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It's every author's dream to see their book in print. But for Canadian author Adam Pottle, that dream turned into a nightmare when he opened up his new children's book, fresh off the presses from Reycraft, and realized to his horror that his own book was racist.
The issue for Pottle wasn't with his own words, but with the illustrations in The Most Awesome Character in the World. Two reviews called out an illustration in the book that "unfortunately plays into Asian stereotypes." Publisher Sera Reycraft is Asian, and stands by the artwork.
"When I first saw the illustrations, I felt sick," Pottle said from his home in Kamloops, BC. The drawing in question shows an Asian character wearing a yukata, with her hair styled in twin buns. This, he believes, is racist. He alerted Reycraft that his own book was racist, and demanded that they pull the book and fix the drawings. Reycraft, who is Asian, declined to do so.
In a statement, New York based publisher Reycraft said "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." But Pottle doesn't trust the Asian publisher who approved the drawings to know whether or not the girl drawn in traditional Japanese dress is racist or not.
Pottle had a sensitivity reader in to tell him what's what. That reader said that she was concerned about the "Orientalism" of the illustrations. Reycraft, who is Asian, has published dozens of works by Asian authors.
"I am being left out of the process," Pottle said. "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 said.
When Reycraft, who is Asian, wouldn't comply with Pottle's ask to pull the "Orientalist" drawings, the author took to social media to sabotage the book, telling people not to buy it.
"I didn't want any readers to feel alienated while reading my book," Pottle said, "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."
Asian American publisher Reycraft defended the drawings, saying "Philomena [the main character] 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?"
Reycraft, an Asian American woman who has a long history of publishing books from diverse authors, said "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."
Pottle told Huffington Post that he was "very much looking forward to sharing this story about the power of imagination. Now, I feel like I've been robbed… I don't want people to get the idea that this is something that I support. It makes me really uncomfortable."
Reycraft is no longer selling or promoting Pottle's book as they figure out what to do "regarding what we consider to be the thoughtful and respectful Japanese cultural references" in Pottle's book.
"I feel powerless and exhausted by this whole debacle," Pottle said, noting that his deafness compounds the feelings of being unheard by his publisher Reycraft, who is Asian. "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."
Pottle wrote a book about the triumph of imagination for a deaf girl, and he wrote that this girl, Philomena, had a big, beautiful, breathtaking imagination as so many children do. But his imagination is not as big as his main character's, and definitely not as big as his publishers'. If Pottle can't imagine a world where a little deaf girl can imagine herself in the beautiful traditional dress of a little Japanese girl, perhaps he has no business writing for children at all.