Political candidates are always trying new ways to appeal to young voters - whether it’s Beto O’Rourke live-streaming his teeth cleaning on Instagram or, in another era, Bill Clinton answering questions about his underwear on MTV. Now, two Democratic presidential candidates have taken the obsession with the youth vote to an extreme: delivering their messages to the kindergarten set. Never mind that their audience can’t vote or, in many cases, read.
Weeks before announcing her run for president, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) released a picture book called “Superheroes Are Everywhere.” The book is a simplified version of her life story that focuses on the “superheroes” who inspired her: her mother, her best friends, her first-grade teacher, Thurgood Marshall and others. In November, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) released “Bold & Brave,” which celebrates, in a less personal way, the women who paved the way for her political career, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells.
“I’m so happy to share my story,” Harris said in a statement, “in the hope that it will empower young people to become caring, thoughtful, passionate citizens who want to make a positive impact on the world.” Gillibrand’s public comments echoed those of her competitor: “I hope this book will inspire young readers to be bold and brave in dreaming big and never giving up.” (Neither candidate was available for an interview for this article.)
These days everyone seems to be publishing a kids book - Chelsea Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Karen Pence, Pharrell Williams, Derek Jeter, Jimmy Fallon, Bob Dylan, Ricky Martin, Bruce Springsteen, even Lennon and McCartney. And in recent years, there’s been an uptick in the woke kids genre - “A Is for Activist,” “Baby Feminist,” “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark” - so perhaps it’s not surprising that presidential candidates would take their tales to Circle Time, too. But are these new books worth reading to your kids?
Gillibrand’s book is an odd hybrid: In size and color, it’s perfect for preschool; in content, it’s more suitable for middle or even high school. The book has a lot of words - on some pages there are more than 200 of them, including “inauguration,” “unconquerable” and “reproductive rights.” (A sample page of Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” by contrast, has about 20 words, including “watermelon,” “nibbled” and “butterfly.”)
Sure, learning new vocabulary is valuable - as are the lessons on civil and women’s rights - but how many kids in the recommended 6-to-9-year-old age group would sit through such turgid (and freighted) - descriptions? “In 1972,” Gillilbrand writes in the lengthy appendix, “Congress finally passed the Equal Rights Amendment, written by Alice Paul in 1923 and revised in 1943, to end gender discrimination under the law, but it has not been ratified by the states.”
The book, which ends with Gillibrand reminiscing about a rousing speech she gave during the 2017 Women’s March, delivers a message that seems directed at the voters in the house: I have feminist credentials to spare. Maira Kalman’s bright and elegant illustrations are certainly alluring - and with their inspirational captions, perfectly built for Instagram. Indeed, the whole project might have been better marketed as hipster decor, the perfect coffee table statement book to complement an RBG bobblehead.
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Kamala Harris’ “Superheroes Are Everywhere” has the opposite problem: The words are too simple and the art is flat. Aimed at readers ages 3 to 7, the book reads like a thinly veiled campaign brochure crossed with a course on character building. Published on the same day as her adult memoir “The Truths We Hold,” the book is a mash-up of politics and self-help. The endpages feature a scrapbook of photos from Harris’ childhood, including a baby photo captioned, “This is me, contemplating the future.” The rest of the images, by Mechal Renee Roe - best known for her delightful books “Happy Hair” and “Cool Cuts” - feel like the product of focus-group testing (in one spread, all the kids wear T-shirts emblazoned with a cause: STEM! Recycle! Read! Vote!).
The book’s final pages feature a “hero code,” that asks readers to promise to, among other things, “make people feel special,” “protect people who need it” and “make a difference when I can.” It even includes a foil mirror so that readers can find the hero that lies you know where. No question these are valuable lessons for kids, but surely there’s a more subtle way to teach them. (See Eric Carle.) Later this year, Harris plans to publish an adapted version of her adult memoir aimed at kids 8 to 12 - still a few years shy of voting, but old enough to take their parents canvassing.