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)  

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  1. Hello. Just wanted you all to be aware that the Kids’ Right to Read Project is on this case and has written a letter urging the library to return the book. See: If anyone is in or around south central PA, there will be a school board meeting tomorrow night where they will hopefully discuss the book and change their minds!

    Thanks to supporters.
    National Coalition Against Censorship

  2. I remember listening to an interview with Maurice Sendak about “In The Night Kitchen”. When asked what his thinking was when deciding to include a penis on the little nude boy , his response was, “wouldn’t it be strange if he didn’t have one?”

  3. I wonder if that parent requires her son not to look down when he urinates and removed all the mirrors in the bathroom.

  4. I only hope these parents never take their child to a museum with – gasp! – paintings and sculptures of nude men and women. Those Renaissance and Baroque artists – Master Pornographers!

  5. I’ve read all the comments above, and I understand the issue is complicated. However, I still think it’s better if parents don’t try to have a book removed from the library simply because they object to it. Aren’t they usurping the rights of other parents to decide what they think appropriate for their own children?

    If a parent thinks a movie objectionable, should he expect the local theater not to show it?

    Do these parents find it too much trouble, or somehow embarrassing, to explain to their child why they find the book objectionable?

  6. Terrific post, thanks for sharing. I’ve reposted about it on my blog

    I’m amazed that in 2012 parents haven’t yet figured out that if they don’t want their offspring to read/see/play with any media all they have to do is use the magically simple word “No.” Instead of controlling ONLY their family situation they feel the need to control everyone else’s. The result is children who have no idea how to make wise or compassionate choices themselves…. because they expect the real world to be paved just to their liking.

    While I must roll my eyes to the back of my head over parents being concerned at their child seeing a boot covering a butt, maybe instead of taking up everyone’s time and tax dollars they could have actually had a conversation about the book with their child. Then (in the unlikely event) when the little boy said “yes this picture makes me want to look up all kinds of nakedness on the internet!” they could have unplugged household computers appropriately. Or (more likely) when the boy seemed not to notice the almost nudity AT ALL, they could have sighed with relief and gone back to their regularly scheduled lives of shopping at Walmart, watching American Idol, and sending donations to the Family Research Council.

    By the way, I am an illustrator and I’d love it if one of my books were banned. Sales of banned books always go up. Maybe I should start looking for manuscripts where I could draw a little bootie…..

  7. Thank you! Love the comparison to Amadeus. 🙂

  8. Reblogged this on Behind Green Eyes and commented:
    I am really worried for the children these days. If they are raised to think that the human body is something to be ashamed of, then there will be consequences in our society later on. And to ban books from libraries is horrible. That’s the problem with our school systems – they are not nurturing curiosity or a passion for learning. Instead, they are banning books and concentrating on useless standardized tests. I’m just disappointed.

  9. In order to avoid seeing pornography, then, I have to stop bathing and showering. Hi there, cowboy.

  10. The parent has clearly taken the story out of context. one of the most famous children’s stories involving nudity ‘The emperor’s new clothes’, has managed to get away with it.
    If anything, children will only focus on nudity and pornography is society makes a big deal out of it. Had the attention about it been removed, it won’t become that kinda taboo that would lead him to over-indulding in that kinda material as an adult.
    The parent has actually done nothing but to set into motion the actions they want to stop.

  11. And then we are to teach our children about tolerance and acceptance…sigh

  12. >.< so annoyed at American prudery that I spelled pornography wrong!

  13. So nudity = pornagraphy? OMG… those parents should never take their clothes off in front of each other!

    In actuality, the children don’t even give nudity a second thought unless some over-conscious parent points it out.

  14. If I have a parent challenge a book informally at my school library, I always agree to withdraw it without any fight. Then, when their children are all gone, I put the book right back. Saves me from making the national news, plus I don’t have to waste the money that was spent on a perfectly good book. I have done this dozens of times, and no one is the wiser. Ha!

  15. I think it’s important not to make exaggerated claims like “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.”

    The Taliban doesn’t let girl children go to school and beats up women who dress immodestly. The parents in this case didn’t want a book in the school library and followed the democratic process to get it removed. That seems to be the typical response of American parents who object to particular books in their local school curriculum or library. They’re not doing anything bad.

  16. Amazingly, kids do take baths and have seen themselves naked. What nutjobs these censors are.

  17. Thanks for this, I will do what I usually do with this information, make sure both of my libraries have multiple copies. The people who complain most in my libraries are from Mormon families in the area. They may have 12 children, but they all are born completely clothed by heavenly decree!

  18. Hard to believe but this mentality still exists. This book is so cute and the illustrations are perfect for the story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  19. Well, I’ll order this book right away. What atrocious crap.

  20. Speaking of Norman Rockwell… “No Swimming” Is this offensive? What about the young girl in “Girl at Mirror”? She is, after all, in her slip/underwear. Where will the censors draw the line?

