier this year, to skirt criticism. In response to Calvin Trillin’s unfortunate doggerel about Chinese regional cuisines, I wrote:
Like ironic racism, misguided satire is a favored pastime of the denizens of certain pockets of white male privilege. Also like ironic racism, bad satire often manifests as a pointless reenactment of hurtful stereotypes and tropes. “Look, here I am, saying horrifying things that are painful for the less powerful to hear, as people in positions of hegemonic privilege tend to do!” say these writers, chortling at their self-deprecation. Such satire doesn’t really achieve anything because it fails to puncture a widely accepted and yet problematic way of thinking; it’s performative both of one’s own enlightenment and, in a perverse way, the regressive thoughts lying underneath.
The same holds abundantly true for dark parodies and vulgar spoofs for adult eyes only. It’s not particularly fresh or funny to reiterate widely held prejudices against certain groups, nor is it clear, at least in Bad Little Children’s Books, whom the target of mockery is meant to be.
Take this tableau: A white, unvaccinated child afflicted with smallpox due to a “Navajo blanket,” and a satisfied-looking “Navajo family” in the background. (It’s long been claimed that European settlers used blankets infected with smallpox to decimate Native tribes, and though historical records exist of this tactic being proposed, historians disagree on whether it was put into action.)
So, what on earth are readers meant to take away from this? It’s frankly irresponsible to twist the likely fragile associations many have with smallpox, blankets, and Native Americans in this way. Perhaps the intent is to give the underdog Natives the upper hand at last, but the result appears to be further vilification of a severely marginalized group, complete with stereotypes and muddled history.
In one of several unpleasant parodies aimed at Islam and the Middle East, this cover portrays bloodied hands raining from the sky. It’s written by “A. Yatollah.” (Laughing yet?)
Because the stumpy hands are pouring into what looks like a rather conventional American setting ― lawn, cookie-cutter white house with a chimney and yellow shutters ― the queasy threat that Islamic fundamentalists are coming to get us with Sharia law is baked in to this joke. And, again, what is the joke? That Islamic law is purportedly violent? That it’s coming to get you in your quiet suburban home? That children don’t know about Sharia law? It’s so embarrassingly unclear what the actual punchline is that the only purpose the image serves is the same as any racist meme on Reddit: To get cheap laughs from bigots by perpetuating bigoted ideas.
When reached for comment by The Huffington Post, the publisher replied, “Unfortunately, we are not releasing a statement at this time.”
It doesn’t have to be like this. Even within Bad Little Children’s Books, a few delightfully nihilistic parodies made me giggle, juxtaposing the goofy, uncomplicated cheer of children’s entertainment with the grim realities we adults have since learned about:
Parody, like all forms of comedy, can be executed ineptly. A clear target and fresh humor play indispensable roles in getting it to work. So does landing the joke straightforwardly, without muddled messages.
UPDATE: Abrams Books provided the following statement to HuffPost responding to the controversy over their publication:
The book follows in the long tradition of parody that, with humor, attacks attitudes and built-in societal perceptions with equal ruthlessness. Its intention is to shine a spotlight on stereotypes about race, gender, and difference that have become commonplace in today’s world and to, in fact, skewer all levels of societal bias. This is exactly what successful parody and satire is meant to do.
It was never our intention as publisher, nor the author’s, to spread or support hateful messaging. Some reviewers and commenters on social media have taken elements of the book at face value, which, we believe, misses the point of the book as a work of artistic parody and satire. We stand by our publication and invite readers to make up their own minds.
UPDATE: On Sunday, Abrams Books issued a statement announcing that it would cease publication of Bad Little Children’s Books at the request of its anonymous author:
We have been disheartened by calls to censor the book and to stifle the author’s right to express his artistic vision by people we would expect to promote those basic fundamental rights and freedoms.
However, faced with the misperceived message of the book, we are respecting the author’s request.
The unnamed author’s statement reads, in part:
[T]he book is clearly not being read by some in the way I had intended — as satire — and, more disturbingly, is being misread as the very act of hate and bigotry that the work was meant to expose, not promote.
For this reason, I have asked ABRAMS to cease publishing the book.