Donkeys and Asses and Children’s Delicate Ears

I remember reading a book aloud to a third grade class in my first year of teaching.  Technically, I was student teaching, but full-time student teaching in the middle of Dorchester, MA, counts as full-time teaching any day of the week.  I forget the book; I think it was Roald Dahl–maybe James and the Giant Peach?  Or maybe we just read that one that year and it wasn’t the same one I’m thinking of.  It doesn’t really matter.  The point is, I was reading along and noticed that a few sentences ahead (yes, when you are reading aloud to third graders–or any graders, really–it’s a good idea to have your lips pronouncing words your eyes have already read) there was the word “ass”.  I had to make a quick decision.  Did I skip it?  Change it to “donkey” (as was the meaning here–it was not intended to be a swear word or a part of the body)?  Change the sentence entirely?  Eventually I went with just reading it.  I read right through it as if it was no big deal, glared a a few kids who dared to laugh (with my best “are you seriously that immature?” glare I could produce at the time) and continued on.  Later, the teacher (the actual teacher in the classroom) came up to me saying she was impressed that I said that.  I’m not sure if she meant impressed that I was that brave, or that stupid, or both, but I just smiled and shrugged.  I had been embarrassed to do it, but I was also embarrasssed at my embarrassment, so I let it go as if it was no big deal.

But I smile to remember this incident because apparently it is a big deal all over again.  It now comes from a great picture book that I first saw in a wonderful independent bookstore in Asheville, NC.  My husband saw it first and handed it to me, knowing I would like it.  The book is all about two characters talking about what a book can do.  “Can you turn it on?” one character asks, and proceeds to question the other about things you can’t do with a book.  “Can you scroll down?”  “Can you blog with it?”   The lesson learned is that no, you can’t turn it on, scroll, or blog, but it’s an amazing tool anyway, and the skeptical character is carried away on the literature-powered ride of the imagination.  It’s a beautiful book with a beautiful lesson for today’s plugged in kids.

But apparently the author had to get in one last joke.  The character reading is a donkey, or as he is otherwise known, a jackass.  So the last line, “It’s a book, Jackass” has caused some heads to spin.  It is this line that is responsible for every 1-star review on Amazon.  And it has apparently put a halt on a project in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that was due to give a copy of this book to every child in the school district.  Click here to read the article in the Gloucester Times.

I’m not sure I have an opinion on this really one way or the other.  If I had my choice, as a mother, I would rather my son not call people “Jackass”.  And as a reader, I find the joke funny, but not so funny or original that it really justifies the obvious backlash it was going to get.  It feels a little bit as if the author wanted to be edgy just for the sake of it.  I mean, what if he had ended the book with, “It’s a book … Donkey.”  Some people might have seen the hidden joke in there anyway–the thing that couldn’t be said.  That would have been funnier.  But subtlety is lost in the modern world, I suspect.  Oh well, it did gain the book publicity—was that the point?

At any rate, it’s a great book—I loved reading it—and definitely worth checking out, but maybe slightly more appropriate for older children (6 and up or so), who can be taught the difference between using that word appropriately and inappropriately.  I’m not sure I’d read it to my 2-year-old.  Or actually, I would, but I’d just change the last line.  I mean, I try not to be a total prude, but seriously.  If they are old enough to read and be able to tell that you’re reading it wrong, then they are probably old enough to be taught the difference between jackass and jackass.

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