Dyslexic and disruptive as a boy, Dav Pilkey has great sympathy for children who find learning to read overwhelming. He prefers a visual format like the graphic novel because the disaffected and discouraged are more likely to be engaged. Allowing children to read what they want with minimal adult interference strikes him as better in the long run than not reading at all. If that means the classics are not starting point, so be it. Giving those kids wild stories flush with potty humor and phonetically spelled dialogue supposedly written by bad boys George Beard, who is Black and his white best friend Harold Hutchins, has made Pilkey a best-selling author.
How he tells the stories he invents is as controversial in some circles as they are beloved in others. His most famous series of graphic novels, Captain Underpants, has made the American Library Association’s banned book list several times. But none of Pilkey’s forty-odd books have been withdrawn until this spring when The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Kung-fu Cavemen of the Future was challenged. Many of the accounts in the media presented similar versions of the story without raising questions or adding new information, even though the issues were more complicated than they reported. Links to most of my sources are inserted in the text.
This spring Billy Kim’s two children, both huge Pilkey fans, brought home from the public library The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, which was originally published by Scholastic in 2010. The story tells how best friends Ook and Gluk stop a predatory twenty-first-century corporation from stripping the prehistoric world of its natural resources, thanks to learning kung-fu from Master Wong in 2222 A. D. As a Korean-American, Kim was offended by the portrayal of Asians in the book and when his attempts to air those objections with Scholastic seemed to be going nowhere, on March 22, 2021 he wrote a Change.org petition, “Scholastic Needs to Apologize for Publishing a Children’s Book Full of Racist Imagery,” signed with his initials. The problems were the portrayal of Asian characters with dashes for eyes and the proverb-spouting Master Wong character. Kim’s description of Wong is correct but doesn’t take mention that Master Wong saves the friends from capture by Goppernopper operatives or that he is the only one who can explain why the world will be saved when J. P. Goppernopper obliterates his ancient ancestor Chief Goppernopper.
Kim called on the author and publisher to take the following steps. 1. Make public apologies taking full responsibility for failing to address the racist content. 2. Scholastic should alert librarians and educators about the book’s problems so informed decisions can be made about its future circulation. 3. Donations should be made to organizations whose missions are to combat racism and promote diversity. Taking all three steps would not, in his opinion, reserve the harm already caused by Ook and Gluk: “Every child who has read this book has been conditioned to accept this racist image as okay or funny. It is this type of passive racism that has contributed to the continued hate and prejudice experienced by Asian Americans on a daily basis.” It is surely no coincidence that Kim took action in the wake of March 16th’, when a twenty-one-year-old white man killed eight people, six of them Asian-Americans, in three Atlanta-area spas.
He reached out again to the publisher on late on March 22 and when he did not receive an immediate response, assumed he was being ignored. Dav Pilkey and Scholastic agreed immediately after learning about the petition to halt the book’s distribution, according to Pilkey’s wife and business partner Sayuri. An undated notice on Scholastic’s News Room page announced that as of March 22 domestic and international orders for Ook and Gluk would no longer be fulfilled, the existing inventory recalled, and references deleted from the website.
Pilkey quickly invited Kim to a Facetime meeting on the 25th Immediately after their conversation, he wrote and posted an apology on his You Tube channel. He explained that his intention had been to “showcase diversity, equality and nonviolent conflict” (Ook is white, Gluk Black). He now realized the plot depended upon “harmful racial stereotypes and passively racist imagery.” Pledging to do better, he announced that he and his wife would donate the equivalent of the advance, the previous ten years’ worth of royalties, and future royalties to organizations that “provide free books, art supplies, and theater for children in underserved communities; organizations that promote diversity in children’s books and publishing; and organizations designed to stop violence and hatred against Asians.”
After his meetings with the publisher and author, Kim updated the petition with information about outcome. By waiting to do this, Kim allowed the impression to stand that Pilkey was uncooperative, which Sayuri Pilkey states was untrue and unfair. She defended her husband as acting out of the desire to make the incident a teaching moment and having a long-standing commitment to supporting groups serving minority children. She also pointed out that he demurred from mentioning the involvement of Asian editors on the project, receiving positive feedback from her and Elaine Oh, director of “We Need Diverse Books,”, or that Kim’s was the first complaint in eleven years.
