The Latest China-Related Product Recall: Mine

A few weeks ago, I gave a bookstore reading for my new kids’ book, The Boy With Two Belly Buttons. I was sitting on the floor, reading to a bunch of kids, when suddenly something seemed wrong with the story — it didn’t track, didn’t make sense to me at all. Befuddled, I stopped reading. I remember thinking, “Wow, has it been so long since I looked at the story that I’ve forgotten how it goes?” Then I thought maybe I had simply skipped a page. But after flipping the pages back and forth, I saw that wasn’t the case.

Finally, I figured out what had happened: the text on one of the pages of the book was missing. The illustration was fine, and the text on the facing page was fine, but on the page in question, the words were simply missing. It was a misprint — or, more accurately, a non-print. What a drag.

So I thought for a minute about the missing text, paraphrased that section for the kids, and finished the book. That page was the only one missing any text. Afterwards, at the book signing, I handwrote the absent lines for anyone who wanted them. It was only four lines, and they didn’t take more than a minute or so to write.

I remembered the publisher telling me that the book was printed in China, so I assumed the mishap was yet another Chinese quality-control issue concerning children’s merchandise. Fortunately, this is just a kids’ book and not poisoned toothpaste or toys contaminated with a date-rape drug, but still, I was pretty chagrined. There are only about 540 words of text in the whole book, so the missing text represented 3 percent of the total. I would have been pretty distressed if 3 percent of the text in Freakonomics had been missing.

The publisher was suitably horrified to hear what had happened, and hustled to recall all the defective books. As it turned out, they were all part of a second printing. The first printing, which had indeed been done in China, was perfect. The second printing, meanwhile, had been done in … New Jersey.

I can just imagine some nice Chinese couple with young children ordering the book and finding that, all of a sudden, the story doesn’t make sense. “I’ll never buy anything made in New Jersey again!” they tell each other.

For anyone who already owns a defective copy, I would offer to handwrite the missing paragraph for you, but a) that’s not very practical; and b) your handwriting is probably a lot better than mine. So you can do it yourself. On the left-hand page where you see Solomon sitting down and looking across the page at a turtle, here’s what it should say:

Down the road, Solomon saw Victor the turtle.
“Victor, how many belly buttons do you have?”

In the meantime, let’s hope that the printing company in New Jersey isn’t also printing, say, instruction manuals for pacemakers.


I have run across this article in doing a research paper in my Business Law Class. I thought the article was interesting on how quickly we can jump to conclusions, but isn't that how life is with everything. In doing my paper I have discovered how many differences of opinions there are. I particularly liked Mariano's comment. It goes to show you how much growing needs to be done in our fasted pasted world. What ever happened to the joy of being alive and the appreciation of nature's gifts? Thanks for letting me post a comment. Gabriel


And here I was about to buy your book this past Sunday to put in my kid's stocking.
Guess I'll wait for the third printing.


We are fed up with the lack of quality products on the market today. We recently had our first baby, which would naturally require the acquisition of several new products within about a two month period of time. Our acquisitions included: a stroller missing a cup holder, a damaged crib inside an undamaged box, an expensive changing table that had a major piece break when putting it together, an exersaucer with missing parts, a high chair with a broken wheel, a vacuum cleaner with missing attachments, a light fixture with missing parts, and a new bathroom faucet with a broken part. About 80% of the "new" and often quite expensive products we opened in two months were broken or missing pieces. Whatever happened to quality?



As a quality assurance guy in manufacturing - what happened is that manufacturers put too many resources into efficiency improvements to get you inexpensive product (and get themselves better margins) and take away resources from actual product quality monitoring and improvement.
When I started working in manufacturing in 1990 about 9-10% of hourly people were QC in some form or antother. Now it's closer to 5%.
Sometimes there is a corresponding increase in training the equipment operators to do their own QC, but in medium to small companies they make due without.
It is widely seen to top managers that quality staffing is not value added.
They all really ought to take a few cost of quality classes.



