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By Webb Wright | NY reporter

October 16, 2023 | 6 min read

The book, made from fire-resistant paper and bound in flame-retardant material, sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $130,000.

Each year, the International ANDY Awards team up with the Advertising Club of New York hold the Brave Brands awards, celebrating brands that have undertaken bold, risk-taking projects alongside their agency partners. This year, the honor was bestowed on Penguin Random House and its creative agency Rethink for its fearless reproach of literary censorship.

Since the dawn of the printing press in the 15th century, books have been suppressed and intentionally destroyed for all kinds of reasons; typically it’s because they contain messages that are deemed by powerful institutions to be contrary to established dogmas. And throughout the centuries, the banning and burning of books has been a hallmark of authoritarianism, a quick and often effective means of preventing the free flow of ideas among a population.

It was alarming to many, then, when there was a sudden uptick of the prohibition of books within the American school system in 2022.

Even in the United States, with its vaunted First Amendment, book banning is nothing new. But in late 2021 it began to make headlines when Matt Krause, then a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Texas, began to challenge the presence of hundreds of books that were available in school districts across the state, many of which were oriented around themes of, gender identity, sexual orientation and race. The move set off a wave of book bans throughout Texas schools; according to a report from Pen America, a nonprofit championing freedom of speech in literature, Texas banned 801 titles across 22 school districts throughout the 2021-2022 school year – the most in the country, followed by Florida (566 titles banned) and Pennsylvania (457).

The number of titles that were “challenged“ – meaning that an effort was made to ban them – across the US doubled in 2022 compared to the previous year, according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.

While no government officials seem to have publicly endorsed the burning of books in 2022, the uptick in challenges and bans may have boosted the confidence of those who sought the wholesale destruction of certain books. In February of that year, for example, a Tennessee pastor gathered his congregation to burn books like Harry Potter and Twilight, which the group deemed to be dangerous due to their promotion of “witchcraft.”

As one of the largest book publishers in the world, Penguin Random House has a vested interest in preventing the prohibition of books. This was a major reason why the brand teamed up with Canadian agency Rethink to produce the ’Unburnable Book’, a flame-resistant copy of Margaret Atwood’s bestselling classic, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The campaign – honored at the Brave Brands award show this week – was sparked in 2022, when Robbie Percy and Caroline Friesen, both creative directors at Rethink, began to read about the book-banning efforts in Texas. “What year is it? What’s happening? This is crazy,” Percy recalls the two of them thinking at the time. They then asked themselves: “What if we actually made a book that was impossible to burn, as a symbol of anti-censorship?”

They took the idea to Penguin Books, which according to Percy was “immediately all-in on the idea.” After chiseling down a list of 10 or so books, among which included a title from Toni Morrison, they eventually landed on The Handmaid’s Tale. Originally published in 1985, the book is a dystopian novel set in the Republic of Gilead, a fictitious patriarchal and white supremacist regime in which a class of women known as ’Handmaids’ are forced to bear children for elite members of society. Since its publication, it has been one of the most commonly banned books in the United States.

Just like Penguin Random House, Atwood – whom Percy describes as “a very mischievous person” – was also quick to embrace the idea of the ’Unburnable Book’.

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In the end, only a single copy was produced. To promote the project, Rethink filmed a particularly mischievous-looking Atwood donning a pair of thick gloves and firing a flame-thrower at the Unburnable Book, which was composed of fire-resistant paper and bound in flame-retardant material.

In June of last year, the book sold at an auction hosted by Sotheby’s for an impressive $130,000, all of which went to Pen America. (The buyer was anonymous.) It was also later featured in an exhibit at a museum in Denmark, says Percy, “so it's still living on and going around the world, still telling the story, which is really exciting.”

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