“I sat down and tried to figure out what kind of character would be nonthreatening, that they will be instantly lovable and I would be able to kind of get them … to be invested in the story,” Tharp said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I was like, ‘Kids like unicorns.’ ”
But for one Ohio school district, Tharp’s book — featuring a blue and purple unicorn underneath a rainbow-colored title — was too controversial.
On April 6, as Tharp prepared to read “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn!” to students the next day at an elementary school in the Buckeye Valley Local School District, north of Columbus, he got a call from the principal saying higher-ups didn’t want him reading the book.
“I just straight up asked him, ‘Does somebody think I made a gay book?’ ” Tharp said. “And he said, ‘Yes. … The concern is that you’re coming with an agenda to recruit kids to become gay.’ ”
Jeremy Froehlich, the interim superintendent, did not respond to The Post’s request for comment. In an interview with WBNSFroehlich said one parent visited his office on April 6, expressing concern 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.
An assistant principal read the children’s book ‘I Need a New Butt!’ to second-graders. He was fired.
Tharp’s event is the latest casualty in the culture war over children’s books. The selection of books available in schools has become a hot-button issue in recent years, with conflicts mainly arising for those referencing race and sexual orientation. In November, the American Library Association called the rate at which books are being challenged “unprecedented.”
Last month, an assistant principal at a Mississippi elementary school was fired after he read the children’s book “I Need a New Butt!” to second-graders. The superintendent argued that the book was inappropriate and that the assistant principal showed “impaired judgment” by reading it.
Tharp, who lives in Powell, Ohio, about 10 miles south of the Buckeye Valley Local School District, was originally scheduled to visit Buckeye Valley West Elementary in 2020, but the event was postponed because of the pandemic. The school rescheduled the visit for April 7, and administrators ordered over 500 of his books for students in anticipation of the event, Tharp said. “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn!” follows Cornelius, a unicorn who hides his true identity because he lives among horses who don’t like unicorns. At the end, he reveals his true self and is accepted by everyone.
But on the morning of April 6, the principal at Buckeye Valley West called him to say the plans had changed — the superintendent didn’t want him to read the book.
“I was just shocked — and all from one parent,” said Tharp, who had been up until 3 a.m. that day signing the books. “I never ran into an issue like this. … I never in a million years thought I’d have to defend this book.”
Tharp offered to read a different book, “It’s Okay to Smell Good!” about a skunk who lives in a stinky world but realizes he — unlike his peers — enjoys good-smelling things. In the end, the skunk finds one friend who also likes nice smells, making him feel less alone.
“There’s no rainbows. No unicorns,” Tharp said.
But about 30 minutes after the call with the principal, he emailed Tharp, saying higher-ups didn’t want him reading that book, either. Instead, they wanted him to “continue to focus on your positive message and illustrations,” according to the email, which was reviewed by The Post. Tharp did his presentation the following day, omitting any reference to the unicorn book.
News about Tharp’s visit spread quickly, angering parents who like the book and inspiring them to protest the superintendent’s decision. The school board held an emergency meeting on April 8 to address the controversy. Community members expressed frustration over the decision to stop Tharp from reading the unicorn book.
Kaylan Brazelton, a parent and educator at the elementary school, said teachers were told to take down drawings of rainbows and unicorns that students made in anticipation of Tharp’s visit. Photos reviewed by The Post show the artwork was replaced with drawings of characters from another one of Tharp’s books.
“It’s a rainbow. 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,” Brazelton said at the board meeting, adding that the children “were so confused.”
Another parent teamed up with Tharp to start a GoFundMe to raise money for a free event next month, when the author will read his unicorn book and share his story.
Tharp, who before the pandemic was speaking to about 40,000 to 50,000 students a year, is convinced that those who objected to the book never actually read it because it is clear there is no reference to the LGBTQ community.
“They are projecting their agenda [because] there is a rainbow … on the back of the book,” Tharp said.
But the author, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year and is now in recovery, said he tries not to let people’s uninformed opinions consume him.
“There’s a lot of clarity a brain tumor brings,” he said. “I don’t spend my time catering to people with an agenda because there’s so much joy out there, there’s so much love to be had.”