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Killing the Dragon of Modern Children’s Lit

It is not a lack of good books, but a lack of reading them, that has created our current moral bankruptcy.

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(Jef Thompson/Shutterstock)

All storytelling is brainwashing, if we are to believe Plato’s Socrates. The question is not if we will be formed by culture, but rather which culture forms us. 

This is especially true when it comes to the elastic minds of young children. In our shallow age, books like Antiracist Baby have become the mode for the persuasive aspect of childhood education. Where previous generations read the classics and Holy Scripture in hopes of putting their children on the path to heaven, today’s apostles prefer another road, via the bumping meter of Ibram X. Kendi.

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The right, responding with good intentions, has helped to pave that road. A new publishing group, Brave Books, offers itself as a conservative response to books like Kendi’s, writing on the virtues of the free market and the Second Amendment. Founded by conservative ophthalmologist Trent Talbot, the publishing house boasts a list of popular right-of-center operators as authors, including Dana Loesch and Dan Crenshaw. 

The books are a series of fiction stories, set in the mystical world of Freedom Island, the key villain of which is a progressive vulture named Culture. In describing this in an article on Monday, Politico detailed how discussion questions at the end of the books encourage parents to blindfold their kids and guide them around the house with false directions, so that they bump into furniture. This is intended to show them that Culture, as it were, is a poor guide. Another book, The Plot Against the King, is about the Steele dossier, and features characters King Donald and Hillary Queenton. You get the idea.

Brave Books, which in its own words aims to “prepare your kids to fight against lies,” looks depressingly familiar. We’ve seen the same routine before, from the Rush Revere series to one-offs like Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed. These books always tend to be written with the parent and his purse in mind, rather than with any eye to literature. The person who votes based on such a shallow explanation of freedom is not likely to be anything but dull—if he even votes the way such publishers hope. 

More concerning than right or wrong votes, however, is an unimaginative and unlearned polity. Children’s literature, as a genre, does exceedingly consequential work. If it is to shape human beings into good and whole creatures, it must encourage their imagination without giving them the lie that imagination is everything; it must inspire righteousness without being dull and didactic; and above all it should make them to love what is worthy of praise over that which is mediocre or condemnable. In short, nothing less than good art should be given to the youngest minds, for they are the most impressionable; writing such books is the job of a true artist.

The problem with Brave Books is the same as the problem with Kendi, and Bye Bye, Binary, and similar, comically dogmatic creations. Not only are they all distractingly on-the-nose, and clearly written to catch the political sympathies of adults, they are decidedly bad art. (Seriously. Try reading one.) They do not even come close to their didactic goal because they do not embody any virtues, they merely talk about them. They fail at being good literature and thus they fail at teaching.

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Take the example of Freedom Island’s Culture Vulture. While it is true that much of our contemporary culture is deceitful, an attitude of distrust toward all cultural artifacts does not make us into more virtuous people. It makes our problems worse: see the growing anti-intellectualism of average Americans in response to a toxic academic and scientific elite. We run into more trouble when we attempt to define the word itself: Is “culture” found in all art, or only the bad kind? Is every teacher a liar, or only certain ones? And for heaven’s sake, does anyone in this world understand nuance?

This is what we might call the fundamentalist method of teaching: If a fear of alcoholism leads you to tell your child all alcohol everywhere is bad, she will avoid it—until she discovers that you have lied. Now entirely doubting your judgment, she is likely to assume that the opposite was true, and become a drunk. It would have been better, rather than giving her no alcohol, to have taught her the virtue of moderation.

The wokeism that Republican parents fear in their children is not the fault of culture as much as a lack of culture. It is filling the gap left by failing to read real stories. The answer to Kendi is Mark Twain, not Dana Loesch and Dan Crenshaw. Our children need to see St. George killing the dragon, not King Donald’s election exploits.

We are starved for solid food. But there are many truly brave books, and they are not out of print just yet. These books may not be marketed to children, but they were read to and recited by children not so many generations ago. They are more difficult to understand, and they require more effort on the part of the parent to read them, but they are infinitely more interesting, and worth reading over and over again. And that is important, too, since repetition is the part of education that small children seem to get best.

Thucydides, transcribing Pericles’ Funeral Oration, wrote that, “The price for courage will surely be awarded most justly to those who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger.” According to Thucydides, bravery requires first the skills of discernment and self-control. 

I suspect nothing Brave Books has produced has yet topped The Odyssey for discovering discernment, nor Shakespeare’s plays for learning self-control. There is plenty of good teaching in such books, but they are best because they are great art, full of the strong kind of culture that can overpower moral bankruptcy. Because of the richness of their beauty, one page of each is worth thousands of lines of any contemporary political satire written at a preschool level.

The solution is not to write new books, but to return to the ones we have forgotten, and the virtues we have lost by forgetting them.

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