“Dirty” Is in the Mind of the Beholder: Children’s Picture Book Banned from Elementary Libraries in Pennsylvania School District

Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

Some people have no sense of humor. Some people find obscenity where there is none. Case in point: Earlier this year, parents of a kindergarten student in the Annville-Cleona School District made a complaint about The Dirty Cowboy, a humorous picture book that their child brought home from the school library. The parents felt that Adam Rex’s illustrations of the cowboy’s partial nudity in the book were “pornographic” and wanted it banned.  In April, the school board agreed with the parents and voted unanimously to remove the book from school libraries in the district.

Note: Before the school board’s vote, the district’s book review committee voted 5-1 to remove the book, with Cleona librarian Anita Mentzer voting against it. Other committee members included Annville-Cleona Superintendent Steven Houser, the assistant superintendent, the technology director, and Cleona Elementary’s principal. (School Library Journal)

There were protests against the banning of The Dirty Cowboy by free-speech organizations and an online petition in favor of repealing the ban that was signed by more than 300 people. The National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression sent a letter to the district asking that the book be returned to school library shelves.

An excerpt from the letter:

The practical effect of acceding to any request to restrict access to materials is to invite others to demand changes to reflect their beliefs, which would leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands, and leave the library in tatters. T he role of the library is to allow students and parents to make choices according to their own interests, experiences, and family values. No one has to read a book simply because it’s on the library shelf. We strongly urge you to keep The Dirty Cowboy in Annville-Cleona elementary school libraries. The decision to remove the book not only accedes to a specific viewpoint about the acceptability of nudity, but also deprives the entire student body of access to a highly praised book that many students, and their parents, would wish to read. Those who object to this book are entitled to their view, but they may not impose it on others. Any other decision threatens the principle that is essential to individual freedom, democracy, and a good education: the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.

Tim White reported in the Lebanon Daily News that despite outcry from the community, national media coverage, letters from the American Library Association and other organizations, and numerous pleas to reconsider, “the board refused to take up the matter again, citing concerns of causing a counter-controversy.” The boardstuck to its decision that the book was too dirty for young eyes.”

I’ll let you judge the book in question. Following is…

  • A summary of The Dirty Cowboy taken from an article that appeared in School Library Journal
  • a link to a Macmillan website where you can view illustrations in the book
  • three videos on the subject of the book banning
  • a list of honors and awards the book has received

Book Summary (SLJ)

The award-winning book tells the tale of a freckle-faced cowboy who decides to take his annual bath in a nearby river and asks his dog to guard his clothes. But the two get into fracas when the dog doesn’t recognize his fresh-smelling owner and refuses to hand over his clothes. The illustrations carefully conceal the cowboy’s private parts “while still keeping a G rating,” according to SLJ‘s review off the book.

The Dirty Cowboy illustrations

The Dirty Cowboy’s honors and awards include the following:

  • Parents Choice Gold Medal
  • Golden Kite Award (SCBWI – For Excellence in Picture Book Text)
  • First Prize in the 2004 Marion Vannett Ridgway Awards
  • International Reading Association 2004 Notable Book
  • Bulletin Blue Ribbon (The Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books)
  • Finalist for the Spur Award (Western Writers of America)
  • Finalist for Southeast Booksellers Association 2004 Book Award
  • Nominated for Georgia Picture Book Award

Comments made by Amy Timberlake, author of The Dirty Cowboy, during an interview with Blogging Censorship:

If one or two parents can get books removed from a public library, where will it stop? Will there be any books left in the library? I tell you, everybody has opinions about books, and everybody has gotten offended now and again by a book. (If you haven’t, you’re not a reader.) It doesn’t mean the book shouldn’t be on the shelves.

Anyway, this is one of the reasons we hire people with special training to care for our libraries. Librarians have a process for choosing and buying books for everybody (and in the case of schools, these books also support the teachers’ curriculum).

It’s one thing to free shelf space because a book is not being checked out, but it’s quite another to have a well-used book banned because of the objections of a few parents…

Some Questions

  • Do you think the illustrations of the cowboy’s partial nudity border on obscenity?
  • Do you think a book should be banned from a public school library because the parents of one child object to it?
  • Do you think that one or two people or an organization should have the right to impose their views of literature and art on others who may have different perspectives from theirs?


PA School District Bans ‘The Dirty Cowboy’ for Partial Nudity (School Library Journal)

A-C board to vote tonight on book ban (Lebanon Daily News)

‘The Dirty Cowboy’ author: Book ban ‘ridiculous’ (Lebanon Daily News)

COLUMN: Book ban is not community’s desire (Lebanon Daily News)

A-C residents complain about ‘The Dirty Cowboy’ ban (Lebanon Daily News)

American Library Association opposes ban of ‘The Dirty Cowboy’ (Lebanon Daily News)

U.S. News: School District Bans ‘The Dirty Cowboy’ Book (Newsy)

School districts shouldn’t ban books (Partiot-News)

Annville-Cleona School Board stays strong on decision to ban ‘The Dirty Cowboy’ (Partiot-News)

‘The Dirty Cowboy’ mess is about a lot more than one book (Patriot-News)

Nancy Eshelman: ‘Dirty’ pictures lead to banning of book about a bath (Patriot-News)

Pa. school board, parents spar over banning of Dirty Cowboy (First Amendment Center)

The So-Not-Dirty Cowboy Author Speaks (Blogging Censorship/National Coalition Against Censorship)

Letter to Members of the School Board Annville-Cleona School District (National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation)

134 thoughts on ““Dirty” Is in the Mind of the Beholder: Children’s Picture Book Banned from Elementary Libraries in Pennsylvania School District”

  1. Phil C,

    I don’t think you’ve said the same things that I’ve said.

    Did you look at the illustrations in “The Dirty Cowboy?” if so, do you think that they border on obscenity–or that looking at them would lead children to reading pronography?

    What is the “moderate side” of banning books from public libraries?

  2. Phil C,

    What “cause” is it that you speak of?

    I believe that reasonable people should agree that books should not be banned from public libraries because one or two people disapprove of them.

    1. The cause = discussion. I should have been more clear. There’s no longer any point in both of us saying the same things over and over ad nauseum.

      I feel like it doesn’t matter if I do agree with you 95% because you still won’t even concede the slightest hint that there’s a moderate side of the topic or any of the points I’ve made in any way might have some validity because you won’t stop until you get that last 5%.

      I’m done with this one and I certainly hope I never run across the book dirty cowboy now or ever

Comments are closed.