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Right, left, or over the line? [Jun. 1st, 2007|07:33 am]

Apparently, books are the up-and-coming medium for shaping young children's political views. So says Eric Jackson of Kids Ahead, a new book publisher featured in this morning's L.A. Times.

As a former teacher and preacher's daughter, I realize full well the power of parable. That said, I'm troubled by this trend. I'm a fierce advocate of quality education for everyone; I believe well-informed citizens are happier overall. Also, an educated populace is essential to a vibrant democracy. But politics and children's books? This seems to me an an unholy alliance.

If you're a children's book writer, teacher or parent, I hope you'll weigh in with your thoughts.

Publisher aims to teach kids right from left

A Torrance executive says he sees too many children's books with liberal views. His titles aim to tilt the shelves the other way.
By Stephanie Simon
Times Staff Writer

June 1, 2007

PUBLISHING executive Eric Jackson's first foray into children's books was a cartoon tale of two brothers and a lemonade stand.

Hoping to earn money for a swing set, young Tommy and Lou squeeze lemons until their little hands ache. But they are thwarted by broccoli-pushing, camera-hogging, Jesus-hating liberals who pile on taxes and regulations and drive the boys out of business.

The book, "Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!," came out two years ago. Jackson said it sold nearly 30,000 copies, which in the publishing world made it a bona fide hit. That success reinforced Jackson's view that the nation's bookshelves had tilted way too far left and that a correction was in order.

Kindergartners these days can leaf through a picture book promoting the virtues of medical marijuana. They can read a fairy tale about two princes who get married — to each other.

But where are the children's books denouncing affirmative action? The fairy tales promoting gun rights?

"You don't hear a lot of umbrage out there about conservative books being foisted onto kids," Jackson said. "There's a need in the market for books that show the other side of the equation."

Jackson's small independent start-up, World Ahead Publishing, staked its first claim on that market with the tale of the rapacious liberals and the lemonade stand, marketed under the imprint Kids Ahead.

Two other (far less successful) cartoon books followed, taking on Hollywood and "activist" judges.

Now, World Ahead is expanding into more sober-minded children's books — and is going head-to-head with Scholastic, the powerhouse of children's publishing.

Scholastic will be coming out in September with "The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming," a 176-page call to action aimed at children ages 8 and up. World Ahead will counter with its own book intended to debunk global warming and discourage environmental activism.

Kicking back in his Torrance office on a recent afternoon, under a giant poster of Ronald Reagan, Jackson glanced at a news release touting the Scholastic book. The cover illustration shows a child sitting cross-legged in the grass, cradling Earth.

"It's just so — so — what's the word?" marketing director Judy Abarbanel asked.

"Nauseating," Jackson suggested.

CHILDREN, he complained, are bombarded with tree-hugger propaganda: SUVs are bad. ExxonMobil is worse. Polar bears are drowning. The planet needs saving, and fast.

Jackson's response: Stop stressing.

He doesn't buy the international scientific consensus that human activity — chiefly the burning of fossil fuels — is causing the planet to warm. President Bush on Thursday tempered his hesitation on the issue, urging global curbs on pollutants.

Jackson, however, remains a skeptic; he maintains that any government solution would be worse than the problem. So he gets alarmed at the thought of children petitioning Congress to ban Hummers.

"We want to teach them it's not freedom or the free market or business that's the enemy here," Jackson said.

The trick is putting those concepts in a format preteens will read. Over the winter, World Ahead sent out a request for proposals from prospective authors. On this sunny afternoon, over pizza, Jackson and his four employees have gathered to review the most promising manuscripts.

First up is a story about a boy named Jake who watches a dire film about global warming in school. Jake walks home cursing every SUV — until his best friend, Ben, sets him straight with a didactic lecture disguised as dialogue.

The story makes its point perfectly clear; at one point, Ben tells Jake, "There is NO conclusive evidence that humans are causing the Earth to heat up."

But Norman Book, vice president of World Ahead, had a few objections: "There's no plot, or narrative, or anything else," he said.

There was a murmur of assent. This one was a clunker.

Next up: a science-fiction tale about aliens who discover Earth in the future and find it in ruins. It turns out people have brought on this crisis by demonizing the wealthy, punishing energy producers and rejecting "greatness" — all in the name of combating global warming.

"It's like Earth is the way it would be if Al Gore had his way with it," Jackson said. But though he found the premise intriguing, he concluded the book wouldn't fly with his target market of third- through eighth-graders.

"It feels heavy-handed for kids. Heavy-handed for everyone," Jackson said. "I felt like I was reading Ayn Rand."

SPIKY-haired and baby-faced, Jackson, 31, founded World Ahead about two years ago, after stepping down as a director of marketing operations for PayPal. His first release, "Thank You, President Bush," established his political bent; it is a collection of essays from leading conservatives praising the administration.

Jackson continues to publish conservative political and economic books for adults, including his own "The PayPal Wars," which he jokingly described as "the greatest book ever written. Well, the second-greatest — there is the Bible."

