Reading reports of books challenged and banned usually makes my stomach turn, but once in a while there’s one that makes my blood boil. The Annville-Cleona School Board in Pennsylvania recently voted unanimously to ban from two elementary school libraries The Dirty Cowboy, a picture book written by Amy Timberlake and illustrated by Adam Rex. It’s a clever, fun story about a young cowboy who instructs his dog to watch his clothes while he takes his annual bath. When the cowboy emerges from his bath in the river, the dog does not recognize his familiar smell and refuses to give back his clothes.
The board voted unanimously (8-0) at its April 19th meeting to remove the book based on the objection of one student’s parents. An evaluation committee consisting of teachers, administrators, and board members met last week to review the book and recommended its removal. According to the Lebanon Daily News: “Cleona Elementary School librarian Anita Mentzer objected to the book’s removal, saying she does not believe that one parent’s objection to a book should determine whether or not the rest of the students in the school can read it.”
In his delightful illustrations, Rex uses various items, such as birds, a hat and a boot, to cover the boy’s genitals and backside while he is bathing and then while he is attempting to get his clothes back. Readers do not see so much as a butt crack. According to Annville-Cleona Schools Superintendent Steven Houser, as reported in the Lebanon Daily News: “They [the parents] were asked what do you feel might be the result of viewing or reading this material, and their answer was, ‘Children may come to the conclusion that looking at nudity is OK, and therefore pornography is OK,’” he said. “The parents asked us to review this book because their concern was parents should have the right to decide whether or not their children view this book.” In trying to rationalize the banning of the book, Houser compared the book to inappropriate content in movies and on the Internet. He noted that some movies are not appropriate for certain age groups, so movies have ratings such as PG and R. He also noted that the district blocks tens of thousands of Internet sites it deems inappropriate from its computers on a daily basis. Erroneous as Houser’s comparisons are, I see no illustrations in The Dirty Cowboy that can be considered anything other than “G” rated. See some samples for yourself at the publisher’s website.
The Dirty Cowboy received starred reviews in the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. A review in Booklist said: “Rex’s rich paintings add sparkle to the story’s dramatic telling with the attention to detail and humor that may remind some grownups of Norman Rockwell’s early work. A simple, slapstick tale that is sure to elicit some giggles.” The book is also the recipient of a Parents Choice Gold Medal, a recognition that does not typically go to controversial or edgy books.
School Board President Tom Tshudy told the Lebanon Daily News that he had no problems with the story itself. “It’s not the story,” he said. “If the author had just gave us a book with less illustrative illustrations, this would be a no-brainer. It’s sort of a judgment call. I can only speak for myself … but I was sort of surprised at the extent of the illustrations.” More alarming than Tshudy’s tenuous grasp of grammatically correct English is his cluelessness about what a picture book is and is supposed to do. His comments about the illustrations remind me of a scene from Amadeus in which the emperor tells Mozart that his composition has “too many notes.”
I never cease to be disgusted by the twisted values of American society. Acts of the most explicit extreme violence will pass without comment, but the mere hint of sexuality or nudity in children’s and young adult books will propel some people to extremes you should only expect from the Taliban or Shibab. I have never understood the mentality of people who teach their children that the human body is bad, dirty, shameful, or ugly. In an interesting coincidence as I was writing this, Australian educator Judith Ridge posted on Facebook a link to a blog discussing the wonderful response of legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom to a school librarian who wrote expressing her distress at the nude depictions of the character Mickey in In the Night Kitchen. I have lost count of how many copies of the book I’ve seen in my years as a librarian in which someone has pasted paper diapers on Mickey or whited out his crotch. I’ve seen this in public and school libraries, and even juvenile collections in colleges. I always imagined a secret army of blue-haired old ladies going from library to library doing this. What do the people who do such things think they are protecting children from? Do they seriously fear a child will be subjected to some emotional or psychological trauma from the seeing the penis on a baby boy? I’ve had children come up to me with art books featuring sculptures and paintings with nudity telling me they are “bad pictures.” I remember a young boy coming up to me in a K-8 school with a copy of Hiroshima No Pika, pointing to the cover and saying it was “a bad book.” He considered the book “bad” because the breasts of the woman on the cover are exposed. The illustrations in the story feature naked people because their clothes were burned from the heat of the atomic bomb blast. Why do parents teach their children such nonsense about the human body?
I pity the librarian. She gave the student the book because “the little guy is a cowboy fan, and I have provided him with other cowboy books in the library.” She did what librarians are supposed to do—connect readers with books they will enjoy. She praised the boy’s parents for taking an interest in what their son reads, but cautioned that their discomfort with the illustrations did not warrant removal of the book from the library. She spoke publicly that she opposed the challenge to the book. When the board voted unanimously to ban the book from the library, she walked out of the meeting room in protest. What the school board did with their unanimous decision is not just ban a book; they stripped the librarian of her professional authority. The board’s decision told parents that they are better qualified than a licensed professional to decide what should be in the library for their children to read. The school board effectively nullified the librarian’s professional education and experience.
The person I feel sorry for most in this tragedy is the child of the parents who challenged the book. This boy is being taught that the human body is bad and dirty, something to be ashamed of. This boy is not going to be able to appreciate a wide range of great works of art. He is going to be an adult with a lot of hang-ups and issues. God help him if he finds himself wrestling with sexual orientation or gender identity issues in the years to come. The worst thing that this boy is learning from his parents and the Annville-Cleona School Board is that it’s okay to ban books from libraries.