Where to begin? Begin at the beguine, I suppose. I’ve had It’s a Book sitting on my shelf for months and now the time is ripe. As you may have heard one place or another, it contains an off-color word at the end (“jackass”, belated spoiler alert) and it makes fun of folks who prefer online zips and whizbangs to good old-fashioned paper books. So what are we to make of it? Well, I hate to lob this designation on any author or illustrator I like, but this is so clearly a picture book for grown-ups that it squeaks. While kids today slip from electronic readers to paper books and back again like svelte otters, it is the grown-ups around them that are heard cooing and purring every time a shiny new electronic toy hits the market. For those who love the printed page, such enthusiasm can be scary. Kids don’t fear for the so-called “death of the book” but some of their caregivers certainly do, and so for them Lane Smith has penned an exchange between a pixel-happy donkey and the monkey (slash ape) who just wants to read his book in peace.
Hedging his bets right from the start, Smith begins by pulling his punch as far back as it can reasonably go. Turn to the title page and you read, “It’s a mouse. It’s a jackass. It’s a monkey.” Ignoring the fact that the monkey is actually an ape (though he may be hiding his tail beneath his, uh, muumuu?), the story begins with the donkey asking the primate what he’s got there. “It’s a book.” Not understanding the donkey tries to figure out the use of such an object. “Can it text?” “No.” “Tweet?” “No.” “Wi-Fi?” “No.” Eventually the donkey gets to see what a book really can do and when his companion asks if he can have his book back he gets a pretty straightforward, “No,” echoing his own earlier dismissals. The donkey, to his credit, offers to charge the book up when he’s done, but the mouse perched on the top of the monkey’s (slash ape’s) head clarifies everything, “You don’t have to . . .” Turn the page. “It’s a book, jackass.”
In the past, Smith was king at walking the fine line between adult humor and children’s humor. Books like The Happy Hockey Family remain spot on. Kids find them funny just on a basic humor level and adults love the sly jabs at easy reading books of yore. This balance was once a Smith trademark, but lately he’s been falling too far on the adult side of the equation. When I mention The Big Elephant in the Room to other children’s librarians I often meet with blank stares. Though it came out just a year before It’s a Book, this title was a pretty strange concoction. In it a donkey (a jackass?) asks another about “the elephant in the room”. His companion then launches into a series of unspoken topics that might be that elephant until, at the end, we see an actual elephant sitting in the room. After trying to figure out if there was a political point to the story (donkeys and elephants rarely co-mingle for any other reason) it occurred to me that the book made no sense. Of course the first thing a child reader is going to assume when they hear the term “elephant in the room” is that there’s an actual elephant there. Only adults would go along with the donkey’s string of interpersonal mishaps. If The Big Elephant in the Room missed its mark, It’s a Book missed the same mark, but managed to hit a much larger target: an adult readership.
It’s telling that reviews on sites like Amazon display less a sense of moral outrage against the use of the “jackass” but rather a quiet bewilderment about the book’s audience. The outraged folks are there, of course, but folks that simply want to know “why” outnumber them. Or maybe a more accurate word would be “who?” Who precisely is this a book for? The answer comes, horrifyingly enough, from Barnes and Noble. The bookstore behemoth has for years been able to command that authors and illustrators change aspects of their books (words, cover images, etc.) or else pay the ultimate price: No display space. Rumor has it (and I’m working purely off of what I’ve heard) that so incensed was B&N by Smith’s use of the term “jackass” that they insisted he change the word. Smith adamantly stood by his “jackass” and so when you walk into your local B&N (as of the writing of this review) you will find It’s a Book not in the children’s section at all, but in the adult humor section. The thing is, B&N inadvertently got it right. Not about the word, mind you, but about what exactly the real audience for this title is.
Now before I go any further, I have indeed heard teachers of older children (4th & 5th graders, for example) say that kids get a kick out of this book. And while I am pleased the older children are okay with being read picture books, were they the perceived audience from the start of the book’s creation? Probably not. No 4th or 5th grader I know is going to confuse a book with a Kindle or nook. Smith’s sort of setting up a straw man here, but it’s not for the kids. It’s for the adults. The ones who worry somewhere in the back of their minds that books will someday be nothing more than pixels on a screen. The ones who see their children playing online, texting their friends, updating their Facebook statuses, and fear for the future of the printed page. For them It’s a Book is a rallying cry. It touches on everything they fear and then tells them exactly what they want to hear: That the people who live solely in the world of bits and bytes are truly jackasses at heart.
And what about that word anyway? Like pretty much every other reader I was surprised the first time I got to the end of the book. I’m not going to raise a fuss about the term per say. After all, Tinkerbell calls Peter “you silly ass” in Peter Pan while even the beloved James and the Giant Peach (which Smith once illustrated himself) knew when to brandish the term. But then, these books were chapter books. Would I, then, keep this book off my picture book shelves? Of course not! In a culture where we’ve movies named things like Kick-Ass in the theaters, the term is practically ubiquitous. My objection isn’t that he uses the word, but that he uses it poorly. Look, I’m a children’s librarian. Let’s say I read this book to a room full of second graders. We’re all having a good time, I’m doing cool sound effects, and then we get to the end. The mouse says, “It’s a book, jackass” and suddenly the entire tone of the storytime has changed. What was a fun informative book suddenly turns . . . well . . . nasty. Because what exactly is the mouse saying? That if you are ignorant of something, like books, and try to learn more then you’re a jackass? That anyone who comes to books late in life is a jackass? What exactly is the donkey’s crime here? What, for that matter, is the point of the final sentence?
The point is to shock and ultimately amuse adult readers, and in this Smith has succeeded beyond measure. It’s the final ZING for an audience that’s comfortable with the term but didn’t expect to see it in a children’s book. They gasp, then laugh at the fact that they laughed, then feel great affection for the story because (as I mentioned before) it taps into their own fears and reassures them. The only people left out of the equation are children, but that doesn’t matter. Small fry don’t earn money with which to buy too many books anyway. This begs the question about whether or not the fact that the intended audience is grown-up is even a problem. I don’t suppose so but I don’t like it when books masquerade as something they are not. If this is a book for big people then say it loud and clear. And if it is for little people, why did you make it so mature?
The kicker is that Smith’s art is superb here. Really quite lovely. Where in The Big Elephant in the Room he seemed to be sleepwalking through the pages, here his lines are crisp and clean and almost geometric. Look how beautifully the donkey’s ears curve from his head to their tips and back again. Check out the beauty of the straight-backed red chair he sits in. This is almost a Mondrian painting subdued into a natural palette and then transformed into a book for kids. I daresay Smith hasn’t done art this lovely in years. And look at his fonts! The donkey’s are that strange computerized font we just naturally associate with computers. The mouse and monkey (slash ape) speak with fonts that are far more . . . literary, shall we say? There was thought, clear thought, behind these choices.
I can’t help but be amused by the irony that a book that proclaims loud and long the great delights of the printed word verses the electronic one happens to have its own online book trailer (one that judiciously makes sure not to mention the naughty word at the end, by the way). In essence, the book has done precisely what it meant to. It has amused adults to no end. And while it will probably never be read to a class of first or second graders in a true storytime, it will live on in the bookshelves of college students across the country. While it does, I’ll hope for the return of Lane Smith to the world of children’s literature written for kids first and foremost. Writing for adults is all well and good, but anyone can do that. It takes a special knack to write a book that a kid really loves and enjoys. Fingers crossed that it happens for Mr. Smith again sometime real soon.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
And here is the amusing book trailer. Note the carefully edited ending.