It’s a Joke, Jackass

Lane Smith, It's a BookI’m surprised by the extent of the kerfuffle over the use of a single word in Lane Smith’s It’s a Book.  In her review, librarian Margaret Burke writes, “I usually love Lane Smith’s books but was disappointed with the word jackass in the first page. I will NOT put this book in my library collection.”  On her blog, Library Lady writes that the word “simply isn’t necessary” and that, although she “will still share the book in storytime,” she “just won’t read the last page.”  Even Adam Gopnik’s smart and otherwise laudatory review in the New York Times takes issue with the word, calling it a “false note” and a “too-easy joke.”

It is a joke, but easy?  I defy Mr. Gopnik and anyone else to come up with a better punch line.  “It’s a book, silly” and “It’s a book, donkey” simply are not as funny as “It’s a joke, jackass.”  The double meaning of the word “jackass” makes the joke work.  The character is both a male donkey and a foolish individual.  No other punch line will work as well here.

The joke is not exclusively “for adults,” as many reviewers allege.  It’s a joke for kids, too.  How do I know this?  I know this because kids will get the joke.  A joke for adults goes over the heads of children – so, for example, the humor of a joke that relies upon sexual innuendo would likely be lost on a 7-year-old.  But the “jackass” joke is one that a grade-schooler can get.  I suspect that what really upsets the book’s critics is the idea of a child laughing at this “jackass” joke.  Laughter conveys the child’s knowledge that the term for an animal is also a term for a blockhead.  Laughter confirms that the child is not as “innocent” as the adult wishes to believe.  Not willing to concede that his or her assumptions about the imagined innocence of children may be flawed, the adult instead strikes back at the evidence – which, in this case, is It’s a Book.

One reviewer even calls the word an “expletive,” but it isn’t.  “Jackass” is a noun, and certainly an insult to the character at whom it’s directed, but I wouldn’t elevate it to the status of “expletive.”  Nor would any reputable dictionary.  Neither Webster’s Unabridged nor the Oxford English Dictionary lists “jackass” as “slang,” “vulgar,” “offensive,” or “taboo word” (these latter two are terms used by the OED to describe some expletives).  It’s simply conveying the fact that this character is a bit of a dolt. And it’s making a joke as it does so.

Contemporary children face many serious problems: cuts in funding to education, overcrowded schools, poverty, bigotry, abuse, neglect, and so on.  The word “jackass” doesn’t even make the list.  I suppose one reason for opposing the word is that, unlike the many real problems faced by young people, this one seems more manageable.  It’s a single word, it’s uncomplicated, and standing up against it plays upon our culture’s Romantic (and still popular) ideas of children – that they’re innocent, more “pure” than adults.  For some critics, I expect, taking a “principled” stand against “bad language” is satisfying on many levels – emotional, moral, paternal/maternal, etc.

However, decrying the use of this word is also extremely silly.  “Jackass” is a male donkey.  “Jackass” is a fool.  And, in the case of It’s a Book, “jackass” is a joke.


  1. Jeff Pettiross


    Ouch. Right on, Phil. Now I *know* I want to pick up the book for my kids the next time I’m at Third Place Books, just to be anti-kerfuffle.

  2. Reply

    Your list of problems faced by children could have included the fact that electronic media is displacing books in their lives…one wonders what it’s doing to their brains (I know mine isn’t holding up so well). It’s interesting that the librarian you quoted picked up a book that addresses that very problem–a problem that should be near and dear to a librarian’s heart, one would think–and zeroes in on the word ‘jackass’ instead.

    Your librarian seems to be genuinely sniffy and offended by the word, but as the husband of an elementary school librarian, let me say a word on behalf of children’s librarians everywhere. My wife is exceedingly cool, as you can attest yourself, Phil, but if she chooses not to buy It’s a Book for her library, I won’t blame her. To do so would be to ask for trouble from a few parents who would be bothered by it and would be loud about it. It’s not hard to imagine a children’s librarian passing on this one, keeping his or her powder dry for a book that’s more substantive and more worth fighting for (I say this without having read the book…for all I know, it could be the next Moby Dick).

    What troubles me about “It’s a book, Jackass” is not so much the word jackass itself, but the fact that the humor derives from name-calling. That’s worth thinking on, I should imagine. I’m picturing a class of second graders heading back to class from library time after the librarian finished with a flourish: “It’s a book, Jackass!” How many kids would get called ‘Jackass’–and how many times–before they even made it back to their desks? It’s not the nurturing environment one would hope for.

  3. Reply

    I don’t think the kerfuffle has anything to do with denying innocence. Like Jonathan Rogers above… I think it has to do with the fact that parents and teachers try to teach respect and try to create environments where kids know that name calling can hurt others… and here’s a book that basically says it’s okay to call names when you think you’re RIGHT (as defined by the name caller, of course). Oh, but it’s not really a name. It just coincidentally was that animal that I chose to illustrate. Honest. Nothing to see here. Move along :-)

    On Lane Smith’s blog, he notes other children’s books that have used the word jackass before as reason why it’s not a big deal that he used jackass. None of those boos use it the same way… so I’m curious from an academic’s point of view if you think the fact that “it’s been used before” makes a lot of sense as an authorial defense. I always thought context and intent mattered. Is that not true? The secondary question is whether he needs to offer a defense… but he did, so I’m curious what you think of it.

  4. Reply

    Jonathan and Gregory: Your points are well-taken.

    And, Jonathan, I certainly meant no offense to librarians. If my remarks conveyed any criticism of librarians as a group, then I apologize. For decades, the American Library Association has taken the lead in advocating children’s right to read the books they choose. And librarians have consistently been of enormous help to me, professionally. Whenever I’ve been stumped or unable to find the information I seek, I turn to librarians. In sum, I admire what librarians do, and intend no criticism of them or their profession.

