Eric Hauser’s first book features some universal themes — pretty standard children’s story fare, really. It’s a tale of honesty and teamwork and friendship written by an assistant principal at a Texas middle school.
But his rosy description was at odds with the green-skinned protagonist who smiled at children from the book’s cover: Pepe the frog, a cartoon character that’s been adopted as a mascot of the alt-right movement and associated with white nationalism.
On Monday, the book, which Hauser self-published on Aug. 1 before it was picked up by a conservative-leaning publishing house, cost the assistant principal his position.
The book features allusions that may go over some children’s heads. The setting is a farm called Wishington. The antagonist is a bearded alligator named “Alkah.” Astute readers will recognize Covfefe cliff. But perhaps the most inflammatory aspect is the smiling cartoon frog, which NBC News has called a “popular white nationalist symbol.” “Pede,” the name of the cartoon centipede that also graces the book’s cover, is also a term members of a Donald Trump-themed Reddit board use to refer to each other.
Spoiler alerts ahead, but Pepe and his centipede sidekick Pede start the book ecstatic that the old farmer has left after eight years of oppression. But Alkah and his minions have entrenched themselves in a pond that very much resembles a swamp — and are threatening to spread throughout all of Wishington Farm. Pepe and Pede have one weapon to vanguish the gator: buds from the honesty tree.
Denton Independent School District officials say they removed Hauser as assistant principal at Rodriguez Middle School days after word of his book and its protagonist spread on social media. That happened at the same time that a Charlottesville rally of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and Ku Klux Klan members descended into violent chaos that left three dead. The school district said Hauser’s book had become “a distraction to the learning process.”
School starts Wednesday at the district, which educates about 28,000 students “from different ethnic, social and economic backgrounds,” a school district news release said.
“We pride ourselves on providing a welcoming and nurturing environment to all students. Our staff is reflective of the community we serve, where all individuals are respected,” Superintendent Jamie Wilson said in the release. “We encourage our staff and students to be free-thinking and express their ideas, however, when these ideas interrupt the ability to learn, work or create divisiveness each of us is held accountable.”
Hauser declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post, instead directing questions to his publisher, Post Hill Press. He released a statement via the school district:
“Due to the controversy surrounding the book I have published, I think it’s best that I not serve as assistant principal at Rodriguez,” Hauser said. His publisher said he’d be moved to a new role. “The students, the community, and the teachers are too important to me to subject them to all the negativity and disapproval resulting from this book. To my colleagues, I offer my deepest apologies if this has affected them or their families in any negative way.”
That was a change from Hauser’s earlier statements. He told Fort Worth NBC-affiliate KXAS that he was “using Pepe just as a lighthearted way of expressing maybe some conservative values.”
But, as The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser wrote: “The frog is talked about as a green manifestation of the Internet’s dark fringes, a mascot whose popularity there rivals that of Trump’s. … A Pepe avatar on Twitter is now generally read as a sign of an alt-right affiliation.”
On Monday, Anthony Ziccardi, a spokesman for Post Hill Press, the conservative-leaning publishing house, defended the book, saying it espoused conservative values, but was not incendiary.
“There’s no hidden messages here,” Ziccardi said. “There’s no hidden agenda. He created this character and he didn’t realize all the backlash that was going to come from it — and quite frankly, neither did I. … Really, the ultimate theme is law and order. This is a feel-good story in support of good versus evil. And that’s what we should be embracing.”
According to his principal profile, Hauser started out teaching English and history at McMath Middle School in Denton, Tex. After seven years, he got a master’s degree in education administration and become assistant principal at Ryan High School, then was hired at Rodriguez.
On the profile, he talked about being grateful for the opportunity to open the district’s newest middle school.
“Together, we will build a foundation of trust, tradition, and high expectations that will continue to inspire and support our current and future stakeholders for years to come,” he wrote. “I am honored and excited to be a part of this growing development, and I look forward to the lasting relationships we will build together.”
Abby Ohlheiser contributed.
This post has been updated.