Trump or Not? The Presidency and Current Children’s Literature
I was reading the Social Justice Books post Scholastic Tells Children: Trump is Great yesterday, which makes a close and thorough examination of a new Scholastic Rookie Biography of the current sitting president. While looking at it, the piece got me to thinking about other relatively children’s books which have included Donald Trump in some way. The world of children’s literature has a tendency to include him in some form on the written page. This makes sense to me, but I have a problem. Not with these books, but with my own propensity to read too much into the children’s literature that crosses my plate. I ask myself, am I reading too much into the books coming out right now? Or are they saying exactly what it is that I think that they are saying?
Let’s start with the books that are the most obvious. During the election, the Trumpesque picture book that garnered the most attention was undoubtedly Michael Ian Black’s A Child’s First Book of Trump, which adopted a Seussian style, both in art and word, rendering the man a dumpy little orange ball of want.
Lest you be mislead, it was not the only Trump-ish picture book out there, or did you miss Jamie Barrett, Pete Harvey, and Todd Eisner’s The Pumpkin and the Pantsuit?
Those were the most blatant examples. On the subtle side of things, middle grade novels started to crop up with thinly veiled Trump representatives. I first noticed it when I read Laura Ruby’s incredibly fun alternate Manhattan title York: The Shadow Cipher. In it, the villain is a real estate developer who dates models.
Susan Cooper went even further in her latest Boggart title The Boggart Fights Back. In that book the titular hero faces down a bad guy that was inspired by Scottish resistance to a trump golf course.
So far, I don’t think anyone would argue that these books have nothing to do with the Donald. But then we get into other books where I wonder if I’m reading too much into the writing or if the intent was there all along. First and foremost is the most recent Newbery winner Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. The bully in the book is a blond boy who is unnerved by strong girls and likes taking advantage of the people he views as weaker than himself. Now that could describe a whole host of bully boy characters in children’s literature throughout history. There is a part of me that wants to see this book as directly anti-Trump, but is it? Really?
The same questions come up with the book I Walk With Vanessa by Kerascoët. In it, a dark-skinned girl is bullied by a blond boy. It is probably safer to say that this book and Kelly’s are influenced more by the times in which we live rather than creating a specific character based on Trump.
As opposed to this book:
Yeah. That one’s pretty unavoidable. Though a British import, both PW and Kirkus mentioned the similarity to Trump in their reviews. And, of course, there was the Trump and Trump Tower cameos in the new Harry Bliss book Grace for Gus:
But what about books where you don’t even know if they’re political or not? For example, recently I had the pleasure of reading Jon Agee’s truly charming The Wall in the Middle of the Book the other day. You won’t find an orange caricature in this book, of course, but you will find a story about a wall, misconceptions about what lies on its other side, and seeming villains on the other side of the wall that, upon closer inspection, aren’t the dangerous threats that they seem. It would appear that in 2018 even the word “Wall” becomes political, whether its creator meant it that way or not.
And none of this even touches on the multitude of books that encourage activism, discuss pink hats, consider the inner lives of White House bunnies, or that celebrate inclusion both metaphorically or literally. All of these are influenced by policies coming out of the White House. All of these, and so many more, are saying something pertinent about the world right here, right now. So yes, I definitely read too much into the books being published. Absolutely. But sometimes I also read exactly what it is that the creators of those books want me to read. The lines blur now more than ever.
Besides, it’s not like referencing Trump is a new game.
Even Sendak got in on it.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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