When I saw that Adam Rex had written a new picture book and Scott Campbell had illustrated it, I nearly jumped for joy. XO, OX: A Love Story is about a hapless Ox who exchanges confused letters with a diva Gazelle. Early reviews were positive, describing the book as a rib-tickling tale of opposites attracting, tender enough to be understandable and silly enough to be an antidote to overly sugary Valentine’s stories.
The book came in; I dropped everything to settle in for some laugh therapy. As I read the heartfelt replies from Ox to the generic form letters from Gazelle, I laughed. “This is an amazing coincidence! I have written you two letters, and both times you have written back using the exact same words!” writes Ox (pg. 14). This is really clever! I can’t wait to read this in storytime! I thought.
But as Gazelle’s replies moved from disinterested (“I hope you understand that I have many admirers and cannot reply to each one personally,” explains Gazelle on pg. 11) to annoyed (“There is no need to write me again,” Gazelle says on pg. 16) to finally telling him directly to stop (“Ox! Stop this! Please do not write me again. You are wasting your time,” Gazelle delivers on pg. 28), my amusement died. Hmm. I’m not so sure I like this.
And then came the ending. Ox kept writing to her using her increasing frustration to simultaneously place her on a pedestal and point out ways in which she is not so perfect herself (“But I think it is good that you’ve admitted one of your faults. It makes me love you even more,” Ox writes after Gazelle tells him she could never fall in love with him). Gazelle is about to flip out. Her mouth clenches, she shreds the letter, she breaks down bawling, and then: she smiles tearfully at a torn-up image of Ox. On the final page, she sits down, coyly contemplating the page, and starts to write him another letter. Whoa, I thought. Oh no.
Pragmatically, I can see what would make this book popular. The book is funny, really funny. The art is soft and charming. I can picture many children and adults in my library sharing it; if I read it at storytime, I think it would kill. But on another level, I am deeply uncomfortable with the overall dynamic in this book. A similar story plays out every day in real life for female celebrities, from Twitch to Instagram to Hollywood, except that usually the receiver of the messages doesn’t suddenly realize that the sender has been their Prince Charming all along. In real life, Ox is that creepy guy who forces a level of emotional intimacy that is not present, not wanted, and not healthy.
Gazelle tells him to stop writing to her. He doesn’t. At the end, he’s rewarded with her love for his persistence. This is the definition of “nice guy” (or “nice ox”) behavior. The thought process that leads someone to ignore direct, clear, unequivocal messages of “stop,” “don’t,” and “no,” goes a little like this, I admire you and because my admiration is pure, I deserve to keep contacting you, forcing a relationship with you, and your disinterest doesn’t count because I’m nice, I mean well, I think you’re perfect, you inspire me, and whether or not you want this, I get something out of it so I’m going to keep doing it. The receiver, the literal object of affections, doesn’t get to assert their will and end the correspondence. Only the sender’s will matters. This kind of one-way street does not model a healthy relationship. In a healthy relationship, the shared terrain is a mutually-negotiated place where all parties can express their desires and decide together, equally, what meeting those desires will look like. In a healthy relationship, both participants can expect to talk to and be heard by each other fairly.
I still struggle with my strong reaction to this book. I want to minimize it. I tell myself, Calm down, Kate. You love Adam Rex! And it’s so cute! It got great reviews from so many journals! Kids would really laugh if you read this! And it’s a kid’s book! It’s just a kid’s book!
But the professional in me responds: The book shouldn’t get a free pass just because it’s written for children. Yes, children’s books are often overtly silly, whimsical, playful, in a way that adult literature frequently isn’t. But that doesn’t mean they’re less literary or less consequential.
Children’s literature is where a culture distills its most fundamental lessons to its newest members. When children are born, we give them stories to help structure how they think about the world as they experience it for the first time. We teach them the ways of the world in foundational stages, from simple concepts like colors and numbers to more abstract concepts like lessons in manners and social customs. The stories we give to children teaches them how to be in a relationship with themselves, their communities, and the world around them. So the conversations we have with each other and with children about the stories we give them are incredibly important.
Funny wordplay and cute art are not good enough reasons to ignore the problems in XO, OX: A Love Story. At best, Ox models emotional unintelligence. At worst, Ox’s success in wooing Gazelle rewards the idea that admiration is enough of a reason to disregard someone’s no. Sorry, Adam Rex—return to sender.