“We are ready to have our day in court”, says a teacher sacked for reading a fun Kiwi book
A US teacher sacked for reading to schoolkids from a picture book about bums by a bestselling New Zealand children’s author remains determined to fight the termination and take it all the way to the Supreme Court. Easy to view it as another battle in the culture wars; for Toby Price, the Mississippi teacher who has had his career wiped out, it’s personal, intensely damaging, a nightmare.
Price, 47, was fired in March last year as assistant principal at Gary Road Elementary School in Byram, a town of 10,000 near the city of Jackson (June and Johnny Cash: “We’ve been talkin’ about Jackson/ ever since the fire went out!”), after he read I Need a New Butt by Kiwi author Dawn McMillan to a second-grade class over Zoom. There are numerous other books in the bum franchise about the adventures of a boy in red pants (titles include I’ve Broken My Bum, and My Bum is So Noisy), and they’re all wildly popular in the US – stacked at Wal-Mart, over a million copies sold – and have long been a favourite read for parents of pre-schoolers in New Zealand. Sarah Forster, founder of New Zealand children’s literature site The Sapling: “When I started in books I was 22 and began bookselling at Whitcoulls at Wellington airport. One of the first responsibilities I gained was buying in new children’s books, and one book that we could not get enough of was Why Do Dogs Sniff Bottoms? by Dawn McMillan. I remember with my refined 22-year-old brain thinking it was terrible (but maybe a little funny). But then I had children. My kids absolutely adored Dawn’s books at age 5 and 7. When I say adored, I mean rolling on the ground laughing.”
A new book in the saga of the red pants boy with the expressive bum is due next month, said Peter Dowling, her publisher at Oratia Books in west Auckland.
Price said that the kids laughed and laughed and laughed at I Need a New Butt. They always do; Price has read it to kids for years. But the school principal later questioned him whether the book was appropriate. It went before the board. He was dismissed. The board said I Need a New Butt contained “pictures of child and adult nudity and inappropriate actions.”
Price appealed the firing. In May, the Hinds County School District upheld his removal, and released a statement: “The book contains statements and cartoon pictures regarding bodily anatomy, bodily functions and removing clothing to expose private areas of the body in various positions. These statements and pictures are inappropriate.”
The whole stupid mess is the sort of thing you expect from the US, with its vastness, its potential for madness, its fear of naked human flesh (June and Johnny: “We got married in a fever!”). The Washington Post reported that school book bans are “soaring”, and referred to over 300 incidents of book censorship: “The questioned texts have mostly been books about LGBTQ people and race and racism…and many removals sprang from challenges launched by white, conservative parents spurred on by pundits.” Price told the paper that “some educators” told him they’ve pulled books from their classrooms out of extreme caution since his firing.
Sarah Forster said, “Children’s books are low-lying fruit for those seeking to push a cultural agenda… It’s disturbing, and something we need to shield against in Aotearoa. Remember the stoush when Ted Dawe’s award-winning book Into the River was limited to those 15+, effectively removing it from library shelves? I don’t think Kiwi families are too worried about bums, though.”
Actually there are instances in New Zealand, too, when Dawn McMillan’s funny bum books have caused concern. Mary Fawcett at Dorothy Butler Books in Ponsonby can remember reading Why Do Dogs Sniff Bottoms? to her own daughter, now 20, and said that many of McMillan’s books have been steady sellers at her store. “But once or twice over the past seven or eight years, schools, or school librarians, have been a little bit hesitant about buying them [the bottom books], saying they’ll get something else instead. They were a bit wary about putting them into a school.”
I interviewed Toby Price over email last week. He is continuing to appeal the decision. “We are ready to have our day in court,” he said. Our interview is published in full at the end of this report.
In fact other days in other courts await the apparently very controversial I Need a New Butt. In October, a group of library patrons in Llano, Texas, filed a First Amendment lawsuit against county officials for removing or restricting 17 books, including Maurice Sendak’s classic In The Night Kitchen – and three books in the Dawn McMillan franchise, My Butt Is So Noisy, I Broke My Butt and I Need A New Butt (her US publisher retitles the books from bum to the Americanese of butt).
