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Toddlers' terrible, horrible, no good, very bad political books

·9 min read
A radical baby.
A radical baby. Illustrated | iStock

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, "I am running away." "If you run away," said his mother, "I will run after you. For 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. But if you WASTE your life on an underwater basket-weaving major with a critical race theory minor at a LIBERAL arts college full of DEMONRATS, I'll disown you, because frankly we already have TOO MANY progressives ruining this country, and I'll not sit back and watch MY little bunny get brainwashed by Washington elites who have NO IDEA what it's like out here in Real America."

Whaddya think, do I have what it takes to make it in the political kids book market?

Because the market is booming, and it's awful. Left and right alike, from Antiracist Baby to Donald and the Fake News, from The ABCs of AOC to Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame, political books for little kids are bizarre. They're grating, boring, and age-inappropriate — which starts to make sense when you realize the children are just a cover story.

The real customer is the parents, the ones who prop up their toddler's primer in social justice on the shelf in their Pottery Barn nursery, angling it to appear in every Instagram post, all neutrals aglow with a peach-tinted preset. Or the grandparents who insist on bringing an off-registry baby book lauding former President Donald Trump to the shower — or the friend who gifts a crayon-drawn hagiography of a political #girlboss in a #pantsuit who #persisted. Political children's books sell because they're a new way for brain-broken adults to burnish their political identities in contexts where politics are deeply unnecessary. These aren't really books for kids at all.

Consequently, though some of the art is quite charming, the writing is usually atrocious. It's as if none of these authors has ever sat down with a toddler and noticed what stories she likes, what holds her attention and captures her imagination.

Very young kids enjoy rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and a concrete narrative they can follow. There are exceptions to the rule — our 2-year-old twins love Flotsam, which is wordless and invites parents to tell the story themselves — but think of the classics you can still partially quote from early childhood: Goodnight Moon, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Madeline, Guess How Much I Love You, Ferdinand, or anything by Dr. Seuss. They all employ rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and a concrete narrative, at least two of the four.

Or think of The Runaway Bunny, which I butchered above. It's light on rhyme but heavy on the other three, especially repetition. The bunnies say just about everything twice, and even toddlers can grasp that the mother is ultimately telling her little bunny just one thing: She loves him, no matter what.

By contrast, here is an excerpt from The ABCs of AOC's index. The main text has just a sentence or two for each letter, many without an explicit link to the titular Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-N.Y.). But in the index, for parents who wish to further enlighten their 18-monthers on the meaning of words like "advocate," "jobs," "knowledge," "Latinx," "opponents" (spoiler: It's Republicans!), and "xenophobia," we find entries like this mess of contradiction and stereotype for the letter N:

NONCONFORMIST: As a nonconformist, AOC resists pressure to follow the crowd, although she backs most of the viewpoints of the Democratic Party. She is one of a new generation of lawmakers making their mark with fresh policy ideas and a direct connection with the public through social media. AOC is part of a tradition-shattering Congress — the most racially and ethnically diverse ever.

AOC is also unafraid to express herself in nontraditional ways. She released a Twitter video of herself dancing into her Washington office after being criticized for dancing in a video recorded while she was in college. During her swearing-in, AOC sported bright red lipstick and hoop earrings. She said she chose her bold look to honor the Bronx native Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latinx justice of the Supreme Court, who wore red nail polish to her confirmation hearings. [Jamia Wilson, The ABCs of AOC]

Or there's this, from A is for Activist:

A is for Activist. Advocate. Abolitionist. Ally. Actively Answering A call to Action. Are you An Activist? […]

C is for Co-op. Cooperating Cultures. Creative Counter to Corporate vultures. Oh, and Cats. Can you find the Cats? [Innosanto Nagara, A is for Activist]

This book has over 2,000 Amazon ratings with a near-perfect five-star average. Who thinks 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 heavyhanded allegory, producing cringey passages like this:

"The hateful animal has hurt Mr. Mountain Lion's feelings!" yelled Swan. "Let's build a Raft of Shame, and trap the skunk forever in the whirlpool. This way, all who visit our great city will see his shame." [Dan Crenshaw, Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame]

Or here's how Donald and the Fake News begins:

Once upon a time, when people lived in caves, there was a country called "the Land of the Free." It was presided over by a "president" named Donald.

