I’m pretty much your standard Brooklyn millennial lefty mom. I buy my son dolls. I serve him outrageously overpriced plant-based chicken fingers. I don’t allow him to watch Paw Patrol, though that has less to do with how the show glorifies the cop industrial complex and more to do with the fact that it blows (with the exception of Mayor Humdinger, who I am convinced is a queer icon). But there are also ways in which my husband and I, as parents, fall woefully short of the parenting standards prescribed to us by our matcha-chugging peers. I am married to a straight man, for instance, with whom I do all of the disgusting things straight people do, such as say things like, “This is perfect Patagonia microfleece weather,” and complain that there are too many sex scenes on You. I also didn’t breastfeed my son, though to be fair, this was less for ideological reasons and more because whenever I tried to nurse him, he reacted as if my boobs were trying to shake him down for money.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike most liberal parents, I have absolutely zero compunction about potentially impeding my son’s moral development in the name of producing content. That is precisely why, when I first came across a Chronicle report that Dan Crenshaw had published an anti-cancel-culture children’s book — and that it was part of a larger series aimed at conservative parents — my first thought was not “Wow, this is disgusting,” but “Wow, I need to get my hands on a copy so I can read it to my son and write about what happens.” Which is, I suppose, the kind of craven industriousness that most right-wing parents would champion.
Crenshaw’s book, Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame, is part of a larger series produced by Brave Books, a conservative children’s-book imprint that claims to proffer “a conservative alternative to the current cultural activism that our children are being taught in schools, in the entertainment they watch, and the books they read.” Other entries include Elephants Are Not Birds, a transphobic screed authored by an aspiring Tomi Lahren type named Ashley St. Clair; and The Island of Free Ice Cream, a fable penned by far-right activist Jack Posobiec intended to teach children of the dangers of socialism. The books take place on various outposts of “Freedom Island,” with the publisher including an interactive fold-out map with each copy so young readers can become more immersed in the world.
Brave Books founder Trent Talbot is open about the fact that the company is intended to serve as a corrective to the liberal propaganda regularly being spoon-fed to unsuspecting American children. “I thought there was a need for books that could help parents teach the values they hold dear,” he told the New York Post. To this end, the books include educational interactive activities at the end, such as parents asking their kids to stand on the Raft of Shame for a “funny reason” — such as “having stinky feet” — and making them stay on until they make a compelling enough argument to be let off, in the service of teaching “how to ask for forgiveness and how to understand others’ intentions.”
As a culture reporter, I found this sort of heavy-handed moralizing pretty objectively hilarious; as a parent, it admittedly did concern me. Brave Books currently has a pretty small market share (they don’t even sell their books on Amazon), but could this actually be an effective way to instill conservative values in children from a young age? I decided to reach out for copies, and use my own son, Solomon, as a guinea pig of sorts to test it out. Sol is at the younger end of the four-to-12 age range that is Brave Books’ target audience, but he’s observant and clever and funny and eager to please, and if there’s any kid that would be the target demo for their goal of capturing young hearts and minds, it would be him. Besides, I thought, what harm could it do? He’s four years old. It’s not like reading him a parable about the dangers of socialism once would lead him to log on to Twitter and start posting rants about replacing Aunt Jemima on syrup bottles — right?
Brave Books sent us two items: Crenshaw’s Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame, which features a bunch of animals building the eponymous “raft” on the cover; and The Island of Free Ice Cream, featuring an image of a smiling fox hang-gliding over a sprinkle-cone-festooned island (in a ballsy move on Brave Books’ part from a copyright perspective, the fox bears a strong resemblance to Zootopia‘s Nick Wilde, a similarity my son clocked immediately when he saw the cover; though I doubt that Posobiec was aware that Nick Wilde is considered something of a sex symbol in the furry community).
The covers were not immediately enticing: “I want Pocahontas instead,” my son complained after I showed him the books. (To be fair, given the historic liberties it takes, Pocahontas would have been only slightly less problematic.) He was not drawn into the plot of The Island of Free Ice Cream, which centers around a cabal of wolves who take over the city of Rushington with promises of giving their inhabitants free ice cream, only to take all the ice cream for themselves and give them “mushy, moldy macaroni” instead. A brave fox, Asher (the Nick Wilde doppelgänger), saves the day by hang-gliding to Utopia, where the wolves are from, and exposing their evil plan.
Presumably, the promise of “free ice cream” is supposed to be enticing for children, but not for my son, who hates ice cream and once declared it “too shower” (“shower” being another thing he hates, and which has since become part of our family’s vernacular). The book ends with a violent showdown between the wolves and the animals, with the wolves being catapulted off the island for their evil deeds. The story was appended by an extremely convoluted educational “game” intended to teach children that “Communism isn’t fair, how competition leads to better products and services, and how capitalism makes people want to create value for others” (with helpful tips from a cartoon Posobiec). Though Sol enjoyed Asher’s hang-glider, he did not glean this lesson: He fell asleep by the time the fox made it to the gray, dismal Utopia, featuring sad cartoon animals shuffling in breadlines and vaguely anti-Semitic renderings of the evil wolves.
