Friday, May 7, 2021

The Laughable but Scary Alternate World of Children's "Literature"

About six months ago, I found out about the existence of a guy named Matthew Sheffield. He describes himself as a former Mormon and former conservative. In those days, he cofounded a publication called the Washington Examiner. The only time I mentioned here previously was in a Twitter round-up, where I quoted him as saying,

What I did not realize until I began expanding my work into creating actual media and reporting institutions such as the Washington Examiner... was that U.S. conservatives do not understand the purpose of journalism.

That Twitter thread had a lot of good examples of what he meant by that, but unfortunately it appears he has deleted his tweets from before mid-January. I meant to quote more of it at the time. But the gist was that conservatives think the purpose of media is to propagandize their side, while progressives, independents, centrists, and even leftists think journalists are trying to get to some factual version of reality, based on reporting. They may have a world view (who doesn't?) but there's a relationship to facts on the ground, an attempt to relay reality — not to just sell or even force one side, regardless of what may be found when a reporter goes to a place.

So when I saw the following tweet from him more recently, it fit together. Mainstream children's book publishing — while far from perfect, everyone knows! — is also not overtly trying to propagandize everyone. It's reproducing our culture, sure, and the culture is steeped in white supremacy, so we get lots more books about white kids (and animals) than kids of color. But we don't get books praising the Klan, right? Or promoting Christianity as the national religion?

Rest assured, we can leave that to conservatives. Sheffield tells us:

What's known as American conservatism is mostly rural white cultural sensibilities that have been marketed as a political philosophy. This is nowhere more evident than the many children's books that have been published to fulfill a supposed need for "godly" kid-lit.

And then he reeled off a series of tweets, each showing four stunningly revolting covers. Here are the worst ones. 

Many are both WTF in terms of what they're about and how badly they're drawn:




A few of the covers are better drawn, but they're such cartoons of propaganda, it's hard to believe they don't see it as a parody:

And then there's Rush Limbaugh's series where he inserts himself into the past:


(Imagine the damage Limbaugh could have done if he traveled to the past.)

This cover was not one of the bad ones in terms of obvious political content…

…but here's what Sheffield says about the book:

The content of some of the books is terrible as well. The Pepe and Pede book is anti-Muslim propaganda and promotes white nationalist themes. It was written by a (since-fired) junior high assistant principal.

Well, obviously the content of all the books is terrible (not just the covers), but what he means is sometimes the cover hides the terrible content. In the case of Pepe, the linked article about its author describes the content this way:

[Pepe and Pede are] excited because Wishington Farm, where they live, has a new farmer in charge. After eight years of bad leadership, the friends are happy to finally enjoy everything the farm has to offer.

Their revelry is cut short when they find out their favorite pond is now a murky swamp ruled by the terrible alligator Alkah. The buddies use teamwork and honesty to take down Alkah and free his minions from their muddy chains. "With law and order now restored, this land was great again"....

A reader's interpretation ... will depend on their working knowledge of alt-right memes. Pepe the frog is a cartoon character ... that became an internet meme.... the alt-right adopted him as a symbol and mixed him with fascist imagery, and today both the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League recognize Pepe as a hate symbol.

Online fans of Donald Trump refer to themselves as centipedes. Alkah is a bearded alligator, his name is one letter off from Allah ... and ... his minions are ... covered in icky black mud [to] look like women in burqas.

Judge for yourself on that:

Not surprisingly, it sounds as though the book's author deceived the illustrator (who's Ukrainian and not totally up on alt-Right memes). She never saw the full manuscript.

All of these books are laughable, but they're also scary because they show that that Right has built an entirely separate, insulated publishing world. Are they being bought, and more important, are they being read to children? Are children reading them on their own?


Jean said...

Quite a few of those look like those 'joke' children's books that are really meant for adults. Others are not -- the Rush Limbaugh series is something that I've seen around. It looks dreadful but I've never opened one to see just how dreadful. The open carry looks like one from a very small press, in imitation of the terrible 'children's issues' non-fiction books from the 80s.

Daughter Number Three said...

I agree that a couple do look like the joke or parody books, especially the Sleepy Joe and maybe the one with the pig... but Matthew Sheffield (who knows the conservative market better than I do) says they are marketed to parents of children and/or children. (Maybe the Sleepy Joe one isn't, gee, that's hard to believe.)

And I also a the open carry book must be from a small press (or self-published) because wow... that cover belongs in my bad cover post, even without the content.

Jean said...

For sure. Take a look -- these are the books the open carry one reminds me of. The Doris Hall of Infamy!