105 Ways to Give a Book

It’s a Book, Jackass

Today at PBS Booklights I’m talking about three picture books with surprise endings. One of those titles I’m sharing here, because I’m ready for a discussion.

There were lots of raves for the trailer for Lane Smith’s It’s a Book. (You can see the trailer at that Amazon link.) The concept of talking about a book as not being electronic may certainly be enhanced by the irony of watching the video on one’s computer. I get that. But it’s bothered me since I first saw the trailer that it doesn’t contain what makes the book... special.

At the very beginning of this book, we are introduced to the characters — a mouse, a monkey, and a jackass. That’s the hint. The payoff comes after the monkey has explained the concept of a book throughout the story, and ends with the line, “It’s a book, jackass.”

See, I’m not sure that I’m okay with that ending in a practical sense, as in actually wanting to read it to my niece. I guess I can respect it as a choice in the name of Art and Literature, and I suppose that is where all the amazing reviews are coming from — Horn Book, Kirkus, The New Yorker, and so on.

But if you look at the Amazon reviews, mainly from parents, you’ll find a more divided group. Even reviewers giving the book three or four stars often said something about the use of the word jackass and questioning whether they would want to read this book to a child. Some pushed the title as being for older kids or even adults. But is that what we’re lacking? A picture book for adults? Others questioned whether school libraries would want to own it. Again, because that’s what librarians need: more issues.

Without that bit, it’s a good book with a commentary on our electronic age. The illustrations are engaging, and there’s humor in the story and the concept. But jackass? That gives me pause.

What do you think?

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36 comments:

web said...

It would be problematic for me because of the truly major need to not have inappropriate behavior modeled for my son. Not because I'm such a tightass, but because he does not grasp social mores at all, except in his frat book sense of humor. One unthinking "oh crap" out of my mouth and I'll be hearing him repeating it and laughing hysterically forever.

web said...

Frat boy, that is.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

I read it to my girls, and we laughed. We have already been over the word "ass," since we just read Peter Pan and Tink calls Peter an "ass" repeatedly. I can explain it to them in such a manner that they GET not to walk around repeating that word, that other adults don't want to hear it, that it can be used rudely. All the more reason they found it so funny. I have no doubt my first-grader isn't going to walk around calling people "ass" or "jackass."

I realize each kid is different, though.

As I told Pam, Lane is going to stop by 7-Imp. I'll gladly take questions for him on this book, if folks have any!

Also, the book's illustrations and design work? WOW. I'd hate to see that get overshadowed by a word, though I get why school librarians who are fans are bummed to not add it to their collection. Hey, I live in the South. That book won't be in any school libraries I know.

EM said...

I found the book hilarious -- as a grown-up industry insider. As a kid I don't think I would've found it thus. And I'm having a hard enough time with my six-year-old's sudden introduction to Words We Do Not Say, I Don't Care Who Else Is Allowed to Say Them (e.g., "oh my God," "that's stupid," "I hate you," etc.).

Sad to say, in this instance I would say no -- not for my picture-book reading kids. For me this is a great book that Lane wrote from grownups.

EM said...

Ahem. "For" grownups. (Jackass.)

Jacqueline Jules said...

Thanks for starting this discussion. I would have been surprised by such an ending without a little forwarning. It would be hard to read an ending like this in a classroom. The students would be repeating it all day long. The home is more of an individual matter. It does sound like an amusing book for adults.

Jacqueline Jules
www.jacquelinejules.com

MotherReader said...

Web, I'm not uptight about words myself - "smartass" is even in my blog heading - but I know that whenever we slip with a less appropriate word around my 4yr old niece, she's repeating it instantly.

Jules, I'm with you on explaining things to my kids and how we use words and such. But then how to explain that the word IS used in a picture book? And it's not that it's a name for a donkey, but that the very reason it's funny in the context is because it can also be inappropriate. Where as when Tink calls Peter an ass, it's done without irony or snark - it's a affectation of the time.

I do agree that it is a well-designed, interesting picture book with a bit of social commentary on our reliance of an electronic age. So I guess my question would be, why not leave it at that? Why invite the controversy for controversy's sake?

EM, I do think adults find it funny, but in some ways that comes to the core about what can be wrong with the kidlit industry/reviewers/awards - we can get so caught up in the Art of it, that we lose the thread of whether it is serving its purpose as a children's book. If we're saying that this is a book that Lane Smith wrote for grown-ups, does that change our sense of what a "picture book" is?

Jules, so there's another question. Did he intend to write a picture book for adults?

Jac., yes what you said about the classroom is what gives me pause and makes me feel that revealing the ending is an important part of reviewing the book.

tanita davis said...