Why are you buying your new baby a vacuum cleaner?! :)


Perhaps those copies of your book with your corrections will one day be as highly desired as those first edition copies of Ulysses in which James Joyce wrote revisions in the margins.

Joe Ardent

Funny how complete the drug war's victory on framing the issue is. GHB is not a "date-rape drug" any more than a car is a "vehicular homicide device". Both may be technically described as such, and be equally informative.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy some Zima for these 16-year-old girls!


Maybe you should send people a sticker with the text, like you do with the bookplate for autographs.


So then it's not really a China - related recall, is it?


Simply lost in translation.
I'm sure that all of these companies have done their due diligence and sent their QC personel to 6-sigma training.

So as 6 or "liu" in Chinese superstitions relate it to "wages & salary"...

Clearly, the focus shifted from these employees on their duties as QC analysts to focusing on the wages and salaries of the plant.


Let me guess: Englewood Cliffs.

bernardo p.

just curious,,,why China first and then changing to New Jersey ??


Hey - how about free Freakonomics schwag for the person(s) that come up with the best original replacement text for that page?

Also, would this pacemaker instruction manual be for doctors or patients?


I cann't help but read this article as a best illustration of how prejudice can easily shape in peoples' mind, even for those supposely unbiased and clear-minded scholars, like Stephen. As a person live outside America, I will look at the series of China-product recalls in a different perspective. If you take the total volume of goods export to US and the world, I wonder if the recalls are of significant percentage. In addition, most of the recalls are actually due to design faults. If the products' brand holder have take their share of responsibility to check the design and make sure the quality when arriving the US shore, there will certainly much less product related mishaps. I think it is better to deal with the the probolem by building a good chain of communication and monitoring system, rather than finger-pointing and searching for scape-goat. So next time Stephen, please don't disappointing your reader for showing us that your mind is easily affect by poplur believes as well.



you should have ran a yoyo contest for who comes up with the best caption


I think this is a symptom of the 'Walmart Effect' where the pressure to lower or contain prices has a negative effect on quality. While the pressure to keep prices low is a positive thing, it is becoming more difficult to find quality products at a reasonable price. My wife bought a lawn mower at a major chain which lasted only two years. Yet my father had the same lawn mower for almost 20 years. In the end I bought a new lawn mower from a company that does not do business with Walmart or any of its peers. While I paid more than I would have liked to, the quality of the product will save me on the long term replacement costs.


I really dont understand why all of a sudden every problem is China´s fault and people do not realize that the problems are from American buyers themselves.
The factory does what the buyer asks them, and will control and will design according to the specifications from the buyer and the MONEY that is paid to them. In china you can produce things of great quality and others of very bad. A clear example is that all the IPHONES are made in china, noone seems to complain about their quality...
If mattel recalls products is China´s fault, not mattel???
why on the news papers there are not news like
"a man was shot and dead by bullets made in the USA"
"A Lady is killed after her car slipped in the road, due to poor design by German crazy engineers."

Stop with this lie, realize this is just a campaign from the US government to reduce the imports from China. They are affraid China will keep eating US industries, the way they are doing now...



Based on the policies of the US Government, aside from a few niche industries, they could not care less about where manufacturing is based in or where imports are from. Frankly, it is absurd to believe that the Government would resort to sabotage and yellow journalism to reduce imports from China, as from the recent spate of recalls recently, Chinese manufacturing is doing enough on it's own to look bad.


I think it is pretty cool that you were willing to write in the lines for kids, even if it was just a few words. Many authors would have just said, "Sorry, kids".


This post is nothing but the perpetuation of a stereotype. If this had been a US printer you would have named the printer not the country. Keen to take advantage of cheap labor costs American firms are rushing to get things manufactured in China, but there is a risk to this. There has not been sufficient time for firms to build reputations and your publisher does not know whom to trust. but they took the risk anyway - how does the fact that your bet did not work out entitle you to blame the entire Chinese manufacturing industry?