One donkey’s tale riles school officials

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / December 11, 2010

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Pat Earle can hardly believe the venom being directed at her online. Her motives and her politics have been questioned. Her Cape Ann literacy program has been ridiculed.

“This is the first time I have had people who don’t know me say nasty things about me,’’ Earle said in an interview, responding to angry comments on her book choice for first-graders. “I’m ‘subversive.’ I’m ‘poisoning children’s minds.’ They feel they can say anything. This whole public discourse becomes so uncivil.’’

This discourse, however, started with a term used in a plain old-fashioned book, a children’s book, in fact, that encourages youngsters to turn away from technology and back to books. One of the book’s three characters is a donkey who cannot figure how to enjoy a gadget without buttons, batteries, or Wi-Fi. That donkey’s button-seeking persistence and his very presence set up the offending punchline:

“It’s a book, Jackass.’’

That jackass kicked up dust last week when Earle’s literacy program, called the First R Foundation, tried to donate “It’s a Book’’ to some 340 first-graders in Rockport and Gloucester public and private schools. Rockport teachers and principal recoiled, and the superintendent told Earle that there would be no book handout, thanks. Yesterday, Rockport officials relented a bit and followed the example of Gloucester schools by sending home a letter asking parents to decide whether they want the book.

All that controversy surprised the book’s author and illustrator, Connecticut-based Lane Smith. The grandson of a Baptist preacher, he was raised in Oklahoma, in the Bible Belt, and said his book has gone over well in other parts of the country. It is also a national bestseller, now published in 20 languages and recommended on holiday gift lists by The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

“I can’t say that I’m amused or excited by the controversy,’’ Smith said. “Mostly this makes me uncomfortable.’’

Smith said the term jackass has been used in other children’s books — “Shrek,’’ “Pinocchio,’’ “Aesop’s Fables’’ — and, of course, it became commercially synonymous with dangerous stuntmanship in the MTV show and movies called “Jackass.’’ While Smith acknowledged that he intended and loved the double entendre, he maintained that it was only meant to be funny, not to be insulting.

But “jackass’’ was indeed read as an insult by the first-grade teachers who brought it to the attention of Shawn M. Maguire, Rockport Elementary principal. Teachers worried about children flinging the term around the school yard or using it to insult their friends.

“Unfortunately, this book, once it was brought to my attention, I just could not send it home due to the last line,’’ Maguire said. “I’m trying to do everything I can to run a school climate that is respectful and responsible, as well as tolerant.

“And that last line just violates everything that I feel that we stand for here in the elementary school.’’

Yesterday, he sent a letter home to parents praising the foundation and the book for its “wonderful’’ message and illustrations, while advising parents of that final word.

“But everybody who has read the book — it has a super message,’’ Maguire added “It’s almost shocking, that last line.’’

All of this would be easy, of course, if Smith had skipped that last line. Or chosen another animal. Or stuck with donkey.

But that’s not funny, he said.

“The jackass line kind of came to me,’ he said. “I felt like the book is just repetitious if every page ended with, ‘It’s a book.’ That’s sort of funny, but at the end of the book you need a period.’’

Earle said her board considered the pros and cons of the book before selecting it.

“I agonized over it,’’ Earle said. “I wish he hadn’t used that word. But I and my board and other people I talked to, a child psychologist, said the message of the book far overrides that one word.

“Reading has a great place in all of this technological gobbledygook,’’ she said. “I had no idea we were going to cause this much of an uproar.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at