A bigger hit than the book itself was the interactive map of Freedom Island. He enjoyed looking at the brightly colored graphics, identifying various locales as places from his own life: Furenzy Park, he declared, was “Coney Island”; and Utopia, the faux-socialist slum, was “Yankee Stadium,” while Sky Tree was “Central Park,” and the ominous-looking “Cabal Island” (presumably included to entice the Q crowd for good measure) was “Fire Island” (a place he has not actually been to, but has achieved near-mythic status in his mind thanks to his pre-K classmates). He also loved playing with the stickers and putting them on the map to complete “missions,” as instructed in an envelope hidden at the end of every book. So while the context and message of The Island of Free Ice Cream was lost on him, the truly child-friendly elements — the Disney lookalike characters, the cool gadgets featured, the colorful map — were not.
The second book, Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame, which I read to Sol the following night, went over slightly better. The book tells the story of a sassy hippo named Eva (who, somewhat ironically, dresses like your average Williamsburg Planned Parenthood volunteer) with performing-arts aspirations who works as the assistant to a swan. When a heckling skunk makes a bad joke mocking a mountain lion (the lion is drawn exactly like Crenshaw, who lost an eye while serving in Afghanistan), the swan decides to put him on a “raft of shame,” sending the skunk and other animals who stray from conventional thought into a whirlpool purgatory, until Eva gains the courage to stand up to the “mob.” This narrative resonated slightly more with Sol, who is old enough to understand empathy and the importance of not hurting people’s feelings. “That’s not nice to say,” he said when we got to the part about the skunk heckling the mountain lion.
“How do you think the skunk feels about being put on a raft, though?” I asked him.
“Sad,” he said. “That’s not nice to do, either.”
It was, I realized, exactly the response that Brave Books wanted to elicit from small children reading the narrative: that two wrongs don’t make a right, and that punishing someone for their mistakes is not as effective as trying to understand why they made them and teaching them how to do better. Which is, as someone who has certainly been subject to angry pile-ons on Twitter, not necessarily something I disagree with in theory, though I’m not sure why a publishing company would feel it necessary to impart that to small children who are presumably not active on social media.
But as the narrative progressed further, and the out-of-control Swan started sending more animals to the raft for increasingly minor transgressions, I started to be less amused by the ham-fisted messaging about the importance of empathy over knee-jerk reactions, and more actively upset at the obvious manipulation that was going on here. As anyone who has spent time around a very young child knows, they lack filters; they’re still in the process of learning about the importance of kindness and respecting other people’s feelings. Given that I’m still teaching such lessons to my son (who just a few days earlier, to our horror, had somehow learned to use “gay” as a pejorative, a cancel-worthy offense if ever there was one, that prompted an hourlong discussion, including tangents about his many gay male role models and the aforementioned Mayor Humdinger), it felt emotionally manipulative, to say the least, for Brave Books to ask children to side with the obvious bully in this scenario (i.e., the guy being publicly mean to a disabled person), as opposed to the victim.
“You know that it’s never OK to make fun of someone for what they look like, right?” I asked him. “Putting someone on a raft for doing something wrong is not nice, but it’s also not nice to make fun of anyone for something they can’t change, ever.” But at that point, he was already asleep.
Ultimately, I’m not all that concerned about the threat Brave Books poses to the future of America’s children, or to my own child specifically. The messaging is too heavy-handed and garbled to truly get across, particularly if children are at an age where, like my son, they’re far more concerned about whether or not they’re going to get a few minutes to play Dinosaur Train on the iPad than the intricacies of the free market. And even if it wasn’t, he is far too inherently empathetic to fall prey to any of the ideals espoused by the Brave Books series.
Parenting is an ongoing process of curation, of picking and choosing between different options of what kind of parent you’d like to be and what you’d like to avoid; and for me, reading Sol these books drove that home further. In an interview with the New York Post, Talbot mentioned that the Brave Books series was in part inspired by his distaste for didactic liberal children’s books, and to be perfectly honest — even though the values in the latter genre may resonate with me far more than the former — I don’t entirely disagree. I have always firmly believed that most of a parent’s energy should be invested in making sure your kid is healthy and happy and putting one foot in front of the other; the idea that they have to meet some bullshit level of achievement or hit the threshold for performative political awareness (i.e., the type of cutesy anecdotes of toddlers referring to RBG as a “princess” that get thousands of likes on Resistance Twitter) has always been anathema to me. Trying to indoctrinate your child with a set of abstruse political values, at a time when parents should simply be encouraging kids to learn the basic building blocks of empathy and friendship, is pretty gross. And liberalism or conservatism aside, oftentimes aggressively copy-pasting your own politics onto your small child serves your own ego far more than it’s likely to benefit them.
It’s the parents (however few in number they may be) who are unironically buying these books that should really be cause for alarm. The idea that someone could so fervently believe in gender essentialism, for instance, that they need to inculcate their four-year-old with their hateful ideology is far more terrifying than the idea that some cynical publisher was able to round up his right-wing influencer friends to sell a few copies of a worse-written version of Animal Farm. What these parents don’t understand is that, even if their kids get old enough to actually understand the messaging being communicated by these books and start to parrot their views, they won’t for very long; kids are inherently rebellious and resistant to Brave Books’ brand of treacly evangelism. They’re smart enough to know when grown-ups are trying to sell them a false bill of goods. It’s the parents who are dumb enough to think that a cartoon hippo can teach kids about the dangers of cancel culture that we really have to worry about.