Children’s literature: as didactic as ever, only with Progressive goals

Children’s literature once taught children to avoid danger and be good boys and girls; now it primes young people to accept a Progressive political agenda.

Children's Literature 1810The other night I went to an event at our local independent bookstore. I, along with about thirty other women and a few men, listened to presentations about both children’s and adult’s books as potential holiday gifts.

None of the books were my cup of tea because they were all “quality literature.” Or put another way, they were all the kind of books that would end up in Oprah’s Book Club. My rule of thumb is that I will never read an Oprah-recommended book. Her taste in books and mine are so diametrically opposed that it’s a given that, if she likes it, I’ll hate it.

Oprah likes books that are artsy, meaningful, politically correct, and written in high-brow language. I like thrillers, murder mysteries, romances, and non-fiction. We do not intersect.

Because of my low-brow tastes, had I not gone to this bookstore event, I would have been unaware of the didactic material being pushed as children’s literature for the Progressive, upper-middle-class household.

When I think of didactic children’s literature, I think of fairy tales and books published between 1750 and 1850 or so. Fairy tales may not seem obviously didactic, but they are — or at least some are. Don’t talk to strangers says Little Red Riding Hood. Don’t sleep with “a prick” when you’re still young says Sleeping Beauty. Be a hard worker of good cheer says Cinderella. Don’t accept food from strangers says Snow White. Throughout the world, fairy tales urge girls to be meek and chaste while urging boys to be brave and adventurous. Those aren’t politically correct messages, but history is what it is.

In addition to the didactic fairy-tales, there were others, hundreds of others, that were directed at peasants who gathered around fires on dark nights. They had no purpose but to entertain. They were cruel, rude, licentious, amusing, and frightening. But still, there was always that subset that reinforced society’s messages about sexual roles and safety. Even though the stories weren’t directed specifically at children, the messages were.

Beginning in the late 1700s, publishers began to promote books that were, in fact, directed specifically at children. Many of the writers were religious and, of these religious writers, many subscribed to a fire and brimstone Evangelical Christianity. This was openly didactic children’s literature. In poems and prose, children were warned away from dangerous activities lest horrible things happened (fire, drowning, maiming, poverty, starvation, mad dogs, insane asylums, hangings, you name it), and they were encouraged in good behavior (sitting quietly, obeying their parents, studying their Bible, etc.). These were books of the “teach and preach” variety.

Today, when we look at these books, with their overt threats of punishment and their heavy-handed encouragement for socially- and religiously-acceptable behavior for boys and girls, we tend to laugh . . . and then congratulate ourselves on writing much more subtle, sophisticated, and enjoyable books for children. None of that heavy-handed Christian stuff for our little darlings. Our books teach them to enjoy the world around them, to play well with others, and to love politically correct causes, to admire minorities, and to fear whites.

One of the books that drew the most encomiums for the stores children’s literature specialist is Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate, a book targeted at the middle school set. Applegate is a very well-known children’s literature author, who won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2013. Under various names, she has written approximately 100 children’s books. She is a big player in the world of children’s literature.

The book’s premise is that the narrator is an oak tree that lives outside a house and has, for generations, taken an interest in the families living in that house. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Trees can’t tell jokes, but they can certainly tell stories. . . .

Red is an oak tree who is many rings old. Red is the neighborhood “wishtree”—people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them to Red’s branches. Along with her crow friend Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red’s hollows, this “wishtree” watches over the neighborhood.

You might say Red has seen it all. Until a new family moves in. Not everyone is welcoming, and Red’s experiences as a wishtree are more important than ever.

Funny, deep, warm, and nuanced, this is Katherine Applegate at her very best—writing from the heart, and from a completely unexpected point of view.

The moment I heard about that unwelcome family, I thought “Muslim.” It was actually hard to find whether my guess was correct — the promoters play “hide the ball” with that tidbit. I scoured the official website from which the above blurb comes (even watching a very boring promotional video), but read not a word about this unwanted family.

At Amazon, I learned that the book has “Common Core” connections. I also saw all sorts of rave reviews from the usual upper-middle-class true blue sources that control children’s education in America:

Praise for wishtree:

A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2017

New York Times Editors’ Choice

A New York Times Bestseller
A Publishers Weekly Bestseller

Autumn 2017 Kids’ Indie Next List “Top Pick” Title

“A beautifully written, morally bracing story that will leave its imprint on a reader of any age.” The New York Times Book Review

“The simplicity of Newbery Medalist Applegate’s graceful novel contrasts powerfully with the prejudice it confronts. Narration comes from Red, an enormous red oak near an elementary school that also serves as a “wishtree” for the neighborhood―once a year, residents deposit wishes in Red’s branches and hollows….Red’s openhearted voice and generosity of spirit bring perspective gained over centuries of observation. It’s a distinctive call for kindness, delivered by an unforgettable narrator.”–Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Applegate introduces another quiet, resilient protagonist who — like the caged gorilla in The One and Only Ivan and the working-class boy in Crenshaw — speaks movingly to a noisy, fractious world. — The Washington Post

