When I first ran across an upcoming graphic novel called A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library by Jack Gantos and Dave McKean my first thought was “Dear god, no.” As I saw some promo for the book begin I could only see the disaster coming slowly but surely down the road. As someone who grew up in a world where nearly all of my entertainment was soaked in colonialist attitudes (at best) this kind of “If only this poor ignorant brown child knew about LITERACY AND JOY!” attitude was all too clear, even while soaked in Noble White Empathy. At the very least, two white men, no matter now well intentioned, trying to tell a story about a Suicide Bomber Who Learns Better was doomed to get a well deserved dragging.
I first saw this brewing on Twitter with publisher Zainab Akhtar, who wrote about it most succinctly in this thread.
The book has a tagline of “People stop thinking when they cease to read.” Because reading will help the ignorant brown Muslim boy question/renounce his beliefs, you see, in addition to being some vague kumbaya about how a specific interpretation of culture will save the barbarian
— Zainab Akhtar (@comicsandcola) November 19, 2018
McKean offered some pushback on Twitter, but you could see his enthusiasm for the book waning as the troubling nature of the premise was discussed. The outcry grew, and soon a petition was launched to entreat publisher Abrams Comic Arts not to publish the book.
This book depicts an illiterate child suicide bomber, apparently of vague Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, who is deterred from his terrorist “mission” when he sees other children reading in the library. According to text on the back of the book, the young suicide bomber has an “unquestionable duty to his beliefs”— as if it is his faith that compels him to be a terrorist, as if he must act in opposition to his faith to show humanity. The premise alone is steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance.
Further, though the text refers to the characters as boys, the illustrations of brown-skinned individuals with receding hairlines and dark circles under their squinting, villainous eyes are dehumanizing and do not seem in any way child-like. Is this how Abrams believes Muslim/Middle Eastern/Arab/Pakistani children should see themselves? Or, adults for that matter? Is this the mirror you hold up to them? Is this the window that you think creates empathy?
And so, earlier this week, Abrams did the only thing they could, and announced the book was being withdrawn from publication:
ABRAMS has decided to withdraw publication of the adult graphic novel, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, which was to be published on its Abrams ComicArts list in May 2019.
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.
Although he stopped tweeting about it, McKean told the Guardian that he was no longer behind the project:
On Monday, McKean told the Guardian he felt it was “absolutely the right decision to bin the book”. “A few factors changed from the initiation of the project until now, and I’m sure we all have our own thoughts to take away from all this. I already had my doubts that a story like this should come from outside the community involved, and the arguments on Twitter convinced me that it shouldn’t,” he said. “I’ve listened and learned a hard but valuable lesson.”
G. Willow Wilson offered a lot of insight in a thread which guessed that the book originated as part of a CVE (countering violent extremism) program.
So I've seen the solicitation for the Lil' Terrorist Goes To The Library picture book and whew I have some thoughts. At first I was baffled as to how such a book comes into existence in the first place. Then I did some research and now eeeeeverything makes sense.
— G. Willow Wilson (@GWillowWilson) November 20, 2018
And perhaps the most obvious part again:
The problem is that these people are SO far removed from the communities they are attempting to socially re-engineer that their 'strategies' are at best complete farcical BS and and worst blatantly harmful.
— G. Willow Wilson (@GWillowWilson) November 20, 2018
In other words, a book like Suicide Bomber will have no relevance to making potential terrorists rethink dangerous beliefs, but will do everything to make white people feel better about themselves because they have libraries and stuff. It’s missionaries converting the heathens all over again.
The Abrams statement has gotten some pushback – the claim that the book is for adults is not bourne out by earlier markting campaigns that sugegsted it was for kids – and it doesn’t sound completely remorseful…but at least some lessons have been learned. But as Wilson suggests, when dealing with a topic this fraught and easily mishandled, maybe seeking voices from within the community is the best way to reach it. I don’t doubt that there were some good intentions behind this book, but the execution seems ham handed at best and dangerously flawed at worst.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.