WTF is Wrong with These People?


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.


Published in: on April 21, 2012 at 11:03 pm  Comments (33)  

A Perfect Pair






I love it when I receive books, almost simultaneously, from different publishers that perfectly complement each other. That’s the case with these two which are both about Sable Island, a unique place of  singing sands, wandering dunes and wild horses that was recently designated a Canadian national park. Sarah Hughes’s The Island Horse (Kids Can Press) is a historical novel set in the early half of the 19th century. Ten-year-old Ellie, adjusting to the recent death of her mother, is unhappy about having to leave her Nova Scotia home and moving to Sable Island for her father’s work. She finds a sense of connection, however, when she encounters the island’s horses. This is historical fiction that will have great appeal for middle grade readers, particularly horse lovers. A perfect companion to this novel is Sable Island: The Wandering Sandbar by Wendy Kitts (Nimbus), a nonfiction book that offers young readers an excellent introduction to the physical geography, science, history, and lore of this unique part of the world. This attractively designed, informative books is abundantly illustrated with color photographs. Discover the wonders of Sable Island with this perfect pair of books.

Published in: on April 19, 2012 at 10:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Titanic Stories

Unless you’ve been living in an ice cave in Antarctica, you are no doubt aware that the centennial of the Titanic sinking is here. The sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 is not the worst maritime disaster in history, but it is the best known. Twelve years before James Cameron romanticized the tragedy with a doomed teenage love story as the heart of his 1997 blockbuster film, oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck two miles below the ocean surface. The unending public fascination with all things Titanic began in 1955 with the publication of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. It’s amazing to think that, forty-three years after the tragedy, Lord’s vivid and completely riveting, moment-by-moment narrative was the first significant account of the sinking.

Lord’s book was my first encounter with the Titanic story, purchased at a school book fair when I was in 5th grade. I’ve read many books, fiction and nonfiction, about the Titanic since then, but Lord’s story still stands out and remains one of the most popular on the subject. With the centennial of the Titanic disaster here, fascination with the subject is at a peak. Fortunately, a rich body of works exists from which readers of all ages can choose.  

Younger readers can get an unusual perspective on the sinking in Pig on the Titanic. Maxixe, a French music-box pig, was given to Edith Rosenbaum for good luck on her voyage. The musical toy pig proves to be the saving grace for the children in a lifeboat after the ship strikes the iceberg. The pig plays a melody after its tail is wound, and the sounds soothe and comfort those aboard the lifeboat. Based on a true story, the author does a wonderful job unraveling events by having the toy pig narrate the tale. Another story from a toy’s perspective is Polar the Titanic Bear. Polar was a real stuffed bear who survived the sinking, then was rescued and safely reunited with his Master. Daisy Corning Stone Spedden wrote the story and gave it to her son Douglas for a Christmas present in 1913; both were survivors themselves. Illustrated with watercolors as well as photographs, the story brings to life an Edwardian era of wealth and privilege one sees in a Downton Abbey episode.

Titanicat, also based on a true story, features a real animal and an Irish cabin boy named Jim who is assigned to care for the little tortoiseshell cat. As the Titanic is readied for her maiden voyage, Jim’s deepening relationship with the cat is framed in the small details about chores to be done and kittens found on B-deck. When the ship docks and the cat goes missing, Jim searches and finds her carrying her kittens off the ship. He interprets this as a bad omen for journey ahead. Concerned for a kitten she leaves behind, he takes it to her and consequently misses the sailing, which he soon realizes is quite lucky. For middle-grade readers, another story featuring real animals is White Star: A Dog on the Titanic. The dramatic story is told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Sam Harris, traveling back to America to be re-united with his mother and her new husband. Sam spends a lot of time in the ship’s dog kennel, and his favorite is White Star, owned by Titanic owner Bruce Ismay. When the ships begins sinking, Sam and White Star brave the icy waters until a lifeboat rescues them.

