When Does a Book Deserve to be Canceled?

 

I came into work the Sunday after Thanksgiving a bit early, in case the roads were bad. Turns out they were fine, and I got in nice and early, and as I took off my coat, I noticed a small advance copy of a book sitting in my mailbox. It was titled A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library. I read the back of the book and felt that it'd be some overly saccharine and inspirational glurge that reinforced post-9/11 stereotypes of radical Islam. But that art... a mixed-media book, with prose on one page and art on the facing page. A few spreads that narrated with no words at all, just a series of striking images. I took the fifteen extra minutes I'd ended up with and tore through it.

And I was right. Writer Jack Gantos told a story about how the power of people enjoying reading around him saves the life of this illiterate kid who'd been pressed into service by adults too cowardly to do such a heinous act themselves. And at the same time, the art by Dave McKean made the read worth it. Black-and-white illustrations in my advance copy, I was told afterward, will be in full color when the book is published in May 2019. While I enjoyed the rough monochrome, I looked forward to comparing it to the full color pages upon release... right up until I found out that its publisher, Abrams, has decided not to publish the book.

In a statement, Abrams said, "While the intention of the book was to help broaden a discussion about the power of literature to change lives for the better, we recognize the harm and offense felt by many at a time when stereotypes breed division, rather than discourse. Therefore, together with the book’s creators, we have chosen to withdraw its release."

Gantos was approached by Amnesty International to create something for them, but now that social media was set abuzz against the book, he's apparently realized that a book created by two white dudes that perpetuates brown stereotypes is... not great. Worse, there's some honest confusion as to who the book would even be for. Gantos' children's book accolades were sung loudly, and the level of the prose along with how quickly it reads makes it seem like it's for kids; yet later, it was marketed as an upcoming adult graphic novel. Ultimately the stereotypes are not what we want to be teaching kids, and the story isn't engaging enough for adults, so this book would have a hard time finding a proper home.

It hurts on a deep level to say of any book, "This shouldn't get published," but the more I mull it over the more I think that that applies to A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library. And yet, I'll be holding onto my advance copy - not for its own story, perhaps for its own art, and certainly as a warning of what can happen when you're possessed by a strong bout of well-meaning wrongheadedness.

Books have an awesome power. They do have the power to save lives, to broaden horizons. But they also have the power to harm. Maybe that's the true lesson to learn from Suicide Bomber - not exactly the one it intended to teach, perhaps, but ironically close, and one that is still well worth learning.

~Andrew Bugenis

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