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  But none of Pilkey’s forty-odd books have been withdrawn until this spring when The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Kung-fu Cavemen of the Future was challenged.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 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.

The Trump Presidency in Picture Books

Since 2016, over two dozen children’s books written from either side of the aisle have tackled the difficult task of explaining the current administration’s policies to young readers. Some of the most interesting ones purchased for the research collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library are surveyed here.Dover Books captured the glamour of Donald John Trump’s inauguration in a commemorative paper doll book.    The new First Lady’s pale blue Ralph Lauren ensemble and other Trump women’s designer gowns outshine the President’s dark blue coat, business suit, and long red tie.

Of all the picture books introducing the Trump clan to young members of the Republic, the most mysterious (and inaccurate) is The Trump Family Story.  Donald’s father’s name is given as ‘”Frederick” and “Farid;” Tiffany is identified as one of Trump’s sons, and Eric junior’s name is misspelled “Arik.”  A few Arabic words and logos for Wavefront obj.files were never removed.  The Trump Family Story was purchased through Amazon and printed at its Middletown, Delaware facility January 13 2021.  There are no credits anywhere, but there is an ISBN number, which when Googled, lands you on the Walt Design Facebook page giving the pamphlet’s publication date as May 20, 2020.  The Marseilles-based firm was also responsible for an introduction to Minecraft.

Donald Trump the 45th President (2016) is the only example of a fun-fact introduction to this occupant of the White House. It was produced by Gallipolade International, an educational publishing company founded by Carole Marsh that produces materials supporting curriculum in social studies. Before diving into sections describing the Electoral College, the line of succession, and the history of Camp David, young readers learn that Donald Trump loves See’s Candies, scrapes the toppings of the crust of his pizza, and styles his hair after Melania cuts it. Informative activities include quick quizzes, a form for drafting a letter to the chief executive, and a maze (help the Secret Service find the president who’s gone to make a snack in the kitchen).Eric Metaxas, the conservative cultural commentator, syndicated radio show host, and Yale alum, comes out fighting for free markets in Donald Builds the Wall (Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 2019) the second of three volumes illustrated by Tim Raglin in the “Donald the Caveman” series. Donald’s wall is not supposed to keep out illegal immigrants south of the border, but Swamp Creatures Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders who want government to stymie the Free People’s individual innovation and entrepreneurship. Metaxas considers this fable with its affable Fred Flintstone-like hero a light-hearted political satire for adults that will engage the kids, even though a lot of the material will go over their heads.

The connection to political reality is just as tenuous in Deena Marie’s Trump and the Dragon (n.d.) illustrated by Josseline Villalobos and Candice Han, companion piece to Obama and the Pirates, in which the two presidents must demonstrate just how far they will go to solve an ally’s problem. The president of China summons the president of the United States to rid his land of a singing dragon whose songs are so atrocious that people are vacating their villages. The dragon’s name? Dylan. Great American Children’s Books published it.  Trump’s apologists have not turned out many parodies for the conservative cause. However, Bill Hunt, former San Clemente police chief and lieutenant in the Orange County sheriff’s department now a professional artist, turns Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham (1960) into a spoof on hysterical liberals’ categorical refusal to accept the results of the 2016 election. The liberal, an old, white, bearded hippy in sandals and a bowler, rants to Uncle Sam, “I do not like Trump in the White House./ I do not like that lecherous louse,/ I do not like Trump here or there,” I do not like Trump anywhere! / I do not like Trump, / He’s just a sham. / I do not like Trump.” By the end of A Lib I Am! An adult reader about children (2017) the poem, the lib loses it and threatens to “make up fake news / And cause mass disruption,” incite civil unrest from coast to coast, and get into bed with Arab radicals to thwart the president’s administration.A brief pause for Dear Mr. President (United Kingdom: Templar Books, 2019), a picture book whose author/illustrator made an honest attempt to break down one of the signature political initiatives of the Trump administration in an accessible way without oversimplifying its complexity. Sam has decided that his big brother, with whom he shares a bedroom, sounds like an undesirable according to President Trump’s definition. Building a wall sounds like a good solution to the problem of his brother’s thoughtlessness, so Sam writes a series of letters to the American president telling him about his construction project’s progress.  During family discussions Dad has a word with his older son and hostilities begin to subside. Sam comes around to the idea that “communication and negotiation are always preferable to separation,” especially now that he knows that the great walls of history didn’t attain their builders’ objectives. It’s probably no coincidence that this gentle, common-sense story illustrated by Anne Villeneuve is the work of New Zealander Sophie Stier.The American author/illustrators of picture books attacking the president do not feel obligated to respect the office or the its incumbent, which does not necessarily result in mean, clever satire that pulls down the object to a contemptible level. The premise of Donald Don’t grab that Pussy (201) by Mike McAllen and illustrated by Lovyaa Garg is funny only as long as the novelty of the idea of Michelle Obama teaching the little Donald how to treat our animals friends with “respect and care” wears off. Beyond that, there’s no meaningful play off the infamous Access Hollywood tape, which presumably inspired the book. In Take a Trump (n.d.), the anonymous author avoids taboo words and lets the pictures lead on the reader.  A little girl trying to get her mind around the adult chatter floating overhead and comes to the mistaken conclusion that “trump” rhymes with a synonym for an embarrassing bodily function.

