Brooklyn artist Ricardo Cortés’s self-published 2005 book It’s Just a Plant sought to explain parental marijuana use to kids. Its success (at least in the media) got him interested in making another mind-expanding children’s title, this time in response to the post-9/11 fear of people with terrorist-associated names. I Don’t Want to Blow You Up! is a didactic coloring book that presents thirteen people with names like Sarah Takesh and Omar Ahmad and explains that, despite their names, they have no intention of detonating an explosive near the reader. Characters include hip-hop star Nas, born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones (“When he made his first hip-hop record out of Queensbridge, New York, people said he ‘blew up’! That means he became popular very quickly. But he doesn’t want to blow you up.”), Swiss theology professor and Time 100 listee Tariq Ramadan (who’s banned from entering the U.S.), and Anousheh Ansari (“She was born in Iran and grew up in the United States of America. She is planet Earth’s first woman ‘space tourist’ … She doesn’t want to blow you up!”).
“We’re just trying to promote the idea that you can give the benefit of the doubt that when you meet someone, they’re a loving person,” Cortés says. “It’s addressing otherness and xenophobic tendencies.” He and co-author F. Bowman Hastie III initially planned to get consent from the public figures depicted, he says. But after a polite rejection from Representative Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who’s the only Muslim in Congress—he cited House rules on commercial projects, and is not in the book—the two consulted a lawyer and decided the sign-offs were unnecessary. Of the eleven real people in the book, only four were asked. “We believe we have the right to have a book that has different public figures in it,” Cortés says. “All the information in the book is basically from any standard biography. There’s nothing new there.” But lawyers representing Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the celebs in the book, don’t agree with that assessment and sent the authors a cease-and-desist letter. Which isn’t to say that Abdul-Jabbar does, in fact, want to blow you up. “The use of his image is unauthorized,” explains Deborah Morales, his manager. “We did not consent to be a part of [the book].” Cortés and Hastie are conferring with their lawyer to see if changes will be necessary. They still plan to release the book as scheduled, on November 9 (it’s 11/9, you see), according to Cortés.
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