US National Public Radio, which covered the story, described Llano as “a mostly white, mostly Republican, cowboy-flavored town of fewer than 4,000 souls”. It interviewed Stacey Nobles, a pastor of the – no, really – Llano Cowboy Church, who talked of supporting the book removals.
From the National Public Radio site: “Because the books contained illustrations of bare bottoms, a handful of outraged citizens in Llano called them, quote, ‘pornographic filth.’ The author, Dawn McMillan, emailed NPR from her home in New Zealand. ‘I wrote the butt books for fun with no intention to offend anyone and with no agenda of any kind. They’re silly stories bringing laughs while getting kids, especially boys, into reading.’”
Anything to do with culture wars – or as it used to be more plainly known, censorship – makes good copy. The New York Times and the Guardian have covered the Toby Price fracas, and the Washington Post ran a long feature. The paper asked McMillan for a comment but she declined, and Oratia Media confirmed she will be making no further comment while the matter is before the courts.
Oratia publisher Peter Dowling confined himself to one comment on the controversy, and only in direct relation to the incident in Llano, Texas: “The banning of books in the US is deeply worrying, that people who feel just because something isn’t in line with their thinking should be able to withdraw books from being distributed.”
McMillan’s series starring the red pants boy were already bestsellers in New Zealand before they were licensed to Dover Books in the US. Like the Wonky Donkey phenomenon, which has surely made Queenstown author Craig Smith very rich, the bum/butt books were launched internationally when Scottish grandmother Janice Clark read it out loud on a YouTube clip. “So yeah,” said Dowling, “they’re big. Million sellers, globally.” Spanish and Catalan editions are being published in March.
Also published next month, in New Zealand, is the author’s latest book in the franchise. The title – you can imagine outraged porn-alert citizens in the southern states of Mississippi and Texas gasping for breath – is My Bum’s on THE RUN!
McMillan is the author of more than 20 books. They include the popular There’s a Weta in my Sweater (illustrated by Stephanie Thatcher), and Why Do Dogs Sniff Bottoms? (with pictures by her most regular illustrator, Ross Kinnaird), which won the Children’s Choice Award at the 2003 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. She works from a studio at her home at Waiomu, on the Coromandel coast, and celebrates finishing her books over a lunch with her husband at the Waiomu Beach Café (“with a glass or two of bubbles.”)
Books created with a view of the Pacific, now the subject of a massive legal dispute fought by a man in Mississippi….Toby Price has launched a GoFundMe campaign. It’s raised over $136,000. (Comments include a message from a Sandra Chisholm, who donated $15, and wrote, “Mississippi, which has the highest obesity rate in the USA and too many ignorant people.”) His page reads, “I am just looking for some help to pay bills while I look for another job…With your support we can now afford to pay the attorney, pay our mortgage, and even the kids medicines. We are so grateful.” It’s titled I Need a New Job “BUTT” I Have Bills to Pay.
I got hold of Price last week. He is a Christian father of two children with autism, and another child who is bipolar. He has taught for most of his working life. As well as a teacher, or ex-teacher, he is a children’s author: The Almost True Adventures of Tytus the Monkey is “a story about kindness, chaos, and autism.” He is very familiar with these subjects.
Your firing for reading I Need a New Butt out loud: is the matter still continuing, or have you put it behind you?
The matter is still continuing. We are ready to have our day in court. I am doing my best not to carry around the anger I had about what happened without letting go of what happened. I was in education for 22 years. Not to mention I had a second job for 12 of those years just to pay the bills. I drove to Oxford when I got my masters during the week and did classwork driving home to work on the weekends and see my family. So much time and effort went into my career. I just can’t let it go.
My attorney is taking the case first to chancery court. If that doesn’t work we would go to the state Supreme Court.
Have you taken another teaching position in the meantime?
No. I subbed for a little while. Once word of the lawsuit began to spread none of the schools here in the state would talk to me. I was asked to speak at a school regarding autism. Then what happened, happened and they cancelled. Other schools in the country made offers but at the time we weren’t in a position to move.
