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The Annville-Cleona (PA) School Board

The Dirty Cowboy
The Dirty Cowboy is an illustrated children's book that tells the tale of a cowboy who goes down to a river for his annual bath, undresses, and instructs his dog to watch his clothes while he bathes.
When he emerges from the river the cowboy smells so clean that his dog doesn't recognize him and won't let him have his clothes back. The remainder of the book chronicles the cowboy's travails as he seeks to reclaim his clothes, getting dirtier in the process.

Although the cowboy is depicted without his clothes, the drawings never actually show him nude. The whimsical illustrations cleverly block the cowboy's “private parts” with various images including a boot, a flock of birds, a frog, and more. Written by Amy Timberlake and illustrated by Adam Rex, The Dirty Cowboy has received numerous awards and accolades, including the Parent's Choice Gold Medal, the Golden Kite Award and the International Reading Association Notable Book award.

Not everyone is a fan of the book, however. In the spring of 2012, the parents of a student in Pennsylvania's Annville-Cleona school district objected to the book being in the elementary school library for fear it would teach children that “looking at nudity is okay and not wrong” and that “pornography is okay too.” Acting on their objection, the Annville-Cleona School Board deemed the book inappropriate for young children and voted to remove The Dirty Cowboy from the elementary school library. The removal received national media attention. The American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and an online petition signed by more than 300 local parents and taxpayers urged the Board to reconsider its action.

images from The Dirty CowboyAlthough the complaining parents have every right to express their opinion, to equate a children's book containing no sexual or salacious content with “pornography” demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the term. And while many people do find depictions of nudity objectionable, they should not have the right to impose that view on others in the community—particularly when, as here, there is not a single depiction of nudity! Ultimately, what the school board found to be inappropriate for young children was nothing more than the suggestion that people typically don't wear any clothing while taking a bath.

School administrators and board members have incredibly difficult jobs due in part to the variety of constituencies they serve. Rarely, if ever, will their decisions or actions receive universal support. But the Annville-Cleona School Board serves a broader constituency than just those who agree with its decisions. As stated by the American Library Association in a letter to the school board on this matter, “the school library has a responsibility to meet the needs of everyone in the school community—not just the most vocal, the most powerful, or even the majority. If a parent thinks a particular book is not suitable for their child, they should guide their children to other books.”

In taking the extreme step of removing the book from the library, the Annville-Cleona School Board ignored the views of many in the community that they serve, the many awards the book has received, and the opinions of the American Library Association and other professional organizations. By so doing the school board essentially declared that there is only one “reasonable” view on the book's appropriateness for children—a view that earns the Annville-Cleona School Board a 2013 Jefferson Muzzle.

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38

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