Donald understood that a leader should do the will of the people he leads — and that he did! To begin with, he drained the Swamp that had prevented the cave people from having a say in how they were governed.

Next he helped them build a wall — to keep out those who didn't love freedom.

And then he and the people wrote what they called "the Constitution." The Constitution was a sacred document that spelled out the law of the land! [Eric Metaxas, Donald and the Fake News]

There's a lot that's confusing here, like how "president" is in scare quotes, or that Trump becomes the author of the Constitution. How did the swamp slime up our laws and governance before the government even existed? Was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the book's chief villain, somehow involved with the Articles of Confederation?

But set all that aside and imagine you're hearing this at age 2. What is "governed"? How does a swamp keep people from talking? What's a "law"? The art and layout tell me this book is for toddlers; the words say it's for old men who spend too much time putting memes on Facebook while they watch One America News Network. (Whether the Donald the Caveman series, of which this is one volume, is kids' content is in some dispute. It was originally marketed to children — and that's how most Amazon reviewers speak of it — but author Eric Metaxas began claiming it was "adult satire" after the books were harshly critiqued online.)

Offerings from the left tend to be less cynical than right-wing works like the caveman stories, but, if anything, they're even more unrealistic about kids' tastes. The bestselling Antiracist Baby starts like this:

Antiracist Baby is bred, not born. Antiracist Baby is raised to make society transform.

Babies are taught to be racist or antiracist — there's no neutrality. Take these nine steps to make equality a reality.

1) Open your eyes to all skin colors. Antiracist Baby learns all the colors, not because race is true. If you claim to be color-blind, you deny what's right in front of you.

2) Use your words to talk about race. No one will see racism if we only stay silent. If we don't name racism, it won't stop being so violent. [Ibram X. Kendi, Antiracist Baby]

Don't let the sudden pivot into talking directly to the infant fool you: Kendi's use of "is raised to" in the second sentence is the giveaway. This is a book much more interested in lecturing adults than speaking intelligibly to kids.

Kendi himself has a daughter who was 4 when Antiracist Baby published last year, and he said the writing process "forced [him] to really think about how [he] could communicate this to a child, particularly to different levels of childhood." I do think it's possible to begin to teach children about racism and how to reject it from a young age. But insofar as the book is supposed to do that for kids 0 to 3 — and going off the art and number of words per page, I'd say it's best suited to 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 middle schooler might be able to understand the idea that we should notice skin color though "race [isn't] true," but a toddler can't grasp the nuances of the race-as-biological vs. race-as-sociological debate. The logic is fuzzy, too: The call to "make equality a reality" envisions eliminating racism, but the part about racism not being "so violent" suggests racists should maybe just take things down a notch.

More seriously, the mere mention of racist violence is not appropriate for a 1-year-old. Pre-literate children are not ready to be introduced to real violence, let alone the horrific deaths which reading that line will bring to mind for American adults. My kids have decided our dead dog came alive again and lives happily in our old house. Their understanding of death is that the beetle will now hold still so they can look at it closely. They cannot fathom racist violence, and they shouldn't have to, not yet.

Of course, there comes a time, relatively early in life, when children do need learn about the evils in our history and present politics. But that time is not toddlerhood. A child in diapers isn't ready to hear about violence — or that Pelosi is an "old sorceress" followed by "citizens who pretended to love freedom but actually hated it" (per Donald and the Fake News), or that "a culture of canceling eventually cancels culture entirely" (per marketing copy for Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame), or that they should idolize current office-holders whose policies their parents like (which is the upshot of The ABCs of AOC).

The average American gets a solid 70 years to think about racism and other public evils. That's plenty. We can spare the literal babies. They'll have a lifetime to ponder man's inhumanity to man. For now, for a few years, let them have their rhymes and bunnies and love.

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