David Walliams’ story about a Chinese boy called Brian Wong, which was criticised by campaigners for its “casual racism”, is set to be removed from future editions of his short story collection The World’s Worst Children.
Walliams’ bestselling anthology, which was published in 2016, was criticised earlier this year by the podcaster Georgie Ma over the Brian Wong story, which tells of a boy who was “never, ever wrong”, and who was a “total and utter swot”. “There are so many racist jokes on ESEA [East and Southeast Asian] community with the surname Wong and associating it with wrong,” Ma said on Instagram. “If David Walliams would have done his research, he would have known this.”
Ma, who said the story was “normalising casual racism from an early age”, particularly criticised Tony Ross’s illustration of the character. “You can see it’s just got the stereotypical small eyes, and the glasses, and it’s just complete casual racism,” she said. “It just reminds me of the comics that white supremacists have telling Chinese people to go back to China.”
In May, Ma met with publisher HarperCollins, along with Anna Chan from the Asian Leadership Collective, to discuss how “problematic” the story was. “[We] shared our personal experiences of some of the hardships we had growing up and being teased for being a BBC (British-born Chinese). Stories like Brian Wong have a role to play in normalising jokes on minorities from a young age and we want this to be removed,” she said at the time. “We were open and honest with HarperCollins. We want fairer representation to the wider ESEA community and we feel books that educate kids on diversity should be done fairly, rather than joking about harmful stereotypes.”
Asian Leadership Collective also wrote to HarperCollins, asking for details of the process the book went through before it was signed off, and for information about how diverse the team who created it was.
Now HarperCollins is set to remove the story from the next edition of The World’s Worst Children, which is out in March. “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,” HarperCollins said in a statement. “The update will be scheduled at the next reprint as part of an ongoing commitment to regularly reviewing content.”
Ma told books magazine The Bookseller, which first reported the change, that she was “grateful” to HarperCollins for “listening and taking action”, adding: “I feel there are more stories within the book that need reviewing, but this is just the start … 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.”
Chan welcomed the change, but called on HarperCollins to be more transparent about its thinking. “The initial response of the removal of Brian Wong’s story is a start after our conversations earlier this year, however HarperCollins has been reluctant to commit to anything further which holds them accountable and sets an example as a leader in consumer publishing. Asian Leadership Collective hopes that more transparent communication from HarperCollins will be released to the wider public on why the story is being removed and changed,” she said. “We believe HarperCollins is more than capable in actioning the above and in showing that they are an inclusive, strong thought leader and ally on these issues. HarperCollins needs to be transparent and take accountability for the harmful narratives portrayed in their books.”
Walliams’ writing for children, which has sold more than 40m copies to date, was previously criticised by the author and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe as “sneering classist fatshaming nonsense”. Monroe wrote on Twitter last year that “a white wealthy man using working-class women as punchlines for his tired old jokes and then spoon-feeding them to children is grim”.
The change to The World’s Worst Children follows the news that Kate Clanchy is set to rewrite her Orwell prize-winning book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me after criticism of her portrayal of children of colour. Her publisher Picador have not yet announced when the updated version will be published.
“I know I got many things wrong, and welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly,” Clanchy wrote on Twitter in August.