When he turned his attention to global warming late last year, Jackson found that adults had plenty of options, including several books sharply skeptical of the scientific consensus. Children, on the other hand, did not.

Aside from a few high school research guides that offer opposing views, children's books tend to portray global warming as a serious threat. Among the titles: "Environmental Disaster Alert!" "Why Are the Ice Caps Melting?" And a picture book, published by the United Nations, about an Eskimo boy who talks to an imperiled polar bear.

Jackson sees such books as insidious left-wing propaganda. Many scientists, of course, would argue that there's nothing liberal or conservative about global warming; they see it as an incontrovertible fact, one that demands an immediate response. Conservative Christians with right-wing positions on most other social issues have teamed with liberals to push for global action.

Jackson, however, is out to promote government inaction. To that end, he turned to a manuscript proposal by Holly Fretwell, a Montana economist and senior research fellow at a think tank that advocates capitalism as the solution to environmental problems.

Fretwell's outline was a bit dense. Though Jackson has an economics degree from Stanford, he was boggled by a chapter titled "Ideas on the Environmental Kuznets Curve."

Still, he was pleased by the thesis: If global warming presents problems down the road, private companies and entrepreneurs will come up with fixes. Government intervention will only stifle this spirit of innovation.

BUT telling children not to worry doesn't have the same sizzle as offering them a menu of feel-good ways to save the planet. Plus, environmentalists have an irresistible mascot on their side: the cuddly polar bear, looking up balefully from a melting patch of ice.

As the mother of two young children, Fretwell knows the power of that image. "The bears, the penguins are very much tugging at my kids' hearts now," she said. "I've got a lot of thinking to do about how to get at those warm and fuzzies."

Finding an equally compelling symbol for unfettered capitalism won't be easy.

"I'm thinking we put the polar bear in a business suit," Jackson said. "Maybe he's taking a limo to work on Wall Street."

Fretwell's book — "The Sky's Not Falling! Why It's OK to Chill About Global Warming!" — will be released in September. That will put it on bookshelves at about the same time as the Scholastic book, which is co-written by Laurie David, a liberal activist and the producer of Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth."

Jackson plans an initial run of no more than 10,000 copies, about his financial break-even point. But he's hoping the book will catch the eye of a conservative talk-show host — Sean Hannity, maybe, or Rush Limbaugh — "and we'll sell out in the blink of an eye," he said.

If "The Sky's Not Falling!" takes off, Jackson hopes to launch a line of nonfiction books for children presenting a conservative take on other topics. In the meantime, he's overseeing final edits for "Joey Gonzalez, Great American," a bilingual story about a third-grader whose teacher tells him his last name is a sign that he's less capable.

"It's a little bit harder for minorities to learn," the teacher tells him. "Don't worry, Joey…. There's a special way to help minorities get ahead. It's called affirmative action."

Joey stands up to the teacher, telling her that his ancestors, Spanish explorers, "didn't come all the way over here to be minorities." They didn't need special help, and he doesn't either: "Great Americans don't cheat."

Jackson doesn't have children, but he suspects plenty of parents share his values. One day, he'd like to offer them a whole conservative library so they can put aside the picture books about socialist fish and gay penguins and snuggle up with a bedtime story about the right to bear arms.

[User Picture]From: java_fiend
2007-06-01 03:28 pm (UTC)
Hiya! You know what a political psycho activist I am, and I am waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay against this. Needless to say, this tool's views make me sick, but I would be against it even if it were coming from my side of the aisle. To me, that's not education, it's indoctrination.

I want a well-informed public as badly as you do and I want to see younger people getting involved. But I don't think this is the way to do it. I think we need more comprehensive civics courses... we need to teach the kids, in school, how our government functions and why it's important to their lives. We need to teach them to question and think more critically.

Using kids books to push an agenda, be it liberal or conservative, in my opinion is reprehensible. You're not encouraging them to think critically and to work to inform/educate themselves on an issue. You're force-feeding them your own bias. And that's just wrong.
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[User Picture]From: afraclose
2007-06-01 04:28 pm (UTC)
Agreed. Left and right in children's books should be relegated to "Left is the direction you wear your watch on." Nothing more.
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[User Picture]From: newport2newport
2007-06-01 10:02 pm (UTC)
Ha! Great comment!
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[User Picture]From: java_fiend
2007-06-02 03:47 am (UTC)
LOL... that's awesome. Great comment. And so true.
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[User Picture]From: newport2newport
2007-06-01 10:02 pm (UTC)
Activist is a great adjective, I think...a sign of an active mind and passionate spirit. :)

Yes...we need to raise critical thinkers with comprehensive knowledge about how to function well independently and in a democracy. And for that, dear friend, we need teachers like you!
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[User Picture]From: java_fiend
2007-06-02 03:12 am (UTC)
Thanks, Melodye!!! You're too sweet! I just hope I can live up to how I think the children should be taught.
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[User Picture]From: newport2newport
2007-06-02 03:23 am (UTC)
Being a teacher is among the hardest and most important jobs in the world. You're a great thinker, with a big heart and active imagination. I believe you'll do really well.
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[User Picture]From: java_fiend
2007-06-02 03:33 am (UTC)
Thank you so much, Melodye. I really appreciate the kindness of your words. It means the world to me and gives me such a boost of confidence. Thank you so much!
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[User Picture]From: jonstephens
2007-06-01 05:01 pm (UTC)
I've noticed the trend Jackson is talking about, but Jackson's methods are off the deep end.