The major points in contention addressed by March 29th, due partly to Pilkey’s acceptance of constructive criticism and Scholastic’s quick actions, a potential public relations disaster was averted with greater sensitivity than had objections swirling around Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington (2016), Emily Jenkin’s A Fine Dessert (2015), and Arthur C. Gackley’s (aka Robert Staake), Bad Little Children’s Books (2016). An undated statement, “We Stand in Solidarity with the AAPI Community,” was inserted at the head of the Scholastic splash page. The Ook and Gluk Wikipedia page was updated by someone with the information about Scholastic halting distribution, but by then the news cycle had already moved on.
Some traces of the cavemen have yet to be sent back through the time portal. Scholastic has taken down the Ook and Gluk page and related curriculum but as of today visitors can find out about the story on the Kids Book Clubs or download a maze puzzle with Master Wong. Want to learn how to talk like caveman? Download the primer of Cavemonics and annoy every grown-up in ear shot. Pilkey’s official site still features an Ook and Gluk “Adventures Never End when You Read” coloring sheet in the “Fun Stuff” section. By far the web source with the most material is the Captain Underpants “The Epic Tales Encyclopedia” Wiki, operated by Fandom.com. “Characters” can be searched for “Ook” or “Gluk” Articles come up, with all the links live, which is the only way to access information about Master Wong, Chief and J. P. Goppernopper, who do not have their own articles. As of today the wiki makes no reference to the recent incident.The media missed one important angle worth considering. The Adventures of Ook and Gluk was on the best-sellers’ list for 33 weeks, Kim’s petition stated, which was probably intended to show that the book reached a wide audience and had considerable potential to shape attitudes and values. The uncontextualized statistic is somewhat misleading without the back story. In 2010 Ook and Gluk was slated as the second spin-off mini-series from Captain Underpants, The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby preceding it in 2002. It was supposed to be the first of a four-volume deal. The print run was set at a million copies. Its first week, Ook and Gluk was second on the New York Times hardcover graphic novel best-sellers list and first place for the next six. For the remaining 26 weeks it made the list, it was presumably not in the top two slots. While the sequel, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Jr. Cave-Kids in Outer Space, was announced on page 170 of the first book, it seems to have languished in “development hell” for years until quietly cancelled, without notifying the fan base. It sounds as if Ook and Gluk had not performed well enough to go forward, being the only Pilkey concept for a series–Captain Underpants, Dog Man, Dragon Tales, Dumb Bunnies, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot, and Super Diaper Baby—that did not go into multiple titles. From this perspective, it was a bit of good luck that Ook and Gluk was challenged: if Scholastic had to sacrifice any title to protect the Pilkey brand, this was the one.
And the public? Not that many expressed support for or outrage against the author, if these two unscientifically selected samples are at all typical. Of the 289 people signing Kim’s petition, eleven left comments, all but two with Asian last names. “Boo” razzed Meng Cheng. “It’s self-explanatory,” said Alan Lee. Abbie Rindfuss commented, “I teach 2nd graders and the more educated I become on these issues the more we can ensure these kids grow up Anti racist, more compassionate and empathic adults. I stand against Asian hate and all groups that have been marginalized.” The contributors to the thread on Technodrome Forums, a discussion group for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans, had different takes. Goldmutant was not a huge Pilkey fan: “A lot of books are off-the-walls, satirical, and low-brow. It’s his style.” IndigoErth mused, “I wish the info was clear what the actual misstep is in the book. Esp if it was a guy of Korean heritage, not Chinese, that found issue with it. Maybe there are stereotypes they didn’t want to repeat in the article (?), but not saying directly what the issue is just lets people go into a rage over another book being “canceled” and not knowing what the real issue is. Because only mentioning that the characters meet a martial arts instructor who teaches them kung fu and about Chinese Philosophy doesn’t sound like the actual problem.” Jester thought Kim sounded like “a male Karen” and seem to have doubts whether a petition signed by than 300 signatories should have had the power to suppress a book.
Why, who, and how many are enough sway the publisher of an author who is no stranger to controversy to take a title off the market? That’s a problem that deserves far more careful consideration as the trend to challenge children’s books develops in the future.
Pilkey with his fans.