Trump’s liberal enemies have been quick to whip off parodies of famous children’s books.  Diminishing an adversary through infantilization is, of course, one of the oldest, funniest, and unfairest techniques in the satirist’s arsenal, which doesn’t make it easy to pull off.  D. Trumple Thinskin bit off more than he could chew in The very angry Caterwauler (n.p.: Lies & Prevarications, 2017), an “Auntie-American Tragicomedy.”  Without the means to suggest transformation through the original’s brilliant use of illustrated vertical flaps with cut-outs, the best Thinskin can manage is a greasy rumble of words, “But at last, it was Election Day.  The angry caterwauler choked down a taco (most certainly not from a truck!) forced a shit-eating grin onto a quesadilla lips and burped out a few more rancid cheesy lies.  By evening, he was feeling much better.”

Laura Nemeroff’s famous series has been taken of advantage for Trump parodies at least twice. Matt Lassen’s If You Give the President a Twitter Account (New York: Humorist Books, 2019), is as much an indictment of the role pundits on network and cable television feed into the 24-hour news cycle that allows Trump to manipulate coverage to his advantage, while Trump’s less presidential traits are the butt of Fay Kanouse’s If You Give a Pig the White House (New York: Castle Point Books, 2019). It’s a pity that Kanouse and her illustrator Amy Zhing have not yet produced the three other books advertised on the dust jacket flap: If You Put a Snake on the Supreme Court, Ivanka and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad President, and Oh, the Prisons You’ll Go To.

Possibly the most trenchant picture book parody about the Trump administration is Goodnight Trump (Boston: Little Brown, 2018), unsurprisingly the work of  Erich Origen and Gan Golan of the New York Times.  The text and pictures skillfully weave together details about the president’s self-promotion, alignment of the country’s interests with those of authoritarian regimes, trade policies, exploitation of the tax laws, immigration policies, etc. to crest in an apocalyptic vision of Washington being swept clean: “Goodnight global climate shock / Goodnight ticking Doomsday Clock / Good night allies thrown under the bus / Goodnight “the best people” / Goodnight cover-up brush / … /  Goodnight swamp / Goodnight troll / Goodnight upended Old Glory / Goodnight hole in the soul / Goodnight to the lies and the truths he evades/ Goodnight Trump and his whole sad charade.”The major events of the Trump administration’s last year were recorded through April 2020 by actor John Lithgow in Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown: Verses for a Despotic Age, his second unflattering tribute to Forty-Five.  Outrage and disbelief charges the penultimate poem, “Our Witch Doctor in Chief:”

“Dumpty suggests disinfectant injections/ To save us from COVID’s pernicious infections, / Or a frontal attack to defeat it outright / By blasting our lungs with salubrious light, / A blithering idiot, gone round the bend: / When in the world will this lunacy end?”

Two journalists, Carol Vinzany and John Connolly try another approach to summing up 2016-2021 in Don’t Be Like Trump: The Smart Kid’s Guide to President Trump.  It’s the book they wish they had had to explain to their children the impact of Trump administration policies on American society instead of library biographies, which they felt were short on history, biography, and analysis.  Chapters about “Is It Okay to Make Fun of the President?” “Dictator Word Search,” “Activities to Annoy Your Parents with Trump,” are mixed up with others about the rollbacks of environmental protections, the Mueller investigation, the impeachment trial, police brutality, and the 2020 election.

Picture books about the tumultuous transition after the election, culminating in the January 6th riot in the Capitol Building, could appear within months.  No account of the Trump presidency from the left or right should omit it, but who will  touch it?   That remains to be seen.   This motley crew of picture books and their even scruffier friends, which didn’t make the final cut, will surely give future historians pause.