The publisher of the children’s picture book The Most Awesome Character in the World, written by Canadian author Adam Pottle, has permanently halted sales of the book.
Reycraft Books made the decision after a controversy that played out publicly, largely over social media. Pottle took to Twitter shortly after the book was published in late September – asking people not to buy the book, and stores not to sell it because of illustrations he has described as racially insensitive.
In an e-mail Wednesday to Pottle’s recently acquired agent, co-owner Tom Reycraft indicated that the book would no longer be sold. “The book has been pulled from distribution, now permanently, and we have no intention of doing anything further with it,” he wrote in the e-mail, which was shared with The Globe and Mail by Emmy Nordstrom Higdon with Westwood Creative Artists.
“Unfortunately, Reycraft will own my story forever,” Pottle told The Globe subsequently by e-mail, noting that he has not heard directly from the publisher throughout the ordeal.
Pottle, who is deaf, crafted the story about a deaf protagonist who creates a fantasy world. He sold the book to Reycraft through what’s known as a work-for-hire agreement – meaning he received a flat fee for his work on the book. The contract – which paid the author less than $1000, according to Nordstrom Higdon, gives the publisher rights to the book in perpetuity.
“It was definitely a contract that was designed so they own the work, and so short of taking them to court, I don’t think we would get the rights back to the story,” the agent says, calling the case “super bizarre,” with its unusual contract and difficult interactions with the publisher.
Pottle says he recommended several deaf illustrators, but the publisher, which is based in New York, selected someone else. Pottle says he did not see the illustrations until after the book was sent to reviewers and librarians.
Two reviews that mentioned a problematic portrayal of an Asian character alerted him to the issue. Once Pottle saw the illustrations, he says he felt “sick” and hired a sensitivity reader, who is Asian-Canadian and studies issues of race, and agreed there was a problem.
When Reycraft declined to change the illustrations and communication between publisher and author broke down, Pottle went public with his plea. Several booksellers supported him, including Indigo, McNally Robinson and Toronto’s Another Story Bookshop.
But publisher Sera Reycraft, in a lengthy statement to The Globe last month, stood by illustrator Ana Sanfelippo’s images. “The artwork for this book was thoughtfully crafted by a very talented illustrator with careful oversight by our Asian-American editor. 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,” the statement said.
On Wednesday, Nordstrom Higdon received the e-mail from Tom Reycraft. “As Mr. Pottle has fulfilled his obligation to Reycraft Books by submitting the manuscript and Reycraft Books to Mr. Pottle via the payment made to him, there is no need for further engagement between Mr. Pottle and our staff,” Mr. Reycraft wrote.
“I actually think it’s quite impressive that he managed to get the book pulled,” the agent says. “I think it’s a really huge accomplishment for an author, basically engaging in self-advocacy to get their book pulled from the shelves because they don’t feel comfortable with how their story is being told.” Nordstrom Higdon says it’s important that authors understand their rights.
The agent says that Westwood is in the process of completing the sale of what Pottle will consider his debut picture book to a major publisher – “this time with a very fair advance and contract.”
Pottle, who was born in Kamloops, B.C., and lives in Saskatoon, says it is unlikely The Most Awesome Character in the World will see the light of day after what he calls “this debacle.”
The author of the 2019 memoir Voice: Adam Pottle on Writing with Deafness says he may try one day to write a story focusing on deaf characters that highlights the power of the imagination.
“Maybe I’ll write one about a deaf child whose story is hijacked by a demon and he has to travel into purgatory to get it back,” he joked when asked by The Globe if he would consider writing a different book with a similar message.
An e-mail and calls to Reycraft Publishing did not receive a response by late Wednesday.
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