You won't find me arguing the fact that the Earth is warming, but when I saw Al Gore's AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: YOUTH EDITION in the teen section in book stores, I did wonder, "When are they going to push a book with the counter-argument?" But I doubted that would ever happen.

I've seen really good Y.A. books like Almond's CLAY, Hautman's GODLESS, and Braff's THE UNTHINKABLE THOUGHTS OF JACOB GREEN grapple with religion, but I've wondered if any books exist that put religion and religious kids/parents/people in a positive light. I'd really like to see more books written with the daring of Jolin's IN THE NAME OF GOD, which I've heard complexly portrays Islam and its belief in jihad and can't wait to read it sometime soon.

I guess I feel there are two sides to the coin here.
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[User Picture]From: newport2newport
2007-06-01 10:07 pm (UTC)
It's hard to write an effective counter-argument to well-established, scientific fact. The audience for a book like that is likely to be fairly small, I'd think, though buyers likely to be just as passionate about their beliefs.

You're right, of course, that there's more than one way to look at this. One problem with the coin analogy: It's hard to have nuanced discussions when there are only two (opposite) choices. Rarely is any topic as black-and-white as that. :)

Did you read My Fundamentalist Education: Reflections on a Divine Childhood? Great memoir on the topic you've described. I think you might enjoy it.
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[User Picture]From: jonstephens
2007-06-04 01:11 am (UTC)
I haven't heard of that book or read it for that matter. And you're right that a better metaphor than the coin must exist. I think it's tough because many people from both sides see the other side as pushing an agenda.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2007-06-01 06:06 pm (UTC)
I doubt anyone but arch conservatives (reactionaries) will buy such material--and there's a huge mass of material showing that most of them don't read. (Or the kids' reading is severely curtailed--while some sympathetic parents might buy this stuff, most tend to rely on "classics" that are very conservative in outlook.)

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[User Picture]From: newport2newport
2007-06-01 10:10 pm (UTC)
I wondered how it was that the book mentioned in the first paragraph ("Help, Mom...") sold a whopping 30,000 copies. I wonder if they were bought from bookstores primarily, or if they were bought in bulk through Wal-Mart or another discount outlet, like some other (ahem, unnamed) politically-oriented publications.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2007-06-01 11:44 pm (UTC)
I wonder if it really sold thirty thousand copies. But then if Scholastic was involved, maybe that was part of the initial setup: you publish these, and we guarantee X sales, as these will be required reading at the Oral Roberts School of Biblical Education, grades K-12, or whatever: parents have to buy them as part of the school curriculum.
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[User Picture]From: lillpickles
2007-06-01 08:32 pm (UTC)
So there are far left children's books and far right children's books. The people who would buy this stuff are teaching their children this already. My son was reading a book about the ozone layer, and his friend said his mother said there was no such thing as an ozone layer.

I don't see it being foisted on public school kids, it's too far off the beaten path. It will be a niche market. I think mostly grown-ups will buy it for kicks.

But then again my ultra conservative sil was telling my infant son how evil Tom Brokaw was.

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[User Picture]From: newport2newport
2007-06-01 10:15 pm (UTC)
LOL about indoctrinating your infant son on the evils of Tom Brokaw. Pffft.

This is definitely niche market stuff--probably not headed for schools, although I'm not sure about libraries. I've got no problem with targeted marketing, and I'm not for censorship at all. But this is definitely a discussion worth having in communities that want to purchase these books with public funds.
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From: parkerpeevy
2007-07-16 02:05 am (UTC)
I can see why someone would be frustrated about seeing a lot of books on the shelves that seem to push a liberal agenda. I think it would be just as frustrating to see a lot of books pushing a conservative agenda!

That's because books with obvious agendas are annoying--I can't imagine a kid actually picking out a book called There's Liberals Under My Bed.

I agree that if you're kid is reading a book like that, or a book that is pushing a more liberal message, then the parents are most likely already pushing that agenda.

But every book has an underlying message, even if it's subtle. It frustrates me to come upon a lot of books whose underlying messages are promoting something I don't believe in. Guess there's only one way to counter-act that problem... but it doesn't have to be done with such a heavy hand.
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[User Picture]From: newport2newport
2007-07-16 02:09 am (UTC)
I wholeheartedly agree with you: It's almost impossible to write/find a book that doesn't -- at least in some small way -- promote the author's beliefs. When raising my own children, I liked giving them access to a wide spectrum of ideas and approaches, so they were better equipped to make up their own minds.

Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts. I like hearing what you think!
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[User Picture]From: newport2newport
2007-07-16 02:12 am (UTC)
By the way, I'm glad you added me as a friend. I added you back. :)
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