Scholastic and Dav Pilkey Send Ook and Gluk Packing: A Post-Mortem

Dav Pilkey signing books for fans.

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.

Pilkey drawing his most famous character, Captain Underpants

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  But none of Pilkey’s forty-odd books have been withdrawn until this spring when The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Kung-fu Cavemen of the Future was challenged.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 public relations 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.  i The Ook and Gluk Wikipedia page was updated 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 comes 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 so 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 had 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.

The Staying Power of Beverly Cleary (1916-2021)

Early in her career Beverly Cleary said she wanted to write about “universal human emotions,” but the idea that there are emotions all readers can relate to, regardless of race, gender, and class, seems hopelessly optimistic, perhaps even dangerously dated now.  Her Klickitat novels from the 1950s and mid-1960s reflect another America, but have shifting values invalidated her attempt to find common ground through the depiction of ordinary anxieties children experience daily at home and school? Things like, will something interesting happen to me?   Or how am  I going to hide something embarrassing from my peers?   These two concerns play out humorously in Cleary’s stories time after time without lapsing into cruelty or condescension.

The pest Ramona Geraldine Quimby may be Cleary’s most famous character and, judging by some of the recent posts, the one many women like best.   I still find Ellen Tebbits easier to relate to than Ramona, decades after making their acquaintances.   Ramona courts attention because the littlest and youngest person won’t be noticed unless willing to make great big noisy fusses.  Which, of course, she is.  Ellen also wants attention, but is much more self-conscious when trying to get it   Imagine Ellen, with a grimy face, balanced on top of a jungle gym howling and holding a lunch box which conceals the bone she stole from Ribsy as punishment for taking her ice cream cone…   Ramona is not malicious, but it is perfectly in character that she pulls her classmate Susan’s curls repeatedly without feeling anything like the remorse Ellen does when she yanks Austine’s sash and tears it right out of the dress’s side seam.  Compared to Ramona, the early 1950s four-year-old icon for girl power, eight-year-old Ellen hangs back, being more sensitive to other people’s feelings and more concerned about what they might think of her.  She will surely outgrow some of her timidity and tentativeness, but she will probably never be in Ramona’s league for brass.  Who can say what either of them will be like when they are grown up?

Anyone who had a Ramona-like sibling shouldn’t have any trouble believing her antics like taking one bite out of every apple in the bushel–or pushing down envy for having the imagination plus the nerve to have done it themselves. The upsets Ellen faces are more ordinary and easier to find parallels to similar experiences, regardless of personality type and social class, at least to some extent.  While it surely helps to have set foot in a ballet studio, Cleary helps the reader imagine Ellen’s torment trying to dance, while keeping the winter underwear from unrolling past her waist.  Leap and clutch.  Leap and clutch.  Leap and clutch.  Finding something for show and tell puts pressure on children to think of something so interesting that they will shine, please the teacher, and engage their classmates. Ellen arrives at school in a dress stained with mud and beet juice carrying a huge vegetable for show and tell, but her moment of triumph dissipates as soon as she begins to worry that she’ll be sent home to change and lose the opportunity to talk about the beet.  Unspoken is her fear of facing her  mother in the ruined dress.  There is probably not a reader who can’t hear his or her mother scolding them for not taking care of their things.

Klickitat Street was not home to a vibrant, diverse neighborhood that is the ideal now.  But in the 1950s and 1960s, it could be regarded within limits as different, depending upon what part of the country readers were growing up.   The arid Southwest was nothing like Oregon in the Pacific Northwest.  A place so wet and rainy that would require someone to wear long woolen underwear was kind of exotic if you had seen a such a garment in stores or dresser drawers.  Due to the rising demand for single-family homes in metropolitan Los Angeles, kids were more likely to scrounge for interesting stuff on construction sites than overgrown vacant lots.  To a boy who was driven in the family car down the San Diego freeway, the struggles of Henry Huggins bringing the stray dog Ribsy home on a bus with a rain storm threatening may have sounded pretty adventurous.  Kids weren’t  allowed to go places by themselves on a city bus–if there were any lines they could have taken.

The “adventures” of the white middle-class characters on Klickitat Street might not compare with those of the Pevensey children, but Cleary demonstrated that they had interesting lives even if they didn’t travel to parallel magical worlds.   Beloved by readers, her work has not generated a body of literary criticism as extensive as those of many fantasy writers, even though she was the recipient of the 1975 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award), the 1984 Newbery Medal, and the 2002 National Medal of Art.  Perhaps if Cleary had written about a different cross-section of the American population or questioned contemporary gender roles, her standing within the canon of children’s literature might be higher.  Ultimately what she produced, not what she might have or should have done, ought to be judged within the context of the society she wrote about.  Perhaps we should think of Cleary as an heir of  Maria Edgeworth, who tried to show through the series of stories about her alter-ego Rosamund, how a child’s mind, feelings, and values were formed through interactions with family and friends.  Surely it is no small thing to try show with sympathy and humor  the breakthroughs and setbacks in the socialization process of a particular time and place.