A Canadian author has taken the unusual step of publicly asking people not to buy his new book – and asking bookstores not to stock it. Adam Pottle’s first picture book, The Most Awesome Character in the World, features a deaf protagonist, Philomena, who has an excellent imagination and a preference for signing over using her hearing aids. The book was published Sept. 30.
“When I first saw the illustrations, I felt sick,” Pottle, who is deaf, told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.
At least two Canadian booksellers have said they will not sell the book – the McNally Robinson chain and Another Story Bookshop in Toronto.
“If he looked at the ARC [advance copy] and said ‘this is racist, please change it,’ [his publisher] should have listened to him. It’s his book,” says Another Story Bookshop’s Anjula Gogia.
Pottle, who was born in Kamloops and lives in Saskatoon, wrote the book in 2017 after an editor at Reycraft Books saw him tweet about deaf stories and asked if he would be willing to submit a children’s book.
Pottle said he submitted a list of deaf illustrators to Reycraft, which is based in New York, but the publisher decided to go with a different choice. The book is illustrated by Ana Sanfelippo, who is hearing, according to Pottle.
Pottle said an advance copy was sent out to reviewers and librarians before he had a chance to see it. He was alerted to a problem when two separate reviews mentioned the illustration. “The human characters are racially diverse – though one unfortunately plays into Asian stereotypes,” noted the Kirkus review. The Asian character in question is wearing a kimono – the other children are wearing western clothing – and her hair is styled in buns on either side of her head.
Pottle says he then became anxious to see them. Once he did, he asked that the book be pulled until the illustrations could be fixed. Reycraft – which on its website says it focuses on diversity – moved forward with the publication.
So Pottle took the extraordinary step of going on social media and asking people and booksellers not to buy it.
“I didn’t want any readers to feel alienated while reading my book, and even though I didn’t draw the illustrations, it’s still my name on the cover, so I have to take responsibility. I have to try and rescue my story, try to preserve the vision of the world I had in mind when I first wrote it,” explained Pottle, whose memoir Voice: Adam Pottle on Writing with Deafness was published by University of Regina Press in 2019.
Pottle had signed what he calls a work-for-hire contract, and the story is owned by the publisher. “I can’t do anything unless they give me my story back, hence why I’ve begun using the hashtag #RescuePhilomena.”
E-mails to Reycraft Books and Sanfelippo, who was born in Argentina and is based in Madrid, did not receive a reply.
Gogia at Another Story, an independent bookstore that focuses on themes of social justice and diversity, said the situation incensed her. "I was so furious that here’s an author, a deaf author, who’s written his first children’s book, who’s telling people not to buy his book. I was so furious for him and so saddened for him,” said Gogia, the store’s events co-ordinator.
Gogia wrote an open letter to the publisher in support of Pottle’s request and asked other independent bookstores to follow their lead.
“We urge you to honour Adam’s request to have the book recalled and pulped, and that he be given full approval prior to release. He should also receive a written apology. No author should have to go on social media to ask people to NOT purchase their book,” wrote Gogia in the open letter.
On Tuesday, McNally Robinson announced on Twitter that it would not be selling the book in its stores in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. “Truly a shame that [Pottle] is put in this position by the publisher, but good for him for standing up against hatred and ignorance at the cost of his own book.”
McNally Robinson added that if the illustration is changed, it would happily order copies to sell.
Another Story, which is also a major wholesaler and vendor to schools, teachers and librarians in Ontario, had not heard back from Reycraft Books as of Tuesday afternoon.
“The last several years have seen a real moment in issues around representation and diversity in publishing,” says Gogia. “And so it’s not like this is the first time there’s been a racist illustration in a children’s book, and it won’t be the last time. But for an author to go out and publicly go, ‘this is racist, please change it,’ the publisher really should have listened. They should have known better.”
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