Once upon a time there was a little rabbit who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I’m running away. “If you run away,” her mother said, “I’ll run after you. Because you are my little bunny.
“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you. LIBERAL arts college full of DEMONRATES, I’m going to deny you, because frankly we already have TOO many progressives ruining this country, and I’m not going to sit and watch MY little bunny get brainwashed by them. elites in Washington who have NO IDEA of what it’s like to come out here in the real America. “
What do you think, do I have what it takes to be successful in the political children’s book market?
Because the market is booming, and it’s awful. To the left as to the right, from Anti-racist baby To Donald and the fake news, of The ABCs of AOC To Fame, blame and the raft of shame, political books for little children are weird. They’re squeaky, boring, and age-inappropriate – which starts to make sense when you realize kids are just a cover story.
The real customer is the parents, the ones who support their little one’s introduction to social justice on their Pottery Barn nursery shelf, tilting it to appear in every Instagram post, every Neutrals light up with a peach-tinted preset. Or the grandparents who insist on bringing an off-register baby book praising former President Donald Trump to the shower – or the friend who offers a pencil-drawn hagiography of a political #girlboss in a # pantsuit who #persist. Children’s political books sell because they are a new way for cerebral adults to polish their political identity in contexts where politics is deeply unnecessary. These are not children’s books at all.
Therefore, while some of the art is quite charming, the writing is generally excruciating. It’s as if none of these authors have ever sat down with a toddler and noticed what stories she loves, which catches her attention and captivates her imagination.
Very young children enjoy rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and a concrete story that they can follow. There are exceptions to the rule – our 2 year old twins love it Flotsam, which is silent and invites parents to tell the story for themselves – but think of the classics that you can still quote in part from early childhood: good night moon, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, The hungry caterpillar, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Madeline, Guess how much i love you, Ferdinand, or whatever by Dr. Seuss. They all employ rhythm, rhyme, repetition and a concrete narrative, at least two of the four.
Or think about The runaway rabbit, which I slaughtered above. It’s light on the rhyme but heavy on the other three, especially the repetition. Rabbits say pretty much everything twice, and even toddlers can understand that the mother ultimately only says one thing to her little bunny: she loves him no matter what.
On the other hand, here is an excerpt from The ABCs of AOC‘s index. The main text contains only a sentence or two for each letter, many with no explicit connection to the titular representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-NY). But in the index, for parents who want to shed more light on their 18 month old children on the meaning of words like “lawyer”, “jobs”, “knowledge”, “Latinx”, “naysayers” (spoiler: these are Republicans!) and “xenophobia” we find entries like this mess of contradiction and stereotyping for the letter N:
NON-CONFORMIST: As a Maverick, AOC resists pressure to follow the crowd, despite supporting most views of the Democratic Party. She is part of a new generation of lawmakers who are setting themselves apart with new political ideas and a direct connection to the public through social media. AOC is part of a tradition-breaking convention – the most racially and ethnically diverse of all time.
AOC is also not afraid to express itself in non-traditional ways. She posted a video on Twitter of herself dancing in her Washington office after being criticized for dancing in a video recorded while in college. When taking the oath, AOC wore bright red lipstick and hoops. She said she chose her bold look to honor Bronx-born Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latinx Supreme Court judge, who wore red nail polish during her confirmation hearings. [Jamia Wilson, The ABCs of AOC]
Or there is that, of A is for the activist:
A is for the activist. Lawyer. Abolitionist. Ally. Actively respond to a call to action. Are you an activist? […]
It’s for Co-op. Cooperating cultures. Creative counter to corporate vultures. Oh, and the cats. Can you find the cats? [Innosanto Nagara, A is for Activist]
This book has over 2,000 Amazon reviews with an almost perfect five-star average. Who thinks the pre-verbal child should hear about corporate vultures?
Fame, blame and the raft of shame is actually more readable than most of its peers – at least it has a story. But it also has a heavy allegory, producing spooky passages like this:
“The hateful animal hurt Mr. Mountain Lion’s feelings!” cried Swan. “Let’s build a Raft of Shame and trap the skunk forever in the whirlpool. That way, everyone who visits our great city will see its shame.” [Dan Crenshaw, Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame]
Or here’s how Donald and the fake news begin:
Once upon a time, when people lived in caves, there was a country called “the Land of the Free”. It was chaired by a “president” named Donald.