  21. Kids think that nudity is funny. Almost as much as farting and burping.

  22. I wonder if these parents ever read No David…you see the naked backside of the boy running down the street. Maybe it should be banned too? My students and I love celebrating banned book week; nothing gets them to pick up a book faster than being told they can’t read it.

  23. I ordered a copy of The Dirty Cowboy today. Thank you, Anneville-Cleona School Board for bringing this book to the attention of so many teachers, librarians, and parents who will now rush out to buy it. Adam Rex should thank you.

    I am being sarcastic, but every time a book is banned and it makes news, sales increase. I wonder if book banners realize this.

  24. Oy. *facepalm*

  25. America seems to tell its children that bodies are bad, but weapons are fine. Tell me there isn’t a problem here…

    • I agree. I met a local author a few years ago and we discussed the same thing. She said one of her books (I think the title was ‘Some Things That Stay’) was pulled from the curriculum of an all boys high school because there was a part in the story where the main character, a teen, has her first love and loses her virginity. It was not explicit. Her book was replaced by another where a husband pours boiling water on his wife’s face while she was sleeping.
      A young woman exploring love is bad; Violence against women is ok.

  26. I am Dan from SafeLibraries. The removal of the book in this case seems a little silly to me. However, the school followed its policy and found the book did not meet its policy. I would not have removed that book if it were up to me. Instead, I would have thanked the librarian for picking out a book that the boy enjoyed.

    The issue of the complaint being raised by a single person is irrelevant because, among other reasons, all complaints are raised by a single person. Just look at materials reconsideration forms–there’s usually only one line for one signature. So that’s not an issue.

    Also, this is not an issue of censorship. The last book banned in the USA was Fanny Hill, and that was about half a century ago.

    So let’s not go wild, but it does appear to me the wrong decision was made. “What the school board did with their unanimous decision is not just ban a book; they stripped the librarian of her professional authority.” No, the book was not banned although it was removed upon application of policy. Even the ALA’s Judith Krug says if a book does not meet a school’s selection policy, “get it out of there”:

    And no, her professional authority has not been stripped. Evans-Marshall v Bd. of Educ. is somewhat analogous, I suppose:

    Whatever, it sure is a wacky story. But communities get to decide these things for themselves. Will the ALA and its acolytes begin the full court press to force the community to change the decision? We’ll see. I’ll be happy to assist anyone on this matter–the librarian, the board, the super, the parents, whomever may ask.

    • Unfortunately, Dan from Safe Libraries, the school board did not follow their own policy. 1) “The book was to remain in circulation until the committee for reconsideration met”. The administration pulled TDC from the library as soon as the parent complained. It has been sitting in an admin office since early February and not in circulation. 2) The policy states that “the committee will review the questioned material and all available critical evaluations. General acceptance acceptance of the material shall be checked by consulting authoritative lists. The material in question shall be treated objectively. Passages shall not be taken out of context and the material shall be evaluated in its entirety.” The recommendation committee which consisted of the librarian (who spoke in favor of the book) + 4 administrators who ignored the reviews and awards that this book received. You can see from their comments that they did not object to the story but the illustrations posed the problem. Clearly, they did not view this picture book in its entirety. Their decision in my opinion was capricious. And the community is outraged! They have started a petition to have the book re-instated. What can you do, Dan, to help?

      • Anita Mentzer, you are the librarian involved in this matter. You have asked an excellent question. The solution is to get everyone talking on the same page. Get everyone the same facts. Be sure the facts are the whole truth and not a partial truth. I’ll bet if that would happen, people could easily come to the right conclusion. To be upfront, my conclusion appears to align with yours in this matter.

        Both sides seem to me to be exaggerating here and there.

        I could help by raising the issue in any forum, laying out the facts well supported with reliable sources, then stepping back and letting people hash things out.

        We all need to understand that the American Library Association is just one source for guidance. It is not the ultimate source, and it is not infallible. Sadly, often it simply misleads people. For example, about two months ago the author of the Children’s Internet Protection Act revealed that the ALA misleads a third of American communities into voluntarily refusing to avail themselves of the protections afforded by CIPA. Another example, I have a recording of an award-winning author admitting that the ALA intentionally faked its annual top ten most challenged book list in 2010 and I am concerned it has faked this years list to ride The Hunger Games wave. The point being the ALA pronouncements may be incorrect and politically motivated and should not be taken as gospel.

        I have to say this if the community seeks to make a decision based on the facts and who is saying those acts. By way of example, if the ALA says any book ever removed from a school is censorship, that does not make it true. Indeed the ALA never reveals that its own former leader said inappropriate books may be removed forthwith in the right circumstances. Knowing that makes a big difference.

