HarperCollins is to remove a story from David Walliams’ The World’s Worst Children after it was criticised for using “harmful stereotypes” in its depiction of a Chinese boy. It is understood the new edition of the book will be published in March 2022 without the story “Brian Wong, Who Was Never, Ever Wrong”, with a new character to be included instead.
The publisher confirmed the unusual move, after meeting with podcaster and writer Georgie Ma, who had criticised the book on social media earlier this year after coming across the story. A statement from the publisher read: "In consultation with our author and illustrator we can confirm that a new story will be written to replace ‘Brian Wong’ in future editions of The World’s Worst Children. The update will be scheduled at the next reprint as part of an ongoing commitment to regularly reviewing content."
Written by Walliams and illustrated by Tony Ross, the book was first published by HarperCollins Children's Books in May 2016, and features characters such as Nigel Nit-Boy and Bertha the Blubberer. Its follow-up, The World's Worst Children 2, was published a year later.
Ma told The Bookseller: “'Wong' and 'wrong' are two words that are commonly used in playgrounds to pick on someone if their surname is Wong. Even just the way Brian has been illustrated. He wears glasses, he looks like a nerd, he’s got small eyes... they're all harmful stereotypes. The overall character plays on the model minority myth where Chinese people are nerdy, swotty and good at maths, we’re not confrontational and we’re high achievers. It was just really disappointing to read about that. Personally for me, because I have a toddler, I don’t want her being absorbed in these stories where Chinese culture is misrepresented."
Ma publicly criticised the title in February from her Instagram account (@chinesechippygirl) and gained support from others within the British Chinese community. Following a meeting with HarperCollins, Ma was told that the character would be removed from future editions. Upon hearing of the change, Ma said she was “grateful” to the publisher for “listening and taking action”. She also urged writers to consult with the communities they are portraying in their work and to use sensitivity readers.
The development comes at a pivotal moment for the publishing sector following the criticism of the Kate Clanchy book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me for its descriptions of children, which is also now to be re-written and republished by Picador. There remains a larger debate to be had about how publishers review historical, as well as recently published, content.
Ma added: “I feel there are more stories within the book that need reviewing, but this is just the start... I want this to be a learning for all authors who write stories based on marginalised communities, to do their research and seek guidance such as sensitivity reads. Especially if they are not from that community.
"I think it’s great that authors and illustrators want to do books on different cultures. But if they’re not from that background, they really need to consult those communities and do their own research to represent them fairly.”
Ma highlighted a recent spike in hate crime on the East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) community since the coronavirus pandemic, and a number of high-profile incidents where the ESEA community has been stereotyped or merged into one monolithic community. Reflecting on the campaign, she said: "I’m not going to get sad or angry about it, I’m going to take action and speak up. I want other people to realise that this story is inappropriate, and it doesn't represent the ESEA community fairly."
Ma was supported in the meeting with HarperCollins by Anna Chan from the Asian Leadership Collective, which works to increase and amplify leadership representation of ESEA communities and support work around inclusivity, equality and equity.
Chan also wrote to the publisher to highlight the issues around the book and how it “perpetuated negative stereotypes”. Responding to the proposed changes she said: “The initial reaction from us is that it’s promising that after hearing our feedback and having the session they want to do something about it.”
However, she said the publisher “could do better” by being “more forward and showing that they are not only changing the story, but they are also taking a larger commitment towards some of the material and content that they’ve put out there that might be harmful to other communities, and that they’re actually being the leader that they say that they are on these important issues".
Amy Phung from grassroots organisation Britain’s East and South East Asian Network (besea.n) said she was “not surprised” by the “reductive stereotyping” of ESEA people in the story. Phung said she was “very sceptical” about the proposed changes. “My feeling is that it feels like a bandage. It feels like a plaster over a problem and that there are very systemic issues around why this book came to be on the shelf. It obviously passed through a lot of hands, agents, writers, publishers, buyers, even the people putting it on the shelf. I think everyone has a responsibility to really look into what content they are putting out there.”