She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found It Racist. Now She Plans to Publish.

She decided they weren’t. In March, Zhao called her editor at Delacorte Press and told her that she wanted to move forward with the novel after all. She made some revisions, and “Blood Heir” is now scheduled to be released in November.

“Ultimately, it’s true to my vision,” she said.

Zhao’s decision to move ahead with publication will likely reignite the fractious, ongoing debate about diversity, representation and “cancel culture” in the young adult literary world. While some see the discussion about cultural appropriation in fiction as a necessary, if painful, step toward addressing the lack of diversity in publishing, others argue that the online Y.A. community has become too cutthroat, even intolerant, in its attacks on first-time authors who tackle challenging social issues or write outside their immediate cultural experience.

When the controversy over “Blood Heir” erupted, battle lines were quickly drawn within the close-knit children’s publishing community. A small but influential group of authors argued that the novel dealt insensitively with race and the legacy of slavery, and was an affront to nonwhite communities. The book’s cancellation then prompted an equally passionate backlash to the backlash from a camp that rallied to Zhao’s defense, arguing that the novel’s critics, who claimed to be championing diversity, had bullied a young Asian woman into silence. “How a Twitter Mob Derailed an Immigrant Female Author’s Budding Career” read one headline in Tablet magazine. Other people faulted the author herself for caving to pressure.

Zhao is of course not the first — or even the most recent — Y.A. novelist to be buried under an avalanche of criticism before her book even came out. Keira Drake’s fantasy novel, “The Continent,” was delayed by her publisher and rewritten after readers blasted it as “racist trash” and “offensive” in early reviews. In 2017, Laurie Forest was bombarded with hundreds of negative reviews on Goodreads by readers who claimed her debut fantasy novel, “The Black Witch,” was bigoted, months before the book’s release. And in February, Kosoko Jackson pulled his young adult debut novel, “A Place for Wolves,” a story set in the 1990s during the Kosovo war that features two gay American teenagers. Jackson decided to cancel the publication after a firestorm erupted on social media over his decision to set the story against the backdrop of genocide, and to make the story’s villain an Albanian Muslim. “I apologize to those I hurt with my novel,” he wrote in a statement.

The blowup over “A Place for Wolves,” which was scheduled to be published in March by Sourcebooks Fire, was particularly fraught, because Jackson, a young gay black man, works as a sensitivity reader, or an expert who helps authors and publishers vet books for potentially problematic content and stereotypes. Jackson was also part of the chorus of voices denouncing “Blood Heir,” an ironic twist that was seized upon by observers who claim the movement to police potential cultural appropriation in literature has gone too far.


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