    It’s also true that, as Jonathan says, the humor derives from an insult. As he says, insults are unkind. Certainly, one does not wish to endorse using language to hurt people. And, to answer Gregory’s question: no, I don’t think that precedent in and of itself is a persuasive authorial defense. Precedent is only precedent; it carries with it no moral weight whatsoever. Furthermore, I know that jokes can hurt – simply defending this on the grounds that it’s funny is also a poor defense.

    I would defend it on three grounds, the first of which aligns neatly with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights: “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas” (article IV). Libraries should carry books, even if some of those books might offend patrons. Children should be able to check out Captain Underpants (even though the book’s protagonists are cruel towards teachers), It’s Perfectly Normal (because understanding one’s body is a good thing), and It’s a Book (because calling a jackass a jackass is an accurate use of language).

    Second, the insult at the conclusion of It’s a Book is delivered with a wink. The monkey and the mouse are both smiling kindly — they look more like they’re kidding the jackass than trying to hurt him. There’s a gentleness to the expressions on their faces. Also, the jackass has been (thus far) impervious to the irritation of the monkey: it simply does not register on the jackass’ brain that he’s being annoying or impolite. The monkey’s expressions on these earlier pages do show his annoyance. In one illustration, the monkey looks up to the ceiling; in another, his eyebrows descend in irritation. By the end of the book, monkey and mouse seem to be friends with the jackass. So, yes, they call him a “jackass” and that is an insult, but it lacks the force that it would have had earlier in the book.

    Third, I’m not sure that sanitizing children’s books is going to be helpful … because each child is different. Sure, one doesn’t wish to promote name-calling, but how do you know that this book will lead children to indulge in name-calling? It might, but it might not. Also, what if we read the ending as saying that it’s OK to get exasperated with jackasses? The jackass has been rather trying throughout the book, after all. While I agree that words have power and that books can have an effect on those who read them, I would also argue that gauging the precise effect these books will have is not an exact science. If people really think that reading It’s a Book will turn children into bullies, then of course they should discourage children from reading the book. I think that it’s highly unlikely that It’s a Book will encourage bullying. I think it much more likely that it’ll encourage the class clown to keep cracking jokes. Heck, it might even encourage that clown to write books of his or her own, later in life.

  5. Reply

    So you know, Phil, I didn’t take offense on behalf of children’s librarians–either the one I live with or the ones I don’t. I didn’t take your remarks as critical of librarians…if they needed defending it wasn’t from your remarks but from the image portrayed by the sniffy one you quoted.

    I’d like to have a conversation about censorship and Banned Books Week, which, it seems to me, meets gross anti-intellectualism with something that falls short of intellectual honesty. Not today, though. Maybe we could do a friendly blog exchange in the not-too-distant future?

  6. Reply

    As noted, I don’t know that any defense of the book is needed. But the one that was offered was… uh… really odd coming from an author, I thought. Still, like you, I can’t see any reason not to defend the book being available to one and all.

    It’s interesting, though, the topics this can lead to and the interpretations that can come up. To wit: the monkey is the cause of his own exasperation. Why doesn’t he simply recognize that the jackass doesn’t understand what he’s talking about? Why not take the lead and explain the differences between a book and a computer, since it seems like the jackass is encountering something new? Maybe the monkey is actually being the jackass here, but those who are fans of “the book” don’t see that because they love the message? That interpretation was one offered up by an 11 year old reader of the book, by the way.

    I haven’t a clue if this book would lead to bullying, and it would be a sad world if books only contained people being nice all the time! But I will tell you that when I’ve shared it with kids, there has been laughter during and at the end of the book, but the only takeaway is that the book calls someone a jackass… and it’s okay. Which also isn’t any sort of reason to broach censoring or to stop sharing the book, but it’s my real-world lab results, not a theory or analysis of possibilities.

  7. Reply

    Glad you didn’t take offense, Jonathan. Sure, we could have a blog conversation on the subject at some point. Banned Books Week is a libertarian project; it doesn’t distinguish between the relative merits or demerits of restricting access to a book, but simply treats all books as equally worthy of consideration. Oh and, as you may know, the “Censorship” tag will lead to other posts on this issue here. Since I’m teaching a class on the subject right now, I’ve had occasion to post a little on it.

    Gregory: Thanks for sharing the responses to your reading of the book. I don’t think the author’s explanation of the book is odd. I think it’s interesting. But I’m glad to agree to disagree on that point.

  8. Reply

    Philip – just for me to clarify, I think his explanation of the book, and his process of creating it, is very interesting. I always love getting insight into the mind of someone extraordinarily talented, and I liked hearing his take on technology and “the book,” too. It’s his casual justification of word choice that I find odd. Context and intent matter, don’t they? Unless you think that a child reads “he came into town riding a jackass” the same way they read “It’s a book, Jackass.” In which case, we’ll agree to disagree on that point.

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  10. Reply

    The only problem that I see is that if I read this as written to my children, they would have decided to say “It’s a book, jackass”, a thousand times a day, mainly at the most inappropriate places. For children who don’t yet read, the answer is simple… substitute another word. It does strike me as not a particularly funny joke, and not worth the brouhaha.

  11. T. Crockett


    This book was recently highlighted at the local children’s library, so I picked it up out of curiosity. I have to admit Jackass surprised me. Even though it’s not an expletive, I’d have to be pretty angry at someone to call them that. It works beautifully though. And the narrator is pretty heated by that point, so it fits.

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