        Knowing that a Harris Poll shows most people do not want sexually explicit books in public schools also makes a big difference. When, as in 2009, the ALA labels every single person challenging a book as a “censor,” people need to know they are not censors and that most people agree with them, not with the ALA.

        Knowing that communities have removed books from schools under Board of Education v. Pico for having sexually inappropriate pictures also makes a difference.

        Now you say the school did not follow its own procedure. Not following policy is not good. Know that at least one other school that did not follow procedure but decided to do it right and ended up reversing its decision and keeping the book.

        It seems to me the school needs to follow its own procedure.

        That said, its procedure appears to be tilted toward the ALA’s view of things. Yes, it’s annoying to hear but we have to talk about the truth and the whole truth. The policy says, as you say above, “General acceptance acceptance of the material shall be checked by consulting authoritative lists.” Well that’s a problem right there. School superintendents and librarians have noted that the “authoritative lists,” some from the ALA itself, often leave out the very details that schools need to evaluate materials. A librarian said, for example, “But do research your YA books beyond just the reviewing tools that fail IMHO almost every time to tell us the amount of promiscuity, profanity, and violence included in a book.” So if the policy says it needs to consider “authoritative lists,” what it is really saying is that the books will not be evaluated for “the amount of promiscuity, profanity, and violence included in a book,” for example.

        Another problem with the policy is that it says the book says put until after the decision is made. That is an ALA policy that should not be blindly adopted and followed. Example, an eight year old in a Phoenix, AZ, school read a book on squirting sperm and more and both the principal and the librarian immediately removed the book despite policy mimicking ALA policy. The former AZ Library Association head said the squirting sperm book needed to be returned immediately to the eight year olds until the months-long process completed. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the book stayed removed.

        Now in the present case the issue is the amount of skin is a gateway to pornography. That sure is a novel issue in my years of doing this. If a lot of books were doing that for that purpose, that’s one thing. If a single book tells a funny story of a cowboy who takes a bath and his dog no longer recognizes him, that’s another.

        Personally, I do not see in the slightest how the illustrations in this book even come close to pornography. Neither do I see that as a gateway to pornography.

        So if I provide a forum to lay out the facts and relevant reliable sources, then let people hash out the issues, I’ll bet that can reach an amicable conclusion without all the bad blood that may ensue if people are left with incomplete or an intentionally false information. And I’d love to see that petition to have the book re-instated.

        For example, the community need not hold the view forever that the people voting 8-0 are all idiot neanderthal censors. Conversely, people need not think those allowing children to read this book are all wacko child sexualizers. There is a happy medium, and the right information will help people reach that happy medium and be able to live with each other thereafter.

        The right attitude as well is also key. Calling people “censors” is confrontational right off the bat, for example. On the other hand, calling the book a gateway to porn and ascribing evil intentions to the book promoters is just as wrong.

        Well, forgive me for the above flow of thought, as unorganized and incomplete as it may be, but I think you get the point. If I can help get the ball rolling along those lines, I’d be happy to do that.

        Or if you want to write directly on SafeLibraries, you can do so as well. I get a ton of viewers, and sometimes I get writers and superintendents writing in the comments on my posts. My favorite post, for example, happens to be the one about author Trenton Lee Stewart. He commented at that post to his many fans who were (are still) writing him there.

        In sum, I support you and your efforts regarding that book. But I also support addressing the matter in a reasoned manner, based on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In the end I feel that will result in the book being returned to the classroom.

        And if you called and spoke with the ALA’s “Office for Intellectual Freedom,” you may wish to call me as well as I am its top critic and well familiar with a lot of its misinformation and even secret monetary grants. That “Office” has riled up a number of librarians who then go on an unneeded crusade instead of using a reasoned approach backed up with reliable sources and devoid of person attacks. The case from NY where the school attacked a girl’s parents in class causing the daughter to feel bullied and cry was really bad. That’s simply not needed and it’s unprofessional. My WI friend who had the temerity to challenge books is still harassed many years later as a result of, among other things, personal visits by the ALA to the community.

        I credit you for finding a book the boy enjoyed. It’s tough getting boys to read and you obviously have the knack. I hope the school ends up recognizing you for your dedication to your work. The book is adorable and the author and illustrator should not feel badly in the slightest about what happened. Actually, sales will now increase!

      • Anita, here’s the e-petition link.

    • I agree. I would add that when we get too excited and label things banning and censorship that aren’t really censorship, we may make it harder to prevent real censorship. Like the boy who cried wolf.

      • I should clarify – I agree with Dan’s original point.

      • Thank you, Black Iris, that is exactly right. Cry censorship in every school in every community and pretty soon people stop listening. Let a real censorship issue arise and people will not listen.

        As Dan Gerstein said, “The … elites have convinced themselves that they are taking a stand against cultural tyranny. …. [T]he reality is that it is those who cry ‘Censorship!’ the loudest who are the ones trying to stifle speech and force their moral world-view on others.”

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