Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's a Controversy

Careful. Books can be dangerous!
Two weeks ago I wrote a brief post about Lane Smith's incredibly clever and illuminating picture book, aptly titled It's A Book.

Today, an article on the School Library Journal web site--originally published in the SLJ newsletter Extra Helping--discussed the controversy surrounding Smith's use of the word "jackass" in the book as a double entendre.

For the curious, the characters in this book are simply referred to as the animals they are: mouse, monkey, and jackass. As you can imagine, it's the jackass who serves as the story's antagonist, quizzing the monkey about his choice of non-electronic entertainment.

"Can it blog? Can it tweet?" asks the quizzical donkey.

"No. It's a book, jackass," replies the monkey.

Smith admits his books are cheeky by design, definitely appealing to the more mischievous kids out there. But is his use of "jackass" a reason for controversy? Is it introducing young children to words their fragile ears shouldn't be exposed to? Is it forcing parents to have "uncomfortable" conversations with their kids?

More importantly, should It's A Book not be in Kindergarten classrooms, daycares, or libraries?

It's a Book
Yeah, what he said.
Credit: Roaring Brook Press
Some people are posting negative comments on the SLJ web site, viciously giving the book 1-star reviews on Amazon, and generally blasting Smith for exposing kids to "filth" and "profanity."

Here's my take on the matter: Words only have the power we attribute to them. I read this book to all three of my young children. They loved it! But they did ask me if "jackass" was a bad word. That's fine; I read the book in advance and expected them to.

"It depends on how it's used," was my immediate reply, and I explained to them that certain words can mean different things when they're used offensively. It doesn't make the word "bad" or "filthy", and they shouldn't ever feel ashamed for using a perfectly normal word in its proper context.

As for the people who think this book doesn't belong in classrooms or libraries, I can only shake my head in disbelief. No one parent has the right to decide what an entire classroom, or school, or community should learn. After all, child-rearing begins at home, and reasonable parents know this.

What's your opinion on the matter? Is Lane Smith over-stepping his boundaries as a KidLit author? Or are some critics just being, well, jackasses?

Sound off in the Comments area, and next week I will pick one comment at random. That guest will win a FREE copy of It's A Book, courtesy of yours truly. So spread the word!


  1. I think this picture book is more for adults. I loved it and thought it was humorous. It's a shame that Smith used the word "jackass." That one word will prevent many teachers and librarians from using it during storytime.

  2. @Linda - That's certainly a possibility. Out of curiosity, do you object to the use of the word "jackass" at the outset of the book, or the way it is used at the end of the book, or both? Do you think Smith or his publisher should re-issue the book without the word?

  3. (Just because this is type and not a vocal conversation, I should point out that I'm not being flippant. I actually am curious about everyone's perspectives on the book, positive or negative.)

  4. A parent's perspective and a teacher's/librarian's are vastly different. As a parent, my approach would be similar to yours. But I think many teachers and librarians would not want to open Pandora's Box. They wouldn't want to risk the hassle of parent complaints, parent meetings, etc.

  5. Hmmm... I don't take offense. And I agree with you that words are words and it's the context behind them that make them rude or ugly. It's not until we hear these words used in a negative way that they take on the badness.
    It seems so silly to get bent out of shape when the word is in the dictionary as part of the English language.
    However, with that being said, the author had to know this choice would stir some emotion. Perhaps that's what he was looking for??
    I would read it to my kids and not worry about it. Each parent has to choose what's right for their own kids. By forbidding a kid to use a word we only make it that much more enticing. Instead, perhaps there's a time and place for everything and teaching that to kids will help them know certain words must be used wisely.

  6. I have to agree with your post, the use of the word is not being used in a profane way so it shouldn't be even a concern. I personally haven't read it to mine but I would. No book is too taboo in our home. If my kids show interest, they read it. And if they have question, we talk. Then again, I am the kind of person who has frank discussions with my 10 yo about sex too. I would rather have an open discussion with my kids then for them to feel something is too taboo to ask me about. It creates a very trusting environment in my opinion. At the same time, it does create times where discussion does get "uncomfortable".

  7. Well, a donkey is an 'ass.'
    Can you imagine if he'd used a dik-dik instead?

  8. Though I have yet to read this book, from my first opinion (formed right here, mind you) I smiled at the use. I realized right away that my children too would ask about the word, but that I would have an excellent opportunity right there, with The Book in hand, to show them that not only this but MANY words in our language have many different meanings. Living with a 7 year old who has the heart of an author and illustrator budding before my eyes, this would be invaluable to me!

  9. Interesting post, Martin - thank you for sharing it! I'd definitely read the book at home (although my 3 year old is a PARROT and would most certainly repeat the word at preschool). I have to agree with Linda, though, that a teacher or librarian might simply avoid the book altogether rather than risk the controversy that might follow.

  10. I have seen the trailer of the book and was delighted with Lane Smith's story. As you mentioned, children should learn to be aware of the content and the spirit in which words are used and understand if they spoken only to hurt someone as many words often are, this is ultimately up to the parents.

  11. I think using jackass in a book is a little cheeky, but if handled right in a conversation (such as you did) - there's nothing to it.

    Given that a lot more ummm.. harsher words are used every day on television, it's something else that people are creating a controversy over jackass!

  12. I've heared my two year olds say words worse than jackass! So with that said I think that I would read it to them. This is now on my list of books to purchase!

  13. @PK - Well said. And you're probably right about Lane Smith knowing how people might react. His previous works are equally... playful.

    @The Girls - We're very selective in our home with what the kids watch, read, and play. But we don't shy away from exposing them to new things, provided it's age-appropriate. That said, my kids often surprise me with their astute observations on how the world works. :)

    @Alex - That can be your next book! "Fun With Dik-Dik and Jane."

