In a nuthsell, Bethany Taylor, a third-grader at Cedar Grove Elementary in Murfreesboro, brought home a copy of I Saw Esau. Her mother, Jackie, upon seeing the illustrations, decided it was "obscene" and now refuses to return the book to the school library. She doesn't approve of the library making it available to children. She also feels the library staff fell down on the job by letting Bethany take it home.
Now, one might argue with Ms. Taylor's definitions of art, obscenity, and pornography, but I won't. Mr. Sendak can speak for himself on that issue if he likes. (The text itself is a collection of actual schoolyard rhymes, taunts, comebacks, and stories children tell each other. Opie collected them with her husband, Peter. I will say that I think Mrs. Opie gets it right in her introduction to the book when she says:
The best antidote to the anxieties and disasters of life is laughter: and this children seem to understand almost as soon as they are born. If laughter is lacking, they create it; if it is offered to them, they relish it. Here in this book is a feast of laughter.The accompanying illustrations were done, I think, in the same spirit. I will also note that Ms. Taylor's daughter, Bethany, seems to prove Opie's point. According to The Daily News Journal, "[Bethany] thought the poem, 'Reality' which features frontal nudity of a young boy, was "funny."" She went to say, "I thought it was just a joke. It's not my fault I brought it home." Click on the image at left for a larger version of that illustration.)
As a parent myself, I respect Ms. Taylor's right to decide what books are appropriate for her third-grade daughter. You're supposed to keep tabs on what your kids are reading and seeing, right? When something you don't like comes their way, you take action by, well, parenting. No problem. If you don't want your kid reading a certain book because you find its content offensive or otherwise inappropriate, again, no problem. Just return it to the library. And this is where I have to part ways with Ms. Taylor.
She says she won't return the book to the school library. See, I work in a library and I just can't get behind not returning books. That's not cool. (Yeah, the Rosenbach's books don't circulate, and, yeah, I sometimes have trouble getting things back to the Free Library on time.) The whole point of libraries is to allow people to share the ideas found in books. Maybe you discover that you don't like the way other folks think about children's strategies for dealing with the world; or you don't like what children say and do on the playground; maybe by sharing a book you discover that Sendak's illustrations strike you as dirty. OK, fair enough. Send the book back. (I confess that the strategy of keeping a book in your house that you don't want your child to see does confuse me.) Ms. Taylor has a right to decide what's appropriate for her young daughter, but by keeping the book she's also deciding what every kid at Cedar Grove Elementary School should and should not read. And that's not cool, either.
And don't even get me started on putting Post-It® notes in books as seen in the photos accompanying the article...
Images above: illustrations by Maurice Sendak for I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild's Pocket Book, edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 1992), pp. 82 (top), 38 (bottom).