I have worked in the children’s book industry for a long time. In the past few years it has changed and quite rapidly. The book offerings you’ll see in a bookstore or library today are much more diverse than a decade ago.
This is a good thing. All children should be able to find a book they can identify with. All children should be inspired to love literature.
What isn’t a good thing is that much of the current offerings published recently aren’t about helping children see themselves in a book but indoctrinating children into a particular political and ideological persuasion. The message being sent to children is that all of the world’s ills can be fixed if they turn to activism. No child is too young to start.
I wondered how and why this change is happening so rapidly. Part of the reason is the simple fact that children’s book authors, publishers, editors, and agents overwhelmingly vote Democrat and the industry is mirroring the swift changes in the Democratic Party. Many industry people publicly display their political opinions on Twitter and Facebook. For example, this agent tweets more about his political views than he does his clients or their books.
One children’s book executive editor at Penguin Random House Books for Young Readers, a division of the largest publisher in the country, also does not conceal her political views on Twitter. She frequently retweets comments by Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, MSNBC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rachel Maddow, and others.
Another top-level editor at the same company has tweeted such things as #StopKavanaughNow. Yet another tweeted, “I know many will disagree, but I’m here for Bernie’s righteous rage.” The same goes for children’s book authors and illustrators on Twitter. If you scroll through a handful, you’ll see many comments such “How is this psycho our president,” or “Seems ironic that so many republicans are critical of Sanders for being a dem socialist when Trump is rapidly becoming a fascist.”
In private Facebook posts, this one-sided political force is even more evident. I’ve seen hundreds of authors, editors, and agents express extreme progressive political viewpoints. You may think from reading thus far that I must have voted for Trump. I did not. I have been a life-long Democrat, but see the danger in the industry being so one-sided. There are no checks and balances and as a result, the industry is going down very dangerous path.
Not Just Publishing But Also Libraries
Librarians are also following this dangerous path. Soon after Donald Trump became president, The American Library Association wrote a press release stating:
We are ready to work with President-elect Trump, his transition team, incoming administration and members of Congress to bring more economic opportunity to all Americans and advance other goals we have in common.
In a blog post by April Hathcock, a New York University librarian, entitled “[email protected] You, ALA,” she wrote, “My ALA does not collude with fascists. My ALA does not normalize hate. My ALA does not sell me and mine to the auction block to the highest bidder for a few bucks to fund a library.” Others echoed this sentiment, and the hashtag “Not My ALA” was born. Here are some examples:
Due to this outrage, ALA pulled their statement.
Librarians are the gatekeepers to much of what we read in public libraries and in schools. ALA’s mission statement is “to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all,” but what happens when librarians are no longer ensuring full access to information? What happens when they, as I have witnessed on Facebook, openly praise book banning? What happens when their entire mission seems to be about racism and how to rid our world of it?
These white “allies” are constantly tripping over themselves to be as ridiculously apologetic for their existence as possible. This poses a question: are their insecurities about skin color rubbing off on the children they teach?
Two-Way Activism Street Between Books, Schools
To repair “the ways White people reinforce and collude with systemic racism,” school teachers and librarians are looking toward activism. There are many activist sites dedicated to overhauling the public education system.
Teaching For Change is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “building social justice starting in the classroom.” The site offers a free lesson plan called “Resistance 101,” described as an “innovative lesson plan, launched in January 2017 to coincide with the inauguration, helps students recognize their power to challenge injustice.”
Linda Sarsour is on the bottom right. Sarsour has tweeted comments such as this:
The “Resistance 101” image includes other faces such as Yuri Kochiyama, who said in a 2003 interview, “I consider Osama bin Laden as one of the people that I admire.”
