Earlier today, Kosoko Jackson announced via Twitter that he has asked Sourcebooks Fire to pull his debut YA historical thriller from planned publication in April 2019. The announcement follows a week of online controversy about A Place For Wolves that sparked conversations about the limits and expectations of #OwnVoices authors and treatment of real historical events.
Here is a brief recap of the book, the controversy, and the dialogue that led to Jackson’s apology and the book’s suspension.
A Place For Wolves, Kosoko Jackson’s debut novel, was announced last summer. The novel received traditional early promotion and was blurbed by known YA authors like Courtney Summers and Laurie Halse Anderson.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe meets Code Name Verity in this heartbreaking and poignant historical thriller.From publisher blurb via Goodreads.
James Mills isn’t sure he can forgive his parents for dragging him away from his life, not to mention his best friend and sister, Anna. He’s never felt so alone.
Enter Tomas. Falling for Tomas is unexpected, but sometimes the best things in life are.
Then their world splits apart. A war that has been brewing finally bursts forward, filled with violence, pain, and cruelty. James and Tomas can only rely on each other as they decide how far they are willing to go―and who they are willing to become―in order to make it back to their families.
Many early reviews were positive, focusing on the novel’s #OwnVoices representation of queer characters of color and the fresh, non-US historical setting. A few, however, expressed reservations about the use of the Kosovan Genocide of the late 1990s as a backdrop for teen romance, as in the Kirkus review:
“The resulting story—part romance and part adventure thriller—has elements of a bodice-ripper that at times feel incongruous with both the novel’s setting and the dangerous events happening within the war-torn country. The representation of marginalized groups in a love story is important, but it seems odd to have the main character thrown against a wall by an explosion and then kissing his boyfriend passionately moments later as everyone around them flees in terror.”From Kirkus Reviews, Feb 2019 Issue
In winter, ARCs of the novel became available on Netgalley and elsewhere, allowing a wider range of readers and reviewers access. Again, many reviews were positive assessments of the LGBTQ+ romance, but some were hesitant about the flippant use of the genocide setting.
Last week, one particularly lengthy Goodreads review ignited spread rapidly through the online YA reading community. Posted on February 22 by Tamera Cook, this review became the touchpoint for the growing controversy. In her review, Cook acknowledges that she believes the queer representation was well done, but takes issue with the novel’s treatment of the genocide and use of a terrorist Muslim villain.
“Honestly, reading this felt like the author wanted to set a book in a situation where he could put his MCs at risk and in danger, but he didn’t want to write fantasy, so he decided to set it during the Kosovan genocide. Why do I say this? Because this wasn’t a respectful exploration of a tragedy that really happened. It was all about the MCs, and how scared we are for them, and how much we hope they get out okay so they can return to America and be safe. And, oh yeah, the Kosovans who didn’t get murdered no longer have their family, friends, or homes, but *waves hand vaguely*.”Tamera Cook via Goodreads
Tamera Cook’s review was not the only negative reader response, but her criticisms set the major topics of the ensuing controversy. In her Goodreads review, Cook focuses on two primary criticisms:
1 – The use of the Kosovan Genocide as a backdrop, which Cook says was not respectful of real-life, recent victims and chose to center American characters in the violence directed towards Albanian Muslims.
2 – The use of a Muslim terrorist villain in a setting where Muslims were the victims of ethnic cleansing, perpetuating a racist trope and grounding the conflict in a terrorist-vs-American story rather than the actual historical tragedy.
These two criticisms formed the basis of the negative response to come. Cook’s review, along with similar takes like Maria Hossain’s earlier but less seen review, spread quickly, primarily through Twitter. While the criticism that kicked off the controversy was from individuals who had read A Place For Wolves, the backlash was primarily fed by members of the YA community who had not themselves seen the book. Cook’s interpretation became the accepted version of the book’s themes and content, providing evidence for one-star reviews sight-unseen.
The APFW blow-up comes on the heels of a somewhat similar controversy over Amelie Wen Zhao’s debut Blood Heir, which also resulted in a YA book being pulled at the author’s request after a small number of critical reviews led to a flood of online denouncements from community members who had not read the book.
Feelings ran hot during the Blood Heir discussion, and this controversy only heightened tensions. Both controversies have brought unusual attention to YA Twitter by major news outlets, which have published articles (by writers with little to no expertise/familiarity with the YA community) criticizing “mob” and “bully” behavior that shamed authors into canceling. Jesse Singal, who wrote a much-shared and much-criticized analysis of the Blood Heir saga, published a similar piece today about APFW, which mentions (without citation) that Jackson was “outspoken” against Blood Heir.
“He Was Part of a Twitter Mob That Attacked Young Adult Novelists. Then It Turned on Him. Now His Book Is Cancelled.”Jesse Singal for Reason
Kat Rosenfield, who wrote another high-profile piece on the Blood Heir withdrawal, also weighed in:
While many join Singal and Rosenfield in seeing an online mob, others argue that early readers have a responsibility to speak out against books that may harm young readers with insensitive or disrespectful representation:
Calls to denounce the book also led to a secondary conversation about the responsibility of marginalized readers and writers to police and respond to this kind of controversy. Some, only hours after Cook’s review, denounced the YA community for not doing enough to speak out:
Still others responded to this attitude by arguing that writers and readers from marginalized identities, who are most harmed by such portrayals, should not be required put themselves at risk and expend emotional labor on demand:
On Tuesday, Jackson made his first (intentionally) public response to the controversy on Twitter:
As of today (Feb 28), Sourcebooks has pulled APFW from publication with no indication of future publication.
Jackson announced the cancellation along with an apology posted to Twitter:
This is a fast-moving story that I’m sure will continue to evolve. If you have news about APFW or more information/perspectives on the controversy that I haven’t included, I’d appreciate a comment or a DM pointing me in the right direction. I want this post to be a useful resource and will update this post as I get more information.
An opinion piece on the controversy appeared in The New York Times online on March 8.
Written by Jennifer Senior, who says she has read the book in question, the article criticizes both the book and the outrage that led to its cancellation.
There was an obvious irony to his story, a karmic boomerang: Jackson, who is black and gay, often worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishing houses, which meant his job was to flag just the sort of problem content for which he was now being run out of town. He was Robespierre with his own neck in the cradle of the guillotine. One of the captains of “cancel culture” — which urges people to shun the insensitive, the oppressive, the morally questionable — got canceled himself.Jennifer Senior for NYT