A children’s author says an Ohio school district canceled a planned reading of his book It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn! after a parent accused the book of trying to “recruit kids to become gay.”
Jason Tharp, 45, says he wrote the book to promote inclusion among children, and was planning to read the book aloud to a group of students at an elementary school north of Columbus, Ohio, on April 6.
But the day before the reading, Tharp said he received a call from the principal saying that officials with the Buckeye Valley Local School District did not approve of the book and believed it could have a “gay agenda.”
“I just said, did somebody think I made a gay book? And [the principal is] like, ‘Yeah,’ and I’m like, ‘Because why? Rainbows and unicorns?’” Tharp told USA TODAY, noting hat the principal confirmed that as the reasoning behind the censorship.
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Tharp says he remains confused about the cancellation, since the school had booked him more than two years ago, and administrators had previously ordered over 500 of his books to be distributed to students six weeks prior to his visit.
Tharp later told USA Today that a parent had complained about the book after going through his social media accounts and seeing LGBTQ-supportive posts.
“What it turns out was that it was one parent that came in and said that apparently, I was coming in with an agenda to recruit kids to be gay,” he said. “…It’s the craziest thing, and never in a million years would have thought that I’d be defending a unicorn because people thought I was trying to recruit kids.”
He noted that he offered to read another of his books, It’s Okay to Smell Good!, which tells the story of a skunk who enjoys good-smelling things, unlike other skunks. In the end, the skunk finds another who also likes things that smell nice and the two become friends.
But school officials rejected that offer as well, over concerns that any message promoting inclusion or acceptance could be interpreted as promoting a gay-supportive agenda.
Kaylan Brazelton, a teacher at Buckeye Valley West Elementary and a mother of two, spoke out against the district’s decision to censor Tharp’s books at an April 8 school board meeting. She questioned by a book that taught students the lesson of accepting their peers who may be different would be banned, reports the UK newspaper The Independent.
Brazelton also claimed that school officials went even further, ordering her and other teachers to take down any artwork featuring rainbows or unicorns.
“The fact that we had to take all of the students’ artwork down — it was gut-wrenching, and we couldn’t even believe we were in that position to do so, but we did what we were told.”
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Jeremy Fröhlich, the interim superintendent of the Buckeye Valley Local School District, confirmed to CBS affiliate WBNS that the complaining parent had come to him the day before the reading to express concerns about the book.
They just wanted to make sure that we vetted the book and our staff thought that they had vetted it,” he said. He added that “as far as he’s aware,” all student art was displayed and not censored.
The scuffle in Ohio comes as conservative parents across the United States are taking an activist stance over any material that touches on issues of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, over fears that such material will “indoctrinate” their children. Those same parents — often backed by right-wing activist organizations — are also engaging in their own form of “cancel culture” by censoring books about topics that might be interpreted as having a hidden message, or books written by authors with whom they politically disagree.
The American Library Association has previously warned that there have been an increasing number of efforts to censor books that individual parents believe do not subscribe to a conservative or religious worldview. In November, the organization issued a statement condemning “acts of censorship and intimidation” against educators, librarians, and school board members.
Tharp, who has authored 18 books, said he wanted to write about unicorns because they were non-threatening characters who promote inclusion for kids who may feel isolated or excluded from their peers. Tharp, who is in remission after being diagnosed with a brain tumor last year, said he has actually gone out of his way to avoid polarizing political debates since becoming sick.
“Adults are putting their own insecurity filter on to these issues, and projecting those insecurities onto a children’s book,” he told The Independent. “Could a child who was growing up LGBTQ see themselves in the book? Yeah absolutely. [But] so could a kid who was being picked on, or a kid who was in a wheelchair, or the ‘weird’ kid.
“It’s ignorance, right?” he added. “And instead of having a conversation, they threw a blanket on a book that was not about being gay.”