“The story’s wit and humor keep it from being heavy-handed, as do vivid portrayals of minor characters, especially Bongo, the sarcastic crow who is Red’s best friend. This is a book made for family sharing and discussion.”–Raleigh News & Observer

“Timely, necessary, and brimming with heart.”– Booklist, starred review

“Newbery Award–winning author Applegate meets high expectations in this tale told by a tree named Red, a red oak who is “two hundred and sixteen rings old.” … Another stunning effort from Applegate. This thoughtful read is a top choice for middle graders.”–School Library Journal, starred review

“This swiftly moving yet contemplative read is great for early middle grade, reluctant or tentative readers, or precocious younger students. A deceptively simple, tender tale in which respect, resilience, and hope triumph.”–Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“This gentle yet powerful book is suitable for all ages…and its message remains more vital than ever.”–BookPage

“Inspires hope for positive change. Perfect for a powerful classroom read, Wishtree is another winner for Applegate.”–Voices of Youth Advocates, starred review

It was only when I delved into the reader reviews on the Amazon page that I finally confirmed what I had suspected: the victimized family in the book is Muslim:

Oh, my heart. This book is beautiful. I knew the instant I started reading it that I had to teach it. It’s so powerful.

Red, a local oak tree, is the narrator of this tale. He is a Wishtree where people tie wishes, and his new neighbor, Samar, ha made a wish for a friend. She’s new to town and Muslim and people are not treating her family well.

Through flashbacks that artfully parallel the era to the Irish and Italian immigration, more than a century before, we hear a tale of acceptance, bravery and loyalty told through the eyes of the community’s longest and most loving resident….the tree.

How very politically correct. Also, how ironic when one considers that, despite all the media warnings that Americans are an imminent threat to Muslims, the actual threat to Muslims always seems to come, not from Americans armed with pitchforks and torches, but instead from their co-religionists in other, darker parts of the world.

I hope everyone reading this knows that I am not advocating treating Muslim immigrants cruelly. However, the Leftists instinct to beatify Islam is disturbing. What I’d really like to see is a Newbery Award winning book that, instead of telling Americans how great Muslims are, told Muslims how great Americans are. Those books, however, are in short supply.

Another children’s literature book that event promoted is aimed at the 4-5 year old set: Dave Egger’s Her Right Foot. It’s a book that looks at the fact that, as was typical of statuary from late 19th century Europe (and, indeed, from ancient Greece and Rome), Lady Liberty, rather than standing square, is slightly in motion, with her right foot moving forward. That foot inspired Egger to write a book castigating America — the most welcoming nation ever in the world — as a xenophobic country, and explaining to America’s preschool set that everyone should come in. Really:

It’s a baffling aspect of the American species that we periodically forget that almost all of us are immigrants. The symbol of this country is the Statue of Liberty, and the Statue of Liberty is not a symbol of xenophobia, fear, or isolationism. The symbol of America is a symbol of welcome. It’s a woman in a robe walking out to sea, to light the way for those coming to our shores.

I think it’s important that we talk about it. It’s especially important that we talk about it with our kids. The news these days is volatile and unsettling, and our kids are scared. We need to show them how to be brave. We need to learn from their tolerance and curiosity and open minds. We need to teach them what this country is supposed to stand for. And that’s why I wrote this book for them.

Reading the reviews, it’s clear that readers understand that his message is not about welcoming legal immigrants, but is about promoting open borders:

My 8 and 6 year old LOVE this book, and even more importantly, it teaches them what really makes this country great—welcoming the stranger, no exceptions. [Bookworm: No exceptions means no borders.]


It’s hard to ignore the current political maelstrom concerning immigration while reading this book. It reminds an older reader of, or shares with a young reader, the hope and welcome that the Statue of Liberty extends to immigrants arriving on our eastern shores. [Bookworm: Keep in mind that the maelstrom is not about immigration, no matter what the Left says; it’s about illegal immigration.]

I’m all for immigration. I’m the product of immigrants — who waited nine years before they legally got permission to come to America. Immigration makes America more wild and dangerous than the once-placid European countries (back in less violent, pre-refugee days) or Japan (the same countries to which gun control advocates routinely point to justify overturning the Second Amendment through court decree). But it also makes America more vital, exciting, and innovative. So yes! Immigration! Bring it on.

But I also believe in the Rule of Law. Illegal immigration strikes at the fabric of a civilized society. Once law becomes meaningless, it exists only as a tool by which government can persecute those it opposes or fears. Without borders maintaining national sovereignty, America is just another place overrun by everyone. These are people whose view of opportunity isn’t about individual liberty and a free market. It’s about welfare. American jobs vanish as illegal immigrants fight for low paying jobs and places such as California’s central valley lapse into third world squalor. (Don’t believe me? Just read what Victor Davis Hanson periodically writes about the degradation of his formerly upstanding central valley community.)

