As It Happens

Why this author was told he couldn't read his book about a proud unicorn to kids 

A children’s book author says he wasn’t allowed to read his book about a proud unicorn to a group of children in Ohio because the school board thought it would “recruit kids to become gay.”

Jason Tharp says an Ohio school board worried his story would ‘recruit kids to become gay’

Ohio children's author holds up a copy of his book, It's OK To Be A Unicorn, which he was barred from reading to elementary school students. (Submitted by Jason Tharpe)

A children's author says he wasn't allowed to read his book about a proud, colourful unicorn to a group of students in Ohio because the school board thought it would "recruit kids to become gay."

Jason Tharp says he was shocked when he was told he couldn't read or reference It's OK to Be A Unicorn during his visit to Buckeye Valley West Elementary in Ostrander, Ohio, earlier this month.

The book follows the story of Cornelius, a unicorn who hides his identity by wearing hats because he lives in a town full of horses. In the end, he learns to embrace who he really is, and is welcomed and supported by his friends and community.

"This book has been out for two years. I've read it to thousands of kids and been to plenty of school visits, and never has this come up," Tharp told As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins.

"It's not my job to defend adults that project their insecurities on a kids' book that's [about] unicorns and rainbows and magic."

Complaint from a parent 

Tharp's visit to the school was originally scheduled for 2020, but got postponed due to the pandemic. 

In preparation for his arrival, the students decorated the school with art they made of Tharp's characters, and school administrators purchased 500 copies of his books, including It's OK To Be A Unicorn.

But on the morning before Tharp's scheduled April 7 appearance, he says he got a call from the school's principal alerting him there had been a change of plans.

"It was very clear from the get-go … that it was not coming from him. It was coming from above him, and [he was] kind of just being the messenger," Tharp said.

"And I kind of interrupted him, because I think he was having a hard time saying it, and I said, 'Did somebody think I made a gay book?'" Tharp said. 

He said the principal informed him that one parent had complained about the book.

"From what I was told, it was that it was unicorns and rainbows, and I was coming in with the agenda to recruit kids to become gay," Tharp said.

I don't think you're going to get kids to not want to read. They're going to always be curious.- Jason Tharp, children's book author

Tharp says he offered to read another of his books, It's Okay to Smell Good!, about a skunk who stands out because he likes nice-smelling things.

But the school board nixed that idea, too. In an email, which CBC has seen, the board asked Tharp to "forgo" the reading and instead "continue to focus on your positive message and illustrations."

Jeremy Froehlich, the school's interim superintendent, did not respond to a request for comment from As It Happens. But he told WBNS that one parent complained about the book on April 6.

'Widespread efforts to censor books'

Tharp is not the only children's author to have his work called into question recently.

In November, the American Library Association issued a press release condemning what it called "a widespread effort to censor books" across the country, noting that school and library books were being challenged at an "unprecedented" rate.

In March, an assistant principal in Mississippi was fired after reading students a humorous children's book called I Need a New Butt.

Meanwhile, Florida and several other states have passed or proposed laws restricting content in schools about sexual orientation, gender and critical race theory. 

Toby Price, former assistant Principal at Gary Road Elementary School in Hinds County, Miss, was fired for reading one of his favourite children's books, I Need A New Butt. (Submitted by Toby Price)

Tharp said It's OK To Be A Unicorn is his way of reaching out to kids who feel different and teaching them to be themselves.

He said it's actually his own story of growing up with big dreams in a small town.

The book is not meant to be a metaphor about sexual orientation or gender identity, but Tharp said he "absolutely" understands why an LGBTQ kid would identify with Cornelius the unicorn.

"But also the kid that's in a wheelchair, and the kid that has a broken arm, and the kid that feels different, that the kid with the weird name, or the kid who wears glasses," he said.

"Like, all of those kids are unicorns, right? They're all feeling different. And that was the mission of the book."

Students' art taken down 

Several parents and teachers at Buckeye spoke out in Tharp's defence during an April 8 emergency school board meeting, which was broadcast on YouTube.

Kaylan Brazelton, a parent and educator at the school, lamented that teachers were forced to take down drawings of unicorns and rainbows that the students had created. She said it was "gut-wrenching" because the students were "so confused."

"That book was about making students feel and know that they always have a place in the world. Always, no matter how weird they feel. We wanted them to know that being weird is OK because it is," she said.

Another woman, whose name was not recorded, noted that the students had "worked so hard" on their drawings. 

"This a public school. All walks of life are paying taxes. All walks of life should be represented," she said.

Tharp says a supporter sent him these before and after images of a window at Buckeye Valley West Elementary. On the left, the window is decorated with children's drawings of Cornelius the unicorn. On the right, the unicorn drawings have been replaced with characters from Tharp's other books. (Submitted by Jason Tharp)

Despite everything, Tharp still showed up for the event because he didn't want to disappoint the kids. He did a presentation, but no reading, and didn't reference It's OK To Be A Unicorn.

He says the crisis could have been averted had the parent simply reached out to him to have a conversation.

He says he plans to keep writing books that help children feel accepted and loved.

"The best part about it is I don't think you're going to get kids to not want to read. They're going to always be curious," he said.

"And to me, that's where the magic lies. They can be present. We can't. Adults like to ruin that for kids. I think adults could learn a lot from kids if they just, you know, sit down, be quiet and listen."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Jason Tharp produced by Chris Harbord. 

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