“Resistance 101” has garnered praise from educators, which they tout on their website:
My students learned that you do not have to be famous or powerful to do your part to help change injustices in your communities. Some students even started planning their own resistance efforts as a result. —Michelle Epperson, middle school social studies teacher, Coburg, Oregon
‘Resistance 101’ taught my students about many people they have never heard of and enhanced their understanding that there are many different ways to get involved with social justice. The lesson helped my students understand that they themselves can be activists and choose how they want to participate, rather than being passive recipients at the mercy of government and the forces of history.—Jim Cartwright, middle school language arts teacher, Northampton, Massachusetts
Teaching Younger Kids to Be Activists Too
On Ideas.TED.com, New York Times bestselling author Caroline Paul wrote an article entitled “Activism isn’t just for adults and teens. We need to teach younger kids to be activists, too.” She wrote, “I wish I’d been taught concepts like privilege, prejudice and intersectionality at that tender young age, instead of bumbling all the way through early adulthood ignorant of primal social forces.” To aid teachers and parents in teaching this activism, here are some current children’s books on the topic:
Simply providing activist books, however, is not enough. Many teachers and librarians seem dedicated to eradicating “the classics” in an attempt to make room for more “relevant” literature. In response to a tweet by activist and educator Paul Gorski, high school reading teacher Melissa Barnett proudly touted her decision to throw away bins full of books.
The irony in this is that copies of “Hiroshima” and what appear to be books by Amy Tan can be seen resting atop the pile.
Gorski, the man who tweeted “The lit canon is white supremacy,” is the founder of EdChange, whose motto is “Building Equitable and Just Schools, Communities, and Organizations through Transformative Action.” Gorski’s bio reads:
He has 20 years of experience helping educators strengthen their equity efforts in classrooms, schools, and districts. He has worked with educators in 48 states and a dozen countries. Paul has published more than 70 articles and has written, co-written, or co-edited twelve books on various aspects of educational equity…
Gorski’s resume lists consultation at public school districts in Wisconsin, Maryland, New Jersey, Michigan, Delaware, New Hampshire, Nevada, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Kansas, and colleges and private schools in dozens of states.
Working Hand in Hand with Activist Teachers
Racism isn’t the only thing on educators’ minds. So is climate change. A magazine and website entitled Rethinking Schools wrote about Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal:
The Green New Deal includes only one line about ‘providing resources, training, and high-quality education,’ and, in fact, never mentions the word schools. Nonetheless, the Green New Deal has profound implications for schools, and offers an extraordinary opportunity for social justice educators to draw on the utopian — in the best sense of the word — vision laid out in the congressional resolution… Let’s start in our classrooms. The revolutionary aspirations of the Green New Deal will only be brought to life by people who grasp the enormity of the crisis that humanity faces and the radical changes necessary to address it.
The website then lays out classroom strategies. To illustrate these ideas in simple terms, with appealing art, children’s literature has taken on the activist mantle. There are already a handful of picture books about the teen Swedish climate change activist named Greta Thunberg. One must wonder if this will contribute to what’s been dubbed “eco anxiety” in children.
In 2017 Scholastic published a book entitled “President Donald Trump.” The backlash following book’s publication illustrates how political the industry really is.
More than 1,000 librarians and authors wrote complaints to Scholastic for publishing this book in its series on all U.S. presidents. Many called for a boycott. Scholastic defended its decision, saying: “The Trump Rookie Biography was published in February 2017 shortly after the president’s inauguration. The book presents a simple, factual description of the new president, and is not intended to be a comprehensive review or commentary on his policies.”
Still, authors and teachers were not happy. One teacher wrote, “I am an elementary school teacher specializing in social studies. I won’t ever purchase another Scholastic product again. I will not distribute any literature that they send. I will inform other teachers and parents.”
The hashtag #StepUpScholastic was formed. Their Tumblr page describes the hashtag this way: “a campaign for teachers, parents, and students to tell scholastic to publish and distribute children’s books that reflect and affirm the identity, history, and lives of ALL children in our schools. Our current campaign calls on Scholastic recall their children’s biographies of Trump and issue accurate, age appropriate texts.”
This protest was echoed on the The Action Network, along with this flyer:
If you look closely, you’ll noticed that this protest was organized, in part, by Teaching for Change. Since the protest of the Trump biography, Scholastic has published many of its catalogs in partnership with We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit organization founded by young adult author Ellen Oh, who has been influential in getting books pulled and pressuring authors to agree not to publish their “offensive” works.
