The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘I Need A New Butt!’ belongs in schools. No buts about it.

Children read and play at Solid State Books, an independent bookstore in D.C., in February 2019. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)
5 min

The latest round of the renewed culture war over books in schools might well be the silliest yet.

Toby Price, an assistant principal in Byram, Miss., was fired this month for reading “I Need a New Butt!” to a group of second-graders. His superintendent, Delesicia Martin, said he’d caused “unnecessary embarrassment.” With all due respect, she ought to butt out — and rediscover the purpose of children’s books.

The young hero of “I Need a New Butt!” makes what he believes to be a disturbing discovery: His derriere has two hemispheres. Convinced this subdivision is the result of either over-exertion or a tremendous fart — after all, if something is cracked, that implies it’s broken — he ponders a replacement. Would he prefer an artistically bold butt? A bumper like a car’s, impervious to serious harm and easy to repair in case of damage? What about a multifunctional robotic tush?

The book — the first in a series of four, covering such urgent matters as how to manage the wiggles and the etiquette of acknowledging flatulence — is extremely silly. But then, so are human bodies, in all their sweaty, smelly, fluctuating glory.

And that’s the beauty of children’s books about butts: They take topics that in certain contexts might inspire shame and anxiety, and instead invite curiosity, along with ferocious giggles.

Unfortunately, judging by state officials’ efforts to crack down on even the gentlest acknowledgment of sexuality — or, apparently, basic anatomy — far too many grownups have apparently forgotten that making sense of the world means reading books that explore every inch of it.

That’s a loss. It might be awkward to meet children where they are, to acknowledge the weirdness and eccentricities of our mortal vessels, and to explain for the millionth time that yes, everyone poops. But books are adults’ best allies in these conversations.

For people not naturally inclined to goofiness, stories can provide the words and concepts kids will respond to. And for any adult coming up against the limits of their knowledge — about, say, the origins of farts — there are titles to fill the gaps (e.g., Shinta Cho’s enlightening book “The Gas We Pass”).

Then there are the books that allow children to experiment with defiance by bringing adults down to their level. One of the cleverest is comedian B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures.” Ostensibly, this picture-less book is meant to be a sophisticated choice. But as the dialogue gets increasingly loopy, the adult reading aloud is trapped by the obligation to say the words exactly as they’re written.

And so the reader is forced to declare: “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named BOO BOO BUTT.” For kids doing the listening (and the snickering), this isn’t a major rebellion. But it is a safe opportunity to play with pushing boundaries and exercising their power.

The adventures of “Noisy Nora,” Frances the Badger and the naughty toddler of “Please, Baby, Please” serve a similar purpose. More authoritarian parents might not want to encourage their children to fly kites in the house, as Nora does when she feels neglected, or to run scams on friends who cheat them, as happens in “A Bargain for Frances.” And I was exasperated when my firstborn started imitating the antics of that naughty scamp, particularly by upending her plate at the table.

Yet all these books allow children to imagine what it might be like to act out, whether by running away, snubbing a baby sister or coloring on the walls. And they reinforce that the emotions that prompt this “misbehavior” are valid — and that children deserve to be loved even if they’ve driven their parents nuts.

There’s plenty of time for young children to learn the rules. Second-graders, like the ones Toby Price wanted to entertain, are just a few short years away from the conformity-inducing horrors of middle school. In that precious window when children’s sense of the possible is expanding rather than contracting, adults ought to do all we can to keep that aperture wide open.

One of my family’s favorite books with that message is Daniel Manus Pinkwater’s effervescently strange “The Big Orange Splot.”

The main character, Mr. Plumbean, lives on a street where every house looks the same. But when a seagull drops a bucket of orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s house, he goes wild, splashing color everywhere, planting a lawn full of tropical plants and even adopting an alligator. When his neighbors object, Plumbean simply tells them: “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be, and it looks like all my dreams.”

Most of the world is out of kids’ control. All too soon, they’ll come up against the limits of their ability to shape it and the sad fact of routine disappointment. Until then, grownups should cultivate their dreams — and their divine sense of the absurd.