Another author has become the subject of social media controversy in the children’s writing community. Amélie Wen Zhao, whose debut YA fantasy novel, Blood Heir, has been compared to Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, has asked her publisher, Random House’s Delacorte imprint, to postpone the novel’s release, which was scheduled for June.
Zhao’s request to her publisher occurred after a groundswell on social media began slowly a few weeks ago with veiled comments about an unnamed POC author’s hostility to other POC authors and to bloggers, and rose to a crescendo last week, when a book blogger calling herself Paige Cee criticized Zhao for “gathering screenshots of people who don’t/didn’t like her book and giving off Kathleen Hale vibes.” Others on social media posted their concerns regarding the book’s content and themes, particularly that a slave auction scene in Blood Heir was insensitive to POC readers due to the history of slavery in the U.S.
Ellen Oh, the founder of We Need Diverse Books, posted on January 29 what many regarded as a tweet directed at Zhao. “Dear POC writers, you are not immune to charges of racism just because you are POC. Racism is systemic, especially anti-blackness. And colorblindness is extremely tone deaf. Learn from this and do better.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Zhao took to Twitter to apologize to those “who have raised questions around representation, coding, and themes” in Blood Heir, disclosing that she had asked her publisher to postpone the publication, and that they had agreed to do so. Explaining that she had immigrated to the U.S. from China when she was 18, Zhao said that she had written Blood Heir from her own cultural perspective.
“The issues around Affinite [sic] indenturement in the story represent a specific critique of the epidemic of indentured labor and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country,” she wrote, adding that she never intended to refer to the “narrative and history of slavery in the United States” in her writing. “But I recognize I am not writing in merely my own cultural context,” she wrote. “I am so sorry for the pain this has caused.”
At press time Thursday afternoon, with more than 900 responses to Zhao’s apology, a lively debate had erupted on Zhao’s Twitter feed. While some thanked her for addressing the issues raised about the content of Blood Heir and certain themes, others complained that Zhao had been bullied, and should not have given in by asking her publisher to postpone the novel’s release.
While We Need Diverse Books founding member and children’s author Mike Jung tweeted, “This is a courageous and principled decision, Amélie. You have all of my respect for making it, and all of my support moving forward,” another, Gad Saad, who writes books about the psychology of consumption, wrote, “Oh FFS! Is there no end to the endless apologies by weak-minded cowards? Stand your ground. Grow a spine. Fight for universal principles. Grow a pair.” And Write Plan editor and author Stephi Cham tweeted, “I don’t think she’s bowing to a mob. I think she’s listened to valid feedback and made a decision to do better based on that. People want to do well by their readers; why would she release a book she knows can make them feel unheard and marginalized? It’s her choice not to.”
In response to PW’s query, Dominique Cimina, v-p and executive director of publicity and corporate communications for Random House Children’s Books said, “We respect Amélie’s decision, and look forward to continuing our publishing relationship with her.” Cimina noted that Random House has a three-book contract with Zhao.
Zhao’s agent, Peter Knapp at Park Fine Literary and Media told PW, “I stand by Amélie and support her decision, and am excited to continue working together.” Knapp and Zhao connected in October 2017 through the #DVPit Twitter event, during which writers who are from marginalized communities post pitches of their writing projects for participating agents to check out, while editors follow along. After “liking” Zhao’s pitch, Knapp offered to represent her, and sold the Blood Heir trilogy for a deal in the high six figures in December 2017.