Deaf author and University of Winnipeg instructor Adam Pottle has called for a boycott of his own children’s book, The Most Awesome Character in the World, after he was surprised to find an illustration depicting an Asian stereotype.
When Pottle was approached by Reycraft Books in 2017, he wanted to write a story with positive Deaf and disabled characters. Reycraft, a children’s publisher with a large catalogue of diverse children’s picture books from a variety of perspectives, hired him to write the story. Pottle says the publisher paid him upfront for his work, so that he would not receive any royalties from the sale of the book.
Pottle had initially insisted on working with a Deaf illustrator, but he says they shut him out of the illustration process entirely. Other children’s authors have told Pottle that industry standards dictate authors of illustrated children’s books are involved every step of the way in the illustration process, approving early character sketches, page proofs and the entire book before it goes to the printer.
However, after submitting the book in 2017, he did not see it until a few weeks before the launch in September.
“Two or three weeks before the book was supposed to be released in September 2020, they sent me an advance review copy of the book, and that’s when I saw the illustration in question that was depicting an Asian stereotype,” Pottle says. “At that point, I had read a couple of early reviews. Reviewers and librarians had seen the book before I ever did.”
This flew in the face of Pottle’s initial vision for the book to feature a positive array of diverse characters. The character in question was also a wheelchair user. While other wheelchair-user characters were dressed as superheroes, the Asian character was dressed in a kimono, sparking the question of why this character was singled out.
An illustration like this not only distracts from the larger story, but also has larger ramifications for the Asian and the Deaf Asian communities.
“Oppressive stereotypes and depictions perpetuate harm, as well as ... systemic racism,” Deaf Asian actor Jordan Sangalang says. “Often, it would magnify racist behaviours toward Asians, when the media frames it that way.”
“As a Deaf person, I understand what it means to be stereotyped, and I don’t want other people to feel (alienated),” Pottle says. “That’s not what the book is about. That’s not what my work is about.”
Pottle called for a boycott of the book. Booksellers like McNally Robinson, with stores in Saskatoon and Winnipeg, agreed not to sell it.
“I contacted the publisher to ask if there is any way we can change this before the book is released. They said ‘we can’t,’ and I said, ‘well, I can’t support the book, and I can’t encourage people to buy this.’ They said ‘we understand, and we wish you well,’” Pottle says. “There was no willingness on their part to engage. It was an incredibly frustrating process, because I felt like I had been robbed of my own story, and they are completely apathetic to that.”
Pottle is writing a new children’s book with a publisher who he says will include him in every stage of the process, so he can sign off on character sketches, page proofs and help pick a Deaf illustrator. “I’m trying to look to the future,” Pottle says.
Published in Volume 75, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 7, 2021)