This tactic used to force change has resulted in many books being either cancelled pre-publication, pulled from shelves post-publication, or critiqued so heavily, going so far as to encourage non-readers to flood Amazon with one-star reviews and send petitions to the publishers. The goal is that any book that survives this onslaught and remains in print cannot garner any awards or praise, effectively keeping such a book from earning out its advance.
When an author’s book doesn’t earn out its advance, a publisher is much less likely to offer the author another contract. Authors the activists don’t like are being eliminated.
Scared Authors Conform
What do authors do when they are too afraid to go against this forceful tide? Swim with it. As a result of this activism, children’s book offerings on political figures is very one-sided. If you go to a bookstore, you will find a plethora of books about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Below are the current Ginsburg offerings, most of which are for the 4-8 crowd.
Jamia Wilson, an activist and writer, has published the first Ocasio-Cortez picture book with Little, Brown, listed as for ages 3-7.
There are also a growing number “white fragility” books such as, “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (Ordinary Terrible Things).” One page reads:
Who is that with their hands up? Why is that policeman screaming at him?”
They want to bury the truth.
One of the last pages in the book reads, “WHITENESS IS A BAD DEAL. It always was.” The author, Anastasia Higginbotham, who happens to be white, said in a promotional YouTube video, “I made a book that centers the problem of racism in whiteness.…I made this because the black women educators at my childrens’ school told me I could do better. It’s not enough to not condone racism. It’s not enough to be outraged, to understand it intellectually. What I was told was to focus on whiteness. Study whiteness. And learn about your own power as a white woman.”
School Library Journal chose the book as one of the best books of 2018, saying it was “A much needed title.” Almost half of Amazon reviewers did not agree, giving it one star, with one reviewer calling it “cultural terrorism.” Another said, “guilty of the very thing it claims to be teaching about.”
Start ‘Em as Babies
Here are some board book titles for the toddler age (yes, readers who are teething, gnawing on the cardboard corners, and getting drool and snot all over the covers).
Due to the Obama administration’s new regulations on Title IX, some states enacted transgender student rules that negate parental rights. For example, New Jersey’s Department of Education says, “A school district shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required.”
This attitude is reflected in the picture book offerings for young children. There is now a plethora of transgender books for the picture book age, generally categorized as for 4-8. Below are some examples.
Some books are muddying scientific waters, as seen in “What Makes a Baby.” The Atlantic called it “A Truly Inclusive Way to Answer the Question ‘Where Do Babies Come From?’”
This picture book, which purportedly teaches about the birds and the bees, avoids gendered language, with sentences such as “Not all bodies have sperm in them. Some do and some do not.” The book does not state which bodies carry sperm and which carry eggs, and children are bound to ask.
One dissatisfied Amazon buyer wrote, “This book is totally disconnected from science or reality.” Another wrote, “So determined to be inclusive that it forgets to be accurate or useful.”
Targeted Attacks on Non-Political Authors
Authors who aren’t writing social justice books are finding it impossible to avoid criticism. For example, creating animal characters is a no-no (that’s avoiding the diversity topic), authors must “stay in their lane,” (they are not qualified to write what they don’t know), and authors must include enough diversity and at least one of each kind of person is lauded (there go large parts of our history and basically anything not in a large city). Anything can be criticized for any reason and is.
What is the point of all of this? To wipe the slate clean and bring in new authors and illustrators who are on board with activism and check boxes on the intersectional checklist.
If we want our next generation to be well educated in history, science, English, and math, and want to nurture a love of literature and not indoctrinate students, then we need to have more diversity of thought in the classroom and in children’s publishing. We need to push back against librarians who promote book bans, censoring what authors wish to write, and indoctrination in schools.
At the moment, the activist groups are making many inroads, and fast. If we don’t push back soon, and loudly, then it will be too late.
The author of this article requested anonymity to avoid being blacklisted in the publishing industry.