The Current

This deaf author is boycotting his own book after criticism its illustrations include an 'Asian stereotype'

Saskatoon author Adam Pottle has just published his first children’s book, but he’s urging people not to buy it because it contains an illustration that he says is offensive — but the publisher won’t change it.

Book celebrating deaf culture can't do that at 'expense of other cultures,' says author

Adam Pottle is boycotting his own book. (Submitted by Adam Pottle)

Read story transcript

A Saskatoon author is urging people not to buy his new children's book after one of the characters was depicted as an "Asian stereotype" in an illustration that he says the book's publisher is refusing to take out.

"The book is supposed to be a celebration of deaf culture, it's supposed to be a celebration of deaf community, and of imagination," said Adam Pottle, who is deaf himself, and spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway using technology that transcribed the questions for him in real time.

"But we can't celebrate those things at the expense of other cultures," he said.

"I don't want people to feel alienated as a result of this book, so I tried to discourage them from buying it."

The Most Awesome Character in the World centres on Philomena, a young deaf girl who is unhappy with a book featuring a deaf character that her father has given her, and sets out to write her own. She imagines a world with monster robots, where children living with disabilities save the day.

A detail from The Most Awesome Character in the World. (Reycraft Books)

Pottle said the book was sent out to reviewers and libraries before he saw the final version, and initial reviews drew attention to an "Asian stereotype" in one of the illustrations.

Author asked to delay publishing

In a drawing of a group of children using wheelchairs, one girl is wearing a traditional kimono, with her hair in "Princess Leia" buns, Pottle said. The rest of the children are in western dress, and look like superheroes wearing capes. 

Those children are being imagined by the main character, Philomena, but Pottle said there's nothing in the text to suggest one of them is Asian, or should be dressed that way. The images have since been removed from the illustration agency's website.   

Pottle added that a sensitivity reader — someone who assesses manuscripts for bias or racism — confirmed his fears that the illustration could be seen as offensive.

That "ultimately distracts from the message of the book," Pottle said. 

On Sept. 28, he said he forwarded the sensitivity reader's analysis to his publisher, U.S. company Reycraft Books, saying that he didn't feel comfortable promoting or supporting his own book.

The book was due to be released two days later, but he said he asked for publishing to be delayed in order to replace the illustration. 

Pottle said the publisher replied saying the release date could not be delayed. 

"I told them that I can't promote or support it, and I have to tell people that I can't be part of that," Pottle said.

"And they said, basically: 'Thank you. We understand. And we wish you well.'"

Reycraft Books did not respond to The Current's request for comment, but has disputed Pottle's account in local media reports. 

Support from literary community

The Current also contacted illustrator Ana Sanfelippo, but did not receive a response.

Pottle said he hasn't spoken to Sanfelippo, but heard she has received hate mail over the illustration.

If the publisher doesn't listen to me, hopefully they will listen to booksellers. After all, money talks- Adam Pottle

"I'd like to discourage people from doing that because hatred solves nothing," he said.

"The responsibility here ultimately lies at the feet of the publisher for choosing to release the book." 

As a deaf person, Pottle says he knows how damaging stereotypes can be, and he didn't want readers to think he was OK with it.

He's received support from Canada's literary community, and says several prominent booksellers have removed the book from their listings, including Canadian stores and sellers like Barnes & Noble in the U.S.

"If the publisher doesn't listen to me, hopefully they will listen to booksellers," he said.

"After all, money talks."

He explained that the publisher owns the copyright to the book.

"So the only way to reclaim my story is to, again, try to make sure that this version isn't sold, and that another version is produced with better illustrations."

Children need 'full range' of characters

In her 25-year career selling books, Anju Gogia said she's "never seen an author ask people not to buy the book." 

Anju Gogia, events co-ordinator at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto. (Submitted by Anju Gogia)

The news left her "a combination of enraged and very, very saddened," said Gogia, events co-ordinator at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto, one of the Canadian stores that has decided not to sell Pottle's book.

"How awful for a deaf author to be boycotting his first children's book, knowing that there are very few books out there for deaf children, about deaf children."

Gogia wrote to Reycraft Books to second Pottle's request for a revision, but says she did not receive a response.

She said the company's back catalogue proves it is a publisher committed to "own voices," referring to publishing books by authors who write for their own communities.

"I would really hope that they listen to Adam's opinions as a deaf writer, and publish a book that he can be proud of and stand behind." 

She said that while books have showcased greater diversity in the last five to ten years, books about deaf children and children with disabilities are still "few and far between, and there is a real hunger for it and a need for all children to see themselves represented." 

Another Story Bookshop in Toronto, one of the Canadian stores that has decided not to sell Pottle's book. (Submitted by Anju Gogia)

"There's going to be Asian girls and boys reading that book across the world saying: 'But I wanted to be a superhero, too,'" she said.

"'Why do I have to be wearing a kimono and everybody else gets to be a superhero?'"

She said it's also important for other children to read and learn about kids with disabilities in positive ways, as well as having characters "who are not just Black and Asian and First Nations," but "who fight crime, who are gardeners, who march against police brutality, who bake pies."

"We need the whole range of characters so children can see themselves in the fullness of who they are, and they can feel like they belong in this world. That is so important."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Isabelle Gallant.

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