My wife recently got a really good job with a national company that allows her to work from home. I am taking care of our three kids and helping them complete high school. My two oldest with autism may be finished with public education after this year. We are working hard to try and find them something appropriate to do once their time in public school is over. My youngest daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while all of this was happening. We have finally gotten her back into public school and she is working hard to catch up and graduate. I am so proud of her. Her schoolwork has improved so much. She is planning on going to college to become a paralegal.
The story in the Washington Post said it was “trying” for you and your family. Can you describe it?
First of all when this happened we lost at the time our only source of income. We lost our health insurance. We lost our life insurance. I was very close to being able to retire. It has been almost a year since all of this happened and I am still having issues getting my kids medications and therapies paid for with the insurance they have now instead of what we had. For example, the last 10 months we would go to pick up their medicine and Medicaid would say they had a primary insurance (my former school health insurance) and the primary should pay. They did not have a primary. We had to spend hours on the phones each month to try and get their medicines and not pay out of pocket.
My wife and I had no health insurance for the last year. We had zero access to our medicines. We did contract Covid but grateful that we never had any hospital stays during this time.
The biggest thing was trying to explain all of the changes to my kids. I am not 100 % sure what the oldest two understood or not about what happened. The change in routines and roles in the house really threw the kids for a loop behaviourally. Most people were very supportive. However one night at the grocery store I had a guy walk up to me and ask if I was the guy from the TV with the book. I said yes, and he called me a “fucking paedophile” as loud as he could. That really sucked because hundreds of people were super-supportive and I still have a horrible time getting that jerk out of my head.
Is there a moral to all of this?
I think the moral of all of this is searching and finding some peace in the middle of all of this upheaval. All of this isn’t over yet so finding a way to be okay and keep moving forward is the goal. So I guess the moral is to find peace in all the chaos.
Am I right in thinking Dawn’s butt books are huge in the US?
Yes! They are all over. Every Walmart, Target, and books stores have multiple copies constantly featured on their shelves. They even have a four in one book that farts.
Looking back, do you regret choosing Dawn’s book? A butt book is a hell of a hill to die on.
No, that book had been a part of my family since its release in 2012. We loved it and shared lots of laughs while reading it. I was not supposed to be the reader that day. I was a last minute replacement. So I chose a book I knew I could “perform” or read well. It’s a great book.
How did it become an issue of concern in the first place? Did a kid, or their parents, or a teacher, kick this whole thing off?
One teacher said something to the principal who called the superintendent. During the appeal process there were ZERO parental complaints entered into evidence. They made all 12 second grade teachers write a statement but only submitted three into evidence.
What do you recall of that day when you read it to the kids?
We were on Zoom with 12 classrooms of second grade students. The original guest reader never showed. So the kids were antsy when I started. Afterwards the kids came up to me in the hall and told me how much they enjoyed the story.
How are your own kids doing these days?
My kids are adjusting well. I think they like having me home. My youngest is excelling in her classes again. My oldest two could always be better but they are great, healthy and happy and that is what’s most important to us.
I read on your Twitter account that you are working with a Kiwi artist. He may well know Dawn, lol. Can you describe the project?
That would be Mike Hartigan. Right now we are just sharing illustrations and random stuff. I am huge fan of his work and would love an opportunity to collaborate with him. I have been working on my third kids book plus creating comics using the same character, Tytus the monkey. I am wanting to write fun stories that kids would like that slip in some autism awareness at the same time. Silly but educational. The second Tytus book has squirrels, zombies, autism, man-eating fish mailboxes and an evil monkey.
Amigo – this whole thing, the termination, it’s actually freaking unbelievable what’s happened. It’s been so damaging for you. I’m beyond sorry that this has been the case.
No worries my friend. It’s been a wild ride but I just keep the faith that I’m going where God needs me.
My Bum’s On THE RUN! by Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird (Oratia Books, $20) will be available in bookstores nationwide from March. Warning: it’s really funny.