By: guest contributor Emily M. Schneider, Ph.D.
In thinking about the intense response to Jack Gantos and Dave McKean’s graphic novel, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, I am reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation in his essay, “The Crack-Up,” that
“the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Abrams ComicArts decided, on the basis of the concerns of some who had read the novel in galley form, or only heard about it, to withdraw the book from its spring 2019 line. A version of the book had already appeared, as a short story without illustrations, in the anthology Here I Stand, released in 2016 by Amnesty International. I am not writing to defend Gantos and McKean’s novel. I empathize with those critics who have expressed fears that it will only stoke the fires of xenophobia and normalize suspicion of Muslims, and that children may find in the book an excuse to bully their peers who seem to conform to the exaggerated images in the book. But, like Fitzgerald, I can also hold opposing ideas, specifically, fears of censorship, and the idea that allowing a book to be published does not imply endorsement of its message.
Criticisms of the book have included its risks of stoking hatred through promoting misinformation, and of emotionally damaging young Muslim readers. Some writers have suggested that the central premise of the story, which is that literacy can combat terror, is false. Others have pointed out that right-wing violence is far more prevalent and threatening than the thwarted suicide bombing of the book by an, apparently, Middle Eastern terrorist. On the comics blog The Beat, Heidi Macdonald wrote of her revulsion at the mere idea of this book as specifically related to the identity of its author and illustrator: “At the very least, two white men, no matter how well intentioned, trying to tell a story about a Suicide Bomber Who Learns Better was doomed to get a well-deserved dragging.”
The Asian Authors Alliance issued an eloquent statement about their perception of the dangers posed by Gantos and McKean’s book, including its ominous racialized illustrations and the absence of a political or historical context about the causes of extremism. Other librarians, activists, and progressive authors have tweeted and blogged with similar concerns.
In my opposing two ideas as evidence of intellect premise, I can only try to respond to some of these allegations, while confirming that the very limited number of pages which most people have seen of the book seem to be inflammatory and ugly. As a teacher, I would never have assigned this book in a K-12 classroom. Given the political climate in our country right now, I am also convinced that this well-intentioned book could be misused by the would-be wall builders and the one third of Americans who apparently believe that being Christian is essential to American identity.
At the same time, none of these thoughts leads me to believe that the book should have been pulled from publication. The argument that literacy as a defense against terror is foolish constitutes a very weak reason to attack a book. If it is a wishful and sentimental belief, that hardly makes it toxic enough to suppress. In addition, most of us in the world of books—readers, writers, educators, parents—actually do believe on some level that the ability to read and to have access to information are essential rights and truly matter. As for the argument that the book should have dealt with right wing terror, or with the number of crimes caused by the fact that people have unlimited access to firearms in our country, that does not justify pulling the book from publication. Attention to one issue does not preclude attention to others. We need many more books and much more activism around the issues of gun violence and right supremacist terror. Gantos and McKean should not have to choose which issue to address.
Then there is context. The Asian Authors Alliance interprets the blurb on the back of the book as condemning Islam because it states that the suicide bomber “has an unquestionable duty to his beliefs.” He does, or he would not have been coerced into his hopeless position. Those beliefs are not normative Islam, but an extreme and distorted interpretation of that tradition. It would be categorically false to claim that no young people have been recruited into dangerous belief systems, through a complex series of material, religious, and political causes. This is perhaps the most sensitive part of the fears that this book has caused. People have the right to be vigilant on their own behalf. If a graphic novel for young adults were to appear about the pandemic of child abuse in the Catholic Church, written by an author who was not Catholic, would we condemn it on the grounds that it might present a distorted or incomplete picture of Catholic life? I, for one, would welcome such a book. Yet I would also understand if Catholic readers were to feel hurt, and frightened that it would further misunderstanding about their religion and provoke hostility and prejudice. They would be entitled to critique the book, and readers would still have the right to read it. As Roger Sutton succinctly phrased in his editorial at The Horn Book in 2015, “Which book will hurt which reader how?”
We are all personally invested in issues of intellectual freedom, and how to balance them with protecting the rights of minorities. One of the most personally offensive children’s books I have ever encountered is John Boyne’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It is a gross distortion of history, a mindless fable that insults Holocaust survivors every time it is presented to young readers. Worse, this book is included in many school curricula, chosen by probably well-meaning but uninformed educators. Yet I do not recommend that it be removed from libraries or pulled from publication. The answer to this book is for informed educators to write, promote, and develop presentations to refute its message with a truthful one. I hope that readers disturbed by the message of A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library will continue their efforts to do the same. Making books inaccessible is not the answer.
Emily Schneider is a writer and educator in New York City who blogs about children’s literature at imaginaryelevators.blog.