Why I Fell In (And Out Of) Love With It’s a Book.

Photo: Roaring Book Press

I happened to have my two younger boys with me when I ducked into work (the library) the other day. I did my usual quick scan of the new book shelf, the place where books sit in our backroom until they’re catalogued and processed.  As I flip, flip, flipped through the row of picture books I immediately had to stop when I found this new treasure.

How can you not stop at an engaging cover like this one? The charmingly simple statement of a title, It’s a Book, forced me to pull it from the pile and open it up. Standing in the middle of the back room of the library I dove into its pages and began to read it aloud to my boys. We were sucked in by the adorable characters and clever exchanges.

The Monkey is deeply engaged in a story book and his donkey friend, typing away on his laptop, is nosey. He inquires about his friend’s latest distraction, assuming it’s some kind of technological device. But it’s “just a book”.

Their exchanges are clever and funny. “Does it tweet? Can you blog with it? How do you scroll down?” To which the monkey replies, every time, with “You don’t. It’s a book.”

My favorite part is when monkey reads a page out of his pirate book to the donkey and donkey immediately converts the words to abbreviated text language (Long John Silver becomes LJS, etc.). It’s a hilarious idea.

It’s a perfectly painted picture of the lives of children today. They have so much technology available to them and yet there’s still nothing quite as special as a simple book. Some critics of this book have complained that it’s not relatable to young children because they won’t understand language like blog and tweet. I’ve lived with a toddler who could use a mouse before he turned two. I think kids are noticing the grown up world of computer language much more than we realize.

Photo: Roaring Brook Press

And because of the conflict between electronics and simple print books, the idea appealed to my older kids, too. The boys I was reading it to are 10 and 14. They were engaged by the whole story. It’s a classic case of picture books not just being for little kids.

Which leads me to the one issue I have with this book. It’s what’s causing a buzz when people talk about this book. The author, Lane Smith, is a well known author and illustrator of many award winning children’s books. He has an amazing talent for storytelling and art. He is the man behind the brilliant pictures in many of Jon Scieszka‘s books, including The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. But in my opinion he made a bad call at the end of his latest creation.

In the last pages of this new story, the donkey character, who has fallen in love with this new low tech thing called a book, tells monkey that he’ll be sure to charge up the book before he returns it to monkey. Monkey’s obvious reply is, “You don’t have to. It’s a book.” But he doesn’t stop there. The line actually reads, “It’s a book, Jackass.”

This is where I stopped cold when reading it aloud to my boys. They are both old enough to read so when I paused at the end, they immediately looked over my shoulder at the text. At the same moment both of them were startled. With wide eyes my fourteen year old said, “Mom, that’s not right. You need to tell the library people about that. That’s not right for little kids.”

I had the same reaction. It was such a fun book to read. My boys and I were enjoying it together, so pleased with this new treasure we’d found. I never expected the flow to be interrupted by a swear word that no one in our house is allowed to say, whether you’re six or sixty.

The author himself addresses this criticism in a video that’s posted on the Amazon page for the book. He feels like it fits perfectly. It’s just an animal name. People need to lighten up.

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I disagree strongly. Yes, it is the technical word for a donkey. But in this case it’s used, tongue in cheek, as a swear word, obviously making fun of the donkey’s lack of common sense. This is not a picture book of animals and their names. The word is not used as a description. And either way, I’m not comfortable reading it aloud to my children in this context.

The story is strong without it. To me, it just doesn’t fit. Kind of like a movie that has one shot of a nude woman that has no merit to the story, but brings about the R rating. It’s gratuitous and unnecessary.

It’s an unfortunate decision, in my opinion. I was so captivated by this book that before I had even finished reading it I had plans to buy copies for the special children in my life. I was ready to add it to my list of top picture books. I could think of many adults who would love reading it to their children. But that last word changed everything.

I am tempted to buy it and use my own Sharpie to cross out that one violating word. But that feels even more wrong to me than the word itself. So it leaves me just wishing Mr. Smith would have passed on the grown up joke and left a great thing alone. This book would have been a treasure, on many levels, without the cheap shot at a grown up laugh.

If you do decide to purchase this book, maybe for the technology obsessed teen or adult in your life, it retails for $12.99. You might also check out this very informative blog post, written by the author himself, full of details about the making of this book, from the type of art he used to the tiny hat that the monkey so comically wears on top of his large head.