Oh, wow. This is a great discussion. We just got asked to be part of a blog tour for this, so -- wow. Huh.

I love the idea of celebrating books. But I have to say that ending the book that way is limiting the preschool audience, anyway.

So - another picture book for big kids, maybe?

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Well, for the record, Tink is being a total snarky ass when she calls Peter an "ass," but that's neither here nor there. Smiley face emoticon!

I shall ask Lane those questions. I had already thought of them myself. I'm curious how this book will be marketed, as you seem to also be curious!

Bill said...

I can certainly see the concern, but I suspect it's less in the word itself than in the idea of calling someone by a derogatory name. After all, it's not profanity — the word, even in an insulting context, does just mean "donkey." The double-entendre here is in that the monkey may literally be speaking to a donkey, but the reader understands that the implied use is as an insult.

Then again, fundamentally, I don't have a problem with "profanity" anyway (though I do certainly respect the social conventions of appropriateness of context), so maybe I'm not the best judge. Hey, I think it's hilarious when kids swear — one of my favorite parent stories involves an unexpected (and very matter-of-fact) outburst from our then-five-year-old youngest.

Roberta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roberta said...

The ending gets the book a lot of free publicity, but does that help kids?

Fourth Musketeer said...

I'm one of the Amazon reviewers (I got an ARC from them but didn't review it on my own blog). I thought the book was very funny but I think the use of the word "jackass", particularly the way he uses it at the end, will mean that the book will not be purchased for a lot of classrooms and school libraries, which is a shame because there's a great message there. I thought it was definitely aimed at older kids--maybe 2nd through 5th grades? I'd be interested in what the author's intended age range was.

Fuse #8 said...

I'm all for free speech and folks writing whatsoever they like as long as they have kids in mind. That said, I've had more than one librarian telling me what a shame the book is. They really wanted to use it in storytimes or as readalouds to classes. But then that snarky little final word sneaks in and it sort of derails the whole intent of the book. Now instead of being about the power of books over technology it's about a naughty word. And that's what everyone ends up debating. Sure, it has lots of discussion, but the book now has far less practical use in a classroom or storytime.

What a bummer! What a waste! I love picture books for grown-ups, but this one got so close to being for kids that it just ends up feeling like a near miss.

MotherReader said...

Tanita, glad to alert you. Looks to be a fun blog tour.

Bill, as you know - being my husband and all - it's less about my personal concern about profanity than about the surprise of this word coming up at the end. I can decide it's fine for my kid, but I have the advance knowledge on the book. Others don't.

Roberta, actually, what has surprised me so far is how little publicity this has received. And Lane Smith doesn't need help selling books - in this case the word may reduce sales...

Fourth Musketeer, ...which is pretty much your point. I can see interpreting it as for older readers, but where is the cue for the casual reader to know that? The slight and larger text would usually indicate a preschool book.

Fuse#8, I'm not surprised to hear that librarians aren't anxious to use this in storytime. Once in a booktalk in 7th grade, I let "smartass" slip in a description, and the kids were between shocked and giggling. Like you say, it's a shame not to read it to a group as it has such a good flow and concept - which leads me to wonder if people will "edit" the last word for read alouds. I've certainly done editing for time or clarity, but in this case it would feel like leaving out part of the book's intention - and so feels less okay.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Pam, this conversation brings up good questions I can ask Lane. Thanks!

Scope Notes said...

Great discussion, Pam.

There is an interview with Smith up at Omnivoracious, where he explains his thinking on this topic:
http://www.omnivoracious.com/2010/08/omni-crush-its-a-book-by-lane-smith.html

Liz B said...

I don't have a copy of the book, but some reviews are putting it grades 3 & up (older kids).

The "jackass" as described reminds me of the "Dam Park" running joke in one of the Percy Jackson books, which I haven't read, but which my niece & nephew (then 9 & 6) found very funny & repeated very often.

Sharon said...

I think if I were to read It's a Book in story time, I might add a word or two... Like "Silly Jackass, it's a book." I improvise freely when I read books in story time. But the question is: would I use it? I haven't seen it, but not all books are story time ready, Jackass or not.

It's too bad because the book trailer (and ALA poster) are very appealing.

Shirley said...

The line strikes me as an adult idea of a joke. Do kids need to "get it" at this age? They grow up fast enough. Thanks for bringing it up. This is the kind of thing that needs discussion.

Three Turtles and Their Pet Librarian said...