I also believe strongly in assimilation. We are a nation only if we see ourselves as a single people. At home, we can pay homage to our overseas past. But in the public places, we must have a unified American identity and culture. Otherwise, we end up with the following kind of world, one in which everyone must be labeled and graded — and if their grades aren’t right, they must be shamed and destroyed:

Callout culture. The quest for purity. Privilege theory taken to extremes. I’ve observed some of these questionable patterns in my activist communities over the past several years.

As an activist, I stand with others against white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism. I am queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able-bodied.


As a cultural studies scholar, I am interested in how that culture—as expressed through discourse and popular narratives—does the work of power. Many disciplinary practices of the activist culture succeed in curbing oppressive behaviors. Callouts, for example, are necessary for identifying and addressing problematic behavior. But have they become the default response to fending off harm? Shutting down racist, sexist, and similar conversations protects vulnerable participants. But has it devolved into simply shutting down all dissenting ideas?


On social media, I’ve stopped commenting with thoughtful push back on popular social justice positions for fear of being called out. For example, even though some women at the 2017 women’s march reproduced the false and transmisogynistic idea that all women have vaginas [Bookworm here: not just labeled, but mislabeled], I still believe that the event was a critical win for the left and should not be written off so easily as it has been by some in my community.

This lauded branch of children’s literature, which insists that America must conform to immigrants, rather than vice versa, offends me. This children’s literature, which insists that there’s no difference between illegal aliens and legal immigrants, offends me. And this children’s literature, which ties to make Americans feel guilty for having, and transmitting to our children, a coherent American identify, offends me.

This modern didactic children’s literature isn’t limited to the pre-school and middle school set. I would be remiss if I left out high schoolers. Marvel Comics, which has taken a hard left turn in recent years, has revamped Spider Man to make him a Hispanic teen. Frankly, I don’t care about Spider Man’s race. If a Hispanic teen lends itself to good plot lines, great. Since I’m not a Leftist, racial obsessions elude me.

But the latest Spider Man book — Miles Morales, Spider Man, by Jason Reynolds, whose name indicates a white guy doing some cultural appropriation — has a message for white America, and it’s not a very nice one:

“Everyone gets mad at hustlers, especially if you’re on the victim side of the hustle. And Miles knew hustling was in his veins.”

Miles Morales is just your average teenager. Dinner every Sunday with his parents, chilling out playing old-school video games with his best friend, Ganke, crushing on brainy, beautiful poet Alicia. He’s even got a scholarship spot at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy. Oh yeah, and he’s Spider Man.

But lately, Miles’s spidey-sense has been on the fritz. When a misunderstanding leads to his suspension from school, Miles begins to question his abilities. After all, his dad and uncle were Brooklyn jack-boys with criminal records. Maybe kids like Miles aren’t meant to be superheroes. Maybe Miles should take his dad’s advice and focus on saving himself.

As Miles tries to get his school life back on track, he can’t shake the vivid nightmares that continue to haunt him. Nor can he avoid the relentless buzz of his spidey-sense every day in history class, amidst his teacher’s lectures on the historical “benefits” of slavery and the importance of the modern-day prison system. But after his scholarship is threatened, Miles uncovers a chilling plot, one that puts his friends, his neighborhood, and himself at risk.

It’s time for Miles to suit up.

Yup, we white folks are eee-vil. And apparently the message is pretty heavy-handed. The gal introducing the book to the group at yesterday’s event giggled gleefully when she said that the bad guys are White Supremacists. In the real world, we’re getting blown up by Muslims and shot up by crazy Democrats, but the Left knows who the real killers are: about 5,000 pathetic losers out of a nation 300,000,000 people.

I’ve got to wrap this up, so I’ll say my last two points quickly. Point one is that there was other children’s literature the store promoted that was silly, or fun, or just about the usual modern childhood messages of teaching parents to treat their children correctly. (That last is a weirdly inverted form of reverse didacticism in children’s literature.) What struck me, though, was the way that the presenters went out of their way to highlight the most Progressive didactic line in children’s literature.

Point two is that the adults weren’t left out of this political promotion. Marin’s own Isabel Allende, whose books I’ve found paralyzingly dull, is out with a new one — In the Midst of Winter — that has as one of its three primary figures an illegal alien from Latin America. Oh, pardon me! The publisher tells us this character is an “undocumented immigrant,” implying that she has a perfect right to be in America, but just forgot her papers on the piano when she left her home and headed north.

As you may have guessed, I didn’t particularly enjoy the evening. The virtue signalling was constant, the disdain for America and Americans manifest, and the attacks on Trump predictable, boring, and distasteful. But I did at least get to see the books that serve as warm-ups for a future in which these kids grow up and go to an American college or university. Once there, when their professors start revealing the full Leftist panoply that’s the core curriculum of every college course, they are teaching to children who have been made primed and ready by a lifetime of children’s literature churning out Progressive propaganda.


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