Readers who enjoy a supernatural twist to their stories will find novels in which the Titanic figures prominently. Science, spiritualism, history, and romance intertwine in Distant Waves. Four sisters and their mother make their way from a spiritualist town in New York to London, becoming acquainted with journalist W. T. Stead, scientist Nikola Tesla, and industrialist John Jacob Astor. When they all find themselves on the Titanic, one of Tesla’s inventions will either assure their doom or survival. In Richard Peck’s Amanda/Miranda, a wise woman prophesies that eighteen-year-old Mary Cooke’s future was beyond a mountain of ice, where she would die and then live again. When Mary is hired as personal maid to the willful and arrogant Amanda Whitwell, she is astonished to find that her new employer is her near-double, a coincidence that has lasting consequences for Mary, especially when she accompanies Amanda on the Titanic’s fateful voyage. Ghosts of the Titanic is a fast-paced, engaging story offering a good mix of history, mystery, and the supernatural. When twelve-year-old Kevin Messenger’s father inherits a house in Halifax, Canada, left to him by a complete stranger named Angus Seaton, Kevin investigates, and the discoveries he makes lead to troubling dreams and a voice he can’t escape calling to him for help. A parallel narrative tells the dramatic story of Angus Seaton, who worked on one of the ships responsible for recovering bodies and personal effects after the Titanic sank. The two stories converge in a suspenseful climax as Kevin is transported aboard the sinking Titanic to try to right the wrongs of the past.

Historical fiction without the supernatural trappings abounds. In No Moon, fourteen-year-old Louisa Gardener is the nursemaid to the young daughter of a wealthy, titled family living in London,England in 1912. When the children’s nanny is incapacitated, Louisa assumes the responsibility of looking after them on the voyage, then with saving their lives. No Moon is exceptional historical fiction, especially notable for vividly depicting the rigid class divisions of the time. So much has been written about the Titanic, it’s hard to imagine an author finding a fresh perspective, but Allan Wolf pulls it off brilliantly in The Watch That Ends the Night. The voices of the captain, crew members, passengers from all three classes, the shipboard rats, the embalmer searching for bodies floating among the wreckage, and even the iceberg are vividly brought to life in this novel in verse. Another unique approach is Barry Denenberg’s Titanic Sinks!, a kind of fiction/nonfiction hybrid book. Denenberg presents the facts of the Titanic catastrophe framed in a 1912 special edition of a fictitious magazine called Modern Times and excerpts from the journal of a Modern Times correspondent found after the sinking. Handsomely designed, this dramatic and unique presentation of the story illustrated with actual photographs of the Titanic and people mentioned in the narrative is sure to be popular.

Readers preferring a straightforward informational book have many from which to choose. Don Brown’s All Stations! Distress! is an excellent introduction for younger readers. Brown’s “you are there”-style narrative features a fast pace and the incorporation of quotations and well-observed but straightforward reportage that readers will find engrossing. Adept at humanizing complicated ideas in words and images, Brown’s subtle watercolor-and-pencil compositions effectively capture moments described in the text. Another outstanding book for younger readers is Martin Jenkins’s Titanic, the highlight of which is a single impressive pop-up of a 33″ long paper model of the huge ill-fated ship. The 32-page text offers a clear and entertaining illustrated history of the ship containing all anyone could possibly want to know about the ship and its tragic ending. There is also a pocket in the front with more fascinating information specific to passenger luxury and a gallery of interior drawings showing life aboard a luxury liner in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Older readers looking for a complete history of the Titanic need look no further than Iceberg, Right Ahead!, a thorough, informative chronicle that is notable for including chapters on the enquiries into the circumstances of the collision and sinking, what became of some of the survivors, exploration of the wreck site, and controversies surrounding the salvaging of artifacts for exhibition. Though it does not offer a detailed account of the aftermath of the sinking,  Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is a thoroughly detailed, dramatic chronicle that makes extensive use of quotes from survivors. The voices include a stewardess, a science teacher, a 9-year-old boy, the ship’s designer, the captain, and a mother on her way to a new life in America. Hopkinson encourages readers to think like historians and imagine what it would have been like on the Titanic and imagine each character’s story. The highlight of the book is a huge number of archival photographs and reproductions of telegrams, maps, letters, illustrations, sidebars, and even a dinner menu to complement the text.

If the sinking of the Titanic had never happened, would it have been possible to imagine it? Could an author conceive of a story so improbable and utterly fantastic?  It is a story that combines completely the elements of tragedy, drama, mythology, morality play, and social statement, and what makes it so irresistibly fascinating is that it’s true. Anyone reading a book about the disaster will face the same question. What would I have done under a similar set of circumstances? The sinking of the Titanic took 2 hours and 40 minutes, and people had to make moral choices. It’s the ability to relate to that situation and those choices that make the Titanic story so compelling.

Published in: on April 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm  Leave a Comment