Dr. V’s take
The troublemaking musk ox in book is correct: alphabet books are boring. (Though sometimes they’re adorable enough to outweigh their lack of excitement, as in the case of LMNO Peas, by Keith Baker).
A is for Musk Ox, meanwhile, is often hilarious and weirdly enlightening. It’s premise—-the zebra is trying to put together an alphabet book, and the musk ox (who I read with a hybrid Canadian surfer dude accent a la Chelsea Peretti because I am excellent) keeps interrupting him to explain why each letter should actually stand for musk ox (musk oxen are Awesome, Brown, Cool and live in Canada, etc.)—-works better for kids who are already fairly solid on their alphabet phonemes, whose skills will be fine-tuned rather than confused by the musk ox’s goofing. Also, the prose is on the long side, so it lends itself well to alternating reading it with one’s early-reading child, using the old each-of-us-pick-a-character strategy (CLASSIC). (Actually I don’t think this is classic, but it’s a good idea, and this would be a good candidate for that).
Two really unfortunate moments, however, keep it out of the Recommended pile. The first is a really lazy joke in which the musk ox frets that his fur makes him look fat; as far as fat jokes go, it’s not horribly cruel, but I just really don’t need a fat joke of any kind in a book I’m reading with a 5-year-old (especially a 5-year-old girl), thanks.
The second is much more egregious: throughout the book, Author sneaks in actual interesting facts about musk oxen—-their habitat, their behaviors, and so on—-which is brilliant; who would ever purposely seek out learning on musk oxen? yet now my impossibly small child and I both know all sorts of facts about them, which is fun.
In one instance, however, Cabatingan refers to the musk ox’s name in an Inuit language…and literally refers to the Inuit people as “Eskimos.” In a book written in 2012.
Maybe you didn’t know this (many people don’t), but Eskimo has long been considered a derogatory term by those who have formerly been categorized as such. It’s similar in tone-deafness to referring to an Asian person as “oriental.” And the thing is, unless Cabatingan just happens to be some kind of weird musk ox hobbyist, odds are she wasn’t just spinning facts off the top of her head; this book is surprisingly meticulously researched, and even features other Inuit terms. How is it that she looked up where musk oxen live, what they eat, their natural predators, how they avoid those predators, and all of the different terms used to describe their wool but never figured out that the term Eskimo is insulting? Even allowing for the fact that many people are not aware of the term’s very-much-not-okay-ness, it’s not like this fact is a big secret—-the goddamn dictionary designates the term “sometimes offensive.“* If Cabatingan was so keen to include factoids about Inuit culture as they pertained to musk oxen, why in the world would she refer to that culture by a term widely disliked by the people in it?
And, the thing is, it’s not a word I want to teach my little kid.
There are very few negative reviews on this site, mostly because I think they’re a little pointless, especially for books that aren’t extremely popular—-if you’ve never heard of it, why would I tell you about it just to tell you that it sucks and to forget you heard of it? The case of A is for Musk Ox, however, is particularly frustrating, in that it’s such a great book otherwise, and this little bit of casual racism was so completely unnecessary, and it’s an example of a surprisingly common issue.
Let’s do better, you guys. We can do better.
*Some think the term is fine to use if referring to the language or some cultural artifact—-again, similar to how “Oriental rug” is considered ok but “that human is Oriental” is not—-hence the “sometimes.” But, really, that’s just kind of confusing, and plenty of people side-eye those types of usages as well, so I vote we just go ahead and move on from these terms entirely.