I'm usually in the "hey, it's funny, don't get your panties in a wad" camp, but this - disappoints me. If I were reading it out loud, I would change the word to donkey. Yes, "jackass" is a correct dictionary definition, but it is not used to describe the animal these days any more than "rubbers" is used to describe rainboots. It was only in there for effect, which is a really cheap way to sell books or ideas, imo. In the end, what are kids going to remember - the message of the book, or the fact that Mommy/teacher/library lady said "jackass"?

Wendie O said...

I have the same problems with several of Lane's books. The "look at me. I"m so clever. Have I got a BOY BOOK for you and if you object, it's because you are just a Gi-rl and don't get it."

Peaceful Reader said...

I can just see the laughter and copying behaviour after I read that last line in the story hut!! You're exactly right...as a librarian I don't need another "issue." It is funny though and would buy it for an adult gift!?

Barrie said...

I think I'd better read the book. To see if the end justifies the means. Of if the language justifies its usage. Oh, you know what I mean! ;)

Suzanne Casamento said...

Great debate! I haven't read the book, but I agree, I wouldn't want to read the book to my niece either.

Shirley O said...

Thanks Pam - Great discussion. It has been a concern for me since I saw the book at BookExpo. Not, do I buy for my public library, but where do I put this book? I am already seeing some interesting choices from other systems in our area.

sqrlnt said...

I saw this book in the local BN and thought it was very funny, but a little sad too. Because soon, we might really have to have such conversations..
But besides that, till I came across this post, I never even thought it was a book to be read to kids! I thought it was more of a coffee table sort of a book..

Anonymous said...

People are commenting as though someone reading it to an audience is going to be taken by surprise by the awkward ending. I know that people do cold readings of books their kids hand them in the library/store, but if you're reading more formally to an audience, read it all the way through, first!

For me, it's just a word, and a way of letting kids know that an ass is a donkey and also an insult used by Shakespeare. These are kids who (in my experience) reach college without knowing what a "sow" is. It isn't "naughty" except in also being a mildly rude word for "buttocks."

Too many people opt for censorship to avoid awkward conversations. It's a wonderful book.

Between These Pages said...

As a teacher it drives me absolutely crazy when there's something that does not fit in book from an age appropriate standpoint. I'm completely against censorship, but some authors have me gnashing my teeth and dreaming of a fat black marker.

erica said...

I see I'm late to this party, but I'll chime in anyway. I agree with many things others have said, but the one thing I have to add is this: As someone who had a really hard time nudging open the picture book "language" door (with Chicken Butt!), I'm familiar with this issue. I'm also in favor of envelope-pushing in general as the road to new discoveries, humor, true art, etc. My view, though, is that decisions re: content should be based on the work as a whole. Leaving aside the question of whether "jackass" should or shouldn't be in this particular book, my belief is that if anyone other than Lane had included it, it wouldn't have survived. It would've been shut down by the editorial and/or sales powers-that-be, big time.

Anonymous said...

For those that want to read it out loud to a group of children, whats to say you don't just find a piece of tape to cover the one whole word that throws the book off, and replace it with "Silly" or any other age appropriate word? I don't see this being an impossible task.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know any books similar to this, as far as the use humor/profanity? I can't get enough of it!

Anonymous said...

...use *of

Anonymous said...

I am trolling around the internet on this subject today because of a challenge to this book at our local library. I would just add my perspective to the thoughtful discussion above that words do not have meaning, people do. So, from my standpoint, there is no such thing as an inappropriate word. What we really want, when we try to teach children about "inappropriate" words, is for them to behave in respectful ways with others . . . and that would include using language that makes others comfortable (or not using language that makes them uncomfortable). But the language itself is neither "good," nor "bad," because the meaning lies in the people.

Just my two cents. :-) This thread has been illuminating and helpful.

Cheers,

KD

Amy said...

I read this to my 4 year old and we say jackass! She doesn't laugh or act weird about it at all! Because she is 4 and doesn't know ass is a bad word because we don't make a big deal out of it when we say it ourselves as adults. Look I curse all the time in front of my daughter but never at her!! She knows what is not okay to say and what is we don't say stupid or hate!! Saying ass is only appropriate or inappropriate if you think it is.... If you teach children to neither hate nor think something is stupid then there is no reason to use inappropriate language!! My daughter slips with naughty words occasionally and we talk for a minute about it and that is that. The book tells a story a funny story and at the end says jackass well it does teach kids context right!!

Anonymous said...

My 5 year old just brought this book home from Catholic school yesterday. My husband gave the book to me and I was surprised at the ending given the book's target audience.
I am not unconfortable with the word "jackass" just with the context in which it is used.
I think this book should not be at the school library because it isn't until children return home from school that we know their selections.