    @Vicky - I'll bring it to the next Marauders meeting so you can see it!

    @Kristin - You're welcome! I've heard that some teachers or librarians just skip the word. It only occurs twice in the book, and only once in a sentence. I might actually ask my daughter's Kindergarten teacher her opinion. Curious about what she'll say. Then again, we live nearby a city that celebrates the mule with an annual festival.

    @Lyn - Truer words have never been spoken!

    @Aleta - Great point! Little kids regularly hear "fierce" language elsewhere, even on the school bus. Now, I don't think that excuses people from using bad language around children, but as you said, parents can handle things in the right way and avoid it becoming an issue.

    @smurphy379 - If you enjoy it, check out Lane Smith's other works. After "It's a Book", I'd say my favorite is "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales".

  14. We just chatted about this book on PBlitchat the other night, and it was interesting because some of the members from Australia had absolutely no problem with this word, while some from the US really did (equating it to meaning something much worse than our Aussie members did). I'm from Canada, and I personally don't have a problem with it, but I do think that many librarians and teachers might steer away from it rather than have to get into explanations. (Not saying that it's a cultural difference across the board, but I did find this interesting. My sister, who went to school in England, says things like "he's such an ass" more freely than I would, too.)

    I also think that the intent of it at the end is more derogatory rather than just descriptive, and that makes a difference.

    I think it's hysterical. I'd read it to my kids.

  15. I'm a teacher and there is no way I'd bring that book into my classroom! It doesn't take much to rake a teacher over the coals, and this would definitely do it. As far as the audience goes, I agree, it's adult (or older kid) humor and doesn't belong in a picture book. Like Kristen said, preschoolers will parrot it. Is this how we want young kids to speak? I don't have any kids who still read picture books nor would I bring it into my classroom so if you should draw my name, choose again. Thanks for an interesting post, but sorry I don't agree with your take on it. I'm sure the book is clever, but an author must always consider the audience he or she is writing for and adjust accordingly. It would be great fun to read that line in a middle grade or ya novel!

  16. While I wouldn't "risk" reading this one as a read aloud in a classroom (I've taught 2-6th), I'd totally bring it into my classroom and home libraries. Wordplay, in all its devilish forms, is fun! Remember The King Who Rained? Or Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book (Now that one I wouldn't bring into my classroom, but I remember finding it as a 10-year-old and thinking I'd plucked the choicest forbidden fruit!) Cheers to Lane Smith! My kids' favorite for a while was his The Happy Hockey Family.

  17. I can see where this book wouldn't find a home in libraries or classrooms simply because of the inflammatory nature of our society. Also, in most classrooms and libraries, children are free to choose their own books which eliminates the chance of 'the talk' which would put the library/classroom open to more criticism. NOT THAT I AGREE. I would totally let my kids read this book, and I love Lane Smith's work. This book would be a great tool for teachers and parents to use to discuss the power of words and even the topic of 'bad words'.

  18. @Jessica - You hit the nail the head, I think, that certain words don't maintain their stigma across borders--not just nations, but sometimes just states or communities. What might be taboo in one place is laissez-faire in another. Btw, love your closing line. ;-)

    @Joyce - Thanks for your perspective. When I said in my post that I couldn't believe people wanted to keep this book out of classrooms and libraries, I was looking at it strictly from a parental PoV--that no other parent should be able to dictate lessons for the entire class. However, after having several teachers chime in (thanks, all!) I can sympathize with the fact that all it takes is 1 angry parent to railroad your curriculum, or even your career.

    My kids' teachers have sometimes taken a more democratic approach. They've emailed my wife and I, over the years that the girls have been in school, and asked all the parents if they want their child participating in this event, or watching that movie during free time. If we said no, our child was given something else to do, like time in the library or the computer lab. I think that's a win-win.

    That said, I respect that a teacher knows her students AND the "pulse" of her community, and should have autonomy RE: what books are used in her classroom.

    @Darcy - The book is categorized as being for ages 4-8. As a teacher and parent, you know that you're likely to find a HUGE range of maturity and comprehension in that demographic. (I also think you're UNlikely to find many 4 & 5 y/o kids who actually grasp all the technical jargon in the book, but I digress.) So I appreciate that you drew the distinction between not using the book as a read-aloud vs. just making it available.

    I can REALLY relate to your experience with Uncle Shelby ("Catch the egg, Ernie!"). As an 11 y/o, I found that my local comic book store owner would blithely sell me comics for mature readers (18+). Nothing explicit, but plenty of grown-up language and situations.

    I'm conflicted, though, because as a dad, I'd be outraged if this happened with my kids (or at least peeved). But being able to buy those comics introduced me to some of the BEST storytelling I've ever read, and one of my favorite authors to this day, Neil Gaiman. (They also inspired me to write, as I enjoyed the stories more than the art.)

    Over the years I've suspected my parents KNEW I had those comics (I 'hid' them in plain sight), but they also had faith in their parenting abilities and were confident that I wouldn't turn into a bad egg for reading them. :)

    @Donna - Yes, I definitely say put the book on the library shelf and let the kids choose their books. If you're going to have Aesop's Fables in a school library, Lane Smith's book is tame by comparison. And you're right--it's books like this (or certain TV shows and other entertainment) that can, in the right environment and with the right teacher or parent, become an invaluable lesson about the power of words.

  19. I really think that... uh... I just want free stuff, in all honesty.

  20. Official Notice Thingy: The contest is now closed. Thanks to all who participated! The winner has been notified via email, and I will write a new post announcing the winner later today!