The publisher of a children’s book by a Canadian author – who has asked people not to buy it because of the way one of the characters is drawn – is pausing sales and promotion of the title as a result of the concerns. But Sara Reycraft says she disagrees with the author’s assessment of the illustration. “To characterize the image, which is a fun celebratory depiction of a Japanese girl in a festive yukata, as racist is flawed and problematic in my opinion,” she writes in a lengthy statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail.
The Most Awesome Character in the World by Adam Pottle tells the story of Philomena, a young deaf girl who is a highly imaginative person. Being deaf is key to her creativity, notes Pottle, who is deaf himself. “When her father brings her a book about a deaf person, she finds it sad and tragic, so she sets out to write a story full of lightning and trouble,” is how Pottle described the book to The Globe.
Pottle did not have approval over the illustrations and when he saw them – after being notified by a couple of reviews about a possible problem – he says he “felt sick.” (An advance copy was sent out to reviewers and librarians before he had a chance to see it, Pottle said.) The picture in question has been described as a girl in a kimono with two buns at the sides of her head.
Pottle asked that it be changed. Reycraft Books, which is based in New York, declined. That’s when Pottle took to social media and asked people not to buy the book and retailers not to stock it. Several retailers supported him.
Pottle, who was born in Kamloops, B.C., and lives in Saskatoon, called Reycraft’s statement self-serving and says it solves little. He also points out that he has still not heard directly from the publisher – including any communication about this decision. (The Globe forwarded the statement from Reycraft to Pottle.) He called this the most aggravating part.
“I am being left out of the process. Ms. Reycraft claims they will do whatever they can to fix it, but it’s difficult for me to believe her. Neither she nor anyone from the press has communicated with me, and since they left me out of crucial stages in the process (choosing the illustrator, seeing proofs, seeing sketches), I cannot trust them at this time,” he wrote in an e-mail.
He later added: “By refusing to communicate with me, they’re suggesting that my voice doesn’t matter. Authors appear to be diamond mines to them: they extract what they need, then move on.”
Reycraft Books bills itself as telling authentic stories with authentic illustrations reflecting the voice and vision of children and focusing on diversity through its #OwnVoices program.
Reycraft, who begins her statement by pointing out that she is Asian and has published 48 books by Asian authors and illustrators, says she is saddened that Pottle perceives the character to be an Asian stereotype and says the artwork was “thoughtfully crafted by a very talented illustrator with careful oversight by our Asian-American editor.”
E-mails to the illustrator, Ana Sanfelippo, have not been returned.
In her statement, Reycraft writes: “Philomena is not a Japanese girl, but we must ask the important question here: Should the imaginary worlds of the imaginary children in our stories be limited to the confines of their own borders? Does that reflect the reality of the children reading our books? Or are we affirming children’s place as global citizens when we include characters in our books that appreciate other cultures?”
She adds “the implication that depicting a Japanese girl in a wheelchair wearing a yukata is racist is a problem – because Japanese girls in wheelchairs can and do wear yukata. And like Philomena, we think that is beautiful.”
But Pottle’s sensitivity reader – who he brought on board after reading the concerning reviews – said she was worried about the Orientalism in the illustrations.
Reycraft says while she disagrees with Pottle’s opinion, she recognizes and respects that people are entitled to draw their own conclusions, especially the author of the book.
“We always knew as we embarked on telling these stories in authentic and expansive ways, we would have things to learn. When we make mistakes, we fix them,” she writes.
The publisher is pausing sales and promotion to reassess how to move forward with the title, and will consider adding a note of clarification “regarding what we consider to be the thoughtful and respectful Japanese cultural references in it.”
She says she remains committed to her vision to amplify stories from under-represented communities to children all over the world.
Pottle says the bottom line is that the publisher did not address his concerns – or him. “I was dissatisfied with my book, and the publisher chose to ignore me. And they still are. They’re talking around me, not to me. As a Deaf person, I can’t stand that, because it suggests that they believe I’m not worthy of communication,” he wrote.
“I feel powerless and exhausted by this whole debacle. I’m learning many difficult lessons. At this moment I am questioning whether I should continue telling stories, because this fiasco has severely shaken my trust in the way others handle my work.”
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