December 7, 2016
Publisher Pulls Book of Children’s Story Parodies, Cites Offended Reader Response
by Ryan Harrington
Banning books has been on a lot of people’s minds recently. It’s a terrifying phenomenon that speaks to some of our most reactionary and uncritical impulses. Maybe today we should take a look at a lesser, and lighter, version of book-banning? You know, make fun of ourselves a bit?
And here we have the perfect news item with which to do so. Abrams, the venerable publisher of all sorts of illustrated books, has issued a statement saying that they will pull their satirical title “Bad Little Children’s Books: KidLit Parodies, Shameless Spoofs, and Offensively Tweaked Covers” after it generated some controversy online.
The book is a collection of fake covers for Little Golden Books-style children’s stories, with an emphasis on fake. They are often outrageous, and, yes, a bit provocative with titles such as “The Exploited Coal Miner Kids,” “Reverend Eugene’s Poems About Sluts,” and my personal favorite, “Go to Sleep (forever).”
It’s not entirely clear what (or how much) backlash these fake titles generated, but the Abrams statement has this to say:
In the last few days some commentators on social media and those who follow them have taken elements of the book out of context, failing to recognize it as an artistic work of social satire and comic parody. They argue that it lends credence to the hateful views that the author’s work is clearly meant to mock, demean, expose, and subvert.
It’s been a complicated season for free speech. Parents in Tennessee have rallied to keep their children free from knowledge about Islam. Parents in Virginia have called for bans on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird to keep their children free from knowledge of the n-word. The idea that “we live in hateful times, we must not see any hateful content — no matter how satirical, or otherwise instructive” seems to be in the air. And let us not forget the tragic undoing of Pepe the Frog, who lost his life when he lost his context online.
If there could be said to be a silver lining here, it is only the knowledge that the book’s illustrator (writing under the pseudonym Arthur C. Gackley — an Archie Bunker-type misanthrope) seems to be on board with removing the title, saying:
[T]he book is clearly not being read by some in the way I had intended—as satire—and, more disturbingly, is being misread as the very act of hate and bigotry that the work was meant to expose, not promote. For this reason, I have asked ABRAMS to cease publishing the book.
Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared under the title Publisher Pulls Book of Children’s Story Parodies, Cites Idiots Online. A number of folks pointed out to us that many of those offended were far from idiots — they were conscientious readers concerned about the book’s tone-deaf reproduction of the ugly, ignorant, and even hateful ideas that it attempted to play for laughs. For a clearer idea of what the response to the book actually looked like, we recommend more fully-researched pieces like those of Claire Fallon and Kelly Jensen (with special thanks to Stephanie Lucianovic for referring us to them). We regret and apologize for the implication that responses to the Abrams book and attempts to ban classic American literature are equivalent. And while, like many defenders of free speech, we have sometimes found ourselves in the awkward role of advocating for the right of others to say things that appall us, we wholeheartedly agree that the “jokes” in Bad Little Children’s Books range from completely inert to truly repellent.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.