Donald understood that a leader must do the will of the people he leads – and he did! To begin with, he emptied the swamp that had kept the cavemen from having a say in how they were governed.
Then he helped them build a wall – to prevent those who didn’t like freedom.
And then he and the people wrote what they called “the Constitution”. The Constitution was a sacred document that stated the law of the land! [Eric Metaxas, Donald and the Fake News]
There are a lot of confusing things here, like how “president” is in frightening quotes, or that Trump becomes the author of the Constitution. How did the swamp swallow up our laws and governance before government even existed? Was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), The book’s chief villain, somehow involved in the Articles of Confederation?
But put it all aside and imagine hearing this when you were 2 years old. What is “governed”? How does a swamp keep people from talking? What is a “law”? The art and layout tell me this book is for toddlers; words say it’s for the old men who spend too much time posting memes on Facebook while they watch One America News Network. (Whether the Donald the Caveman series, of which this is a volume, is content for children is disputed. It was originally marketed for children – and so most Amazon reviews talk about it – but author Eric Metaxas started to claim it was “adult satire” after the books were heavily criticized online.)
Offerings from the left tend to be less cynical than right-wing works like cave man stories, but, on the contrary, are even more unrealistic about children’s tastes. The best selling Anti-racist baby it starts like this:
Anti-racist baby is raised, not born. Antiracist Baby is raised to transform society.
Babies are taught to be racist or anti-racist – there is no neutrality. Follow these nine steps to make equality a reality.
1) Open your eyes to all skin colors. Antiracist Baby learns all colors, not because the breed is true. If you claim to be color blind, you are denying what is right in front of you.
2) Use your own words to talk about race. No one will see racism if we remain silent. If we don’t name racism, it won’t stop being so violent. [Ibram X. Kendi, Antiracist Baby]
Don’t be fooled by the sudden thought of speaking directly to the infant: Kendi’s use of “is raised to” in the second sentence is the giveaway. It is a book much more interested in lecturing adults than talking intelligibly to children.
Kendi himself has a daughter who was 4 when Anti-racist baby published last year, and he said that the writing process “forced [him] to really think about how [he] could communicate this to a child, especially at different levels of childhood. “I think it is possible to start teaching children about racism and how to reject it from an early age. But as far as the book is supposed to do this for kids 0 to 3 – and aside from the art and word count I would say it’s best suited for 1 year olds – Kendi failed.
The language (“neutrality”, “equality”, “color blind”, being able to “see” racism because of someone’s audible words) is far too abstract. A college student might be able to understand the idea that we should notice the color of the skin if “race [isn’t] true, ”but a toddler cannot grasp the nuances of the race-as-biological versus race-as-sociological debate. The logic is also blurry: the call to “make equality a reality” contemplates eliminating racism, but the part that racism is not “so violent” suggests that racists should perhaps – just be cutting things down a notch.
More seriously, the mere mention of racist violence is not appropriate for a 1 year old child. Pre-literate children aren’t ready to be introduced to real violence, let alone the horrific deaths that reading this line will conjure up for American adults. My children have decided that our dead dog has come back to life and is living happily in our old home. Their understanding of death is that the beetle will now stand still so that they can observe it closely. They can’t understand racist violence, and they shouldn’t have to, yet.
Of course, there comes a time, relatively early in life, when children to do need to learn about the evils of our history and current politics. But this time is not infancy. A child in childbirth isn’t ready to hear about violence – or that Pelosi is an “old witch” followed by “citizens who claimed to love freedom but actually hated it” (per Donald and the fake news), or that “a culture of cancellation ends up entirely canceling the culture” (by marketing copy for Fame, blame and the raft of shame), or that they should idolize current officials whose policies appeal to their parents (which is the result of The ABCs of AOC).
The average American is 70 years old to reflect on racism and other public ills. It’s a lot. We can spare literal babies. They will have a lifetime to meditate on the inhumanity of man towards man. For now, for a few years, let them have their rhymes and their bunnies and their love.