Disclaimer: I have only read the section of THE UNADOPTABLES that is available through Amazon.
On July 21, 2020, a book entitled THE UNADOPTABLES by Hana Tooke was released by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Based on the description of the book, the story centers around five children who have been relinquished and attempt to escape the orphanage in search of their “real family”.
There are a couple of things I want to talk about in terms of the author, the book itself, and issues within the publishing industry. Here I go:
WHO IS HANA TOOKE?
According to her website bio:
Hana is the author of The Unadoptables, an historical adventure set in 19th century Amsterdam. If Matron Gassbeek were to introduce Hana as one of her orphans, she would most probably do it like so:
Hana, age 30-ish, likes cats and catnaps, eats far too many stroopwafels, handwriting is acceptable, cooking-skills are atrocious, but she can wiggle her nose like a bunny. Hana comes with odd socks and a blanket covered in cat-fluff.
Hana was born in Alkmaar, Netherlands, in 1985 and moved to England in the late 1990s. She now lives in Bath with a big human, a little human, and an even littler cat. Hana is constantly inspired by and in awe of the curious, determined, and imaginative children and young people she works with. She hopes to grow up to be just like them one day.
Nowhere in Tooke’s bio does it state that Hana is an adoptee, was in foster care, or has any sort of connection to the experience of adoption in any form. I can find no interview where Tooke states that she conductive extensive research on adoption, or conducted interviews with adoptees, adoptive parents, foster children, etc.
WHY IS THAT IMPORTANT?
Tooke has co-opted the experience of a marginalized community, exploited that community for financial gain, and has produced a book that perpetuates negative stereotypes about adoption, foster care, and more AND does actual harm to the adoption community.
Which brings us to the larger issues within the publishing industry:
INDIE PUBLISHING VS. MAINSTREAM PUBLISHING
To truly understand the gravity of the impact of THE UNADOPTABLES, it’s essential to talk about the different paths to publishing. Whether or not they realize it, when most people think about publishing, they think of the big 5: Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. The Big 5 are big for a reason – they have hundreds (if not thousands) of employees, long-standing relationships with bookstores, retailers, review outlets, and more, and money. When your book is published by one of the big 5, you receive what I would consider to be a considerable advance, a dedicated staff of editors, cover designers, and publicists, and access to the publishing house’s connections, which they have spent decades building and nurturing.
When you’re like me, and you’ve been lucky enough to have your book published by an independent press that’s willing to take a chance on a first-time author with no readership, your support is a little different. I had the privilege of being published by Akashic Books whose tagline is “reverse gentrification of the literary world” – I mean, that says it all. They were amazing to work with – collaborative on cover design, they got me interviews with some really interesting bloggers, and if I was able to have an in-person event, I know they would have been there cheering me on the whole way. But since Akashic is busy creating space for other authors, a lot of the promotion and marketing of my book was my responsibility.
Getting back to THE UNADOPTABLES…
According to The Bookseller, “Penguin Random House Children’s UK has acquired Hana Tooke’s début Middle Grade title in a “significant” six-figure deal, with the manuscript selling in pre-empts in Italy, France, Spain and Norway.”
So, in the year 2020, a mainstream publisher gave a writer coopting the experience of a marginalized group a six-figure advance and their full-backing instead of seeking out, making space for, and providing a platform to a book by a member of the adoption constellation.
Now, you can’t just walk into Penguin Random House and say, “Publish my book and pay me money.” You’ve got to jump through hoops, my friend. You have to get an agent and then complete the manuscript to the point where the agent thinks it’s ready to be queried. After that, the manuscript goes through readers, buyers, and higher-ups to generate an offer. After the offer is made and accepted, the contract and the manuscript go to legal, to edits, to cover design, to marketing and to publicity.
So that means:
- An agent thought publishing this book was a good idea
- A reader (actually probably more than one) thought publishing this book was a good idea
- A buyer thought publishing this book was a good idea
- A person with decision-making power thought publishing this book was a good idea
- Legal thought publishing this book was a good idea
- A team of editors thought publishing this book was a good idea
- A cover design team thought publishing this book was a good idea
- And a marketing and publicity team thought publishing this book was a good idea
It makes me incredibly sad to think that not one person stood up and said, “Instead of publishing this book, perhaps we should employ a sensitivity reader to ensure we are not coopting the experience of a marginalized group and doing harm to an entire community of people.” And it makes me sadder to think that if there was a person who stood up and said that, they were likely silenced.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of publishing houses encouraging their readers to commit to purchasing at least (2) books by Black authors. What I’m not seeing is a commitment from the publishing industry to publish (2) books by Black authors. I’m not seeing Black authors’ stories and experiences being valued. I’m not seeing equality in monetary advances. I’m not seeing Black editors, publicists, designers, and agents being hired. I’m not seeing existing Black employees at publishing house being empowered, being offered mentorship, being given every opportunity to succeed and excel. I’m not seeing publishing making space for BIPOC and marginalized populations.
Publishing is a powerful tool of white supremacy and the suppression of BIPOC and marginalized populations. It is essential we call out books like THE UNADOPTABLES and authors like Hana Tooke who coopt and exploit the narratices of BIPOC and marginalized populations.
Recently in the online adoptee community, we’ve called out several individuals for coopting the adoptee experience and exploiting the community. Andie and Christa said it best, “Calling out is not cancel culture. Calling out is an invitation to do better.”
I am not looking to bully, cancel, or harass Penguin Random House and Hana Tooke – I’m extending them an invitation to own their mistake, to do better, and to learn from this.
Also, before I go, I just need to ask, “Who in their right mind approved this title?”
HOW CAN I HELP?
You can contact Penguin at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also tweet at Penguin and Viking Books.