Rich Rump is an ill-tempered “rich man” who accidentally receives Santa Claus’s pants from the dry cleaners and then refuses to return them. Featured in Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski’s Christmas in July (1991), Rich Rump is also—to the best of my knowledge—the first appearance of Donald Trump in a children’s book. Two years later, Trump returns as both verb and proper noun in Maurice Sendak’s We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993). When the rats “win” them in a game of cards, the homeless children are “LOST!” “TRICKED,” “TRUMPED”—with “TRUMPED” appearing next to the word “TOWER,” which is spelled out in gold letters on a soaring glass-and-steel building.
Casting him as the story’s villain, whether as a selfish ass (“Rump”) or as a symbol of capitalist indifference to those in need, children’s authors have always understood—and depicted—Trump’s cruelty. From the moment that Trump began to appear in books for young readers, these books depicted the basic truths of the man: selfish, vain, heartless, dishonest.
Donald Trump is a pathological liar. Children’s books about him should tell the truth. These first children’s books did tell the truth. Today, some do not. Take a look, for example, at Joanne Mattern’s President Donald Trump (in the Rookie Biographies series), which includes this “Poem about Donald Trump”:
His buildings reached into the sky.
His businesses just grew and grew.
Then Trump became our president—
people wanted something new.
This light verse omits Trump’s preference for hiring undocumented construction workers so that he can underpay them, as well as his record of business failures. But, like all successful autocrats, Donald Trump and the Republican Party build their regime on hostility to facts. Yet, as Timothy Snyder warns, in On Tyranny, “post-truth is pre-fascism.”1
Children growing up in our contemporary upside-down run a particular risk of becoming habituated to its nightmarish logic. Lying to children does not help them to understand the world in which they live, nor does it equip them to survive that world. Books that tell the truth, however, can teach all of us how authoritarianism ransacks democracies, and they can better prepare us to restore—and improve—US democracy.
Biographies of Trump: Fiction and Nonfiction
While juvenile biographies of Trump typically acknowledge some of his suspicious activities, too many succumb to the fallacy that presenting both positive and negative information creates balance. For example: Jill Sherman’s Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President notes that “Trump had to declare bankruptcy on all three of his casinos. Some people have criticized Trump for declaring bankruptcy, but Trump sees bankruptcies as a good tool for cutting debts.” By omitting vital context, Sherman’s positive/negative construction allows us to read Trump as a canny businessman, instead of as the crook that he is.
Polite euphemism turns allegedly nonfictional content into fiction. “Controversy” is not a synonym for “demagoguery” or “racism” or “incitement to violence.” Yet, after describing Trump’s announcement that he was running for president (and omitting his racist allegations against Mexicans), Sherman’s bio genially notes that Trump “did not shy away from controversy. When Trump was criticized by other candidates and the media, he did not back down. He made bold and controversial statements about the economy and about immigration. But the controversy did not seem to hurt his campaign.”
In fact, controversy was and is Trump’s campaign. Throughout his life, he has generated controversy to promote himself. As Trump’s now-repentant former fixer Michael Cohen testified in February, “Mr. Trump would often say this campaign was going to be the greatest infomercial in political history.” While self-promotion is one of Trump’s genuine talents, books about him should not participate in that endeavor.
Nor should their editors. Joanne Mattern—author of the “Poem about Donald Trump”—has another, better, juvenile biography (President Donald Trump, in the True Books series) that does attempt to address Trump’s racism. In a prepublication copy, a page titled “Troubling Statements” told readers: “Some of Trump’s biggest supporters were white nationalists. Their comments and actions during and after the campaign were racist and often dangerous. Trump did little to speak against them.”
Later, Scholastic’s editors changed the header “Troubling Statements” to “Campaign Statements.” They revised the section about discrimination to read: “Some of Trump’s critics felt he did not speak out against prejudicial people and groups strongly enough.” When asked about the change, Scholastic editor Joana Costa Knufinke responded: “We make an effort to show both points of view.”
Yet, to return to Timothy Snyder: “The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts.”2 To put this more bluntly: when one side is a lie, you should only represent that “point of view” in order to debunk it.
Martha Brockenbrough’s extremely well-researched Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump understands this. When Brockenbrough reports one of Trump’s lies, she calls it out immediately. Having quoted Trump’s tweet that Obama had tapped his phones during the election, her very next sentence is: “No evidence supported this claim.” When she recounts how, in December 2017, Trump boasted of having secured “more legislative victories than any other President,” Brockenbrough writes: “This was not true. Every president since World War II had signed more legislation in his first year than Trump did.”
Unlike the Mattern and Sherman biographies, Brockenbrough’s book has the advantage of length (432 pages, 52 of which are endnotes in very tiny print) and of being marketed to older readers (Macmillan advertises it as being for ages 12–18). It has room for depth that both Sherman and Mattern lack. That said, brevity need not lie. All biographies are incomplete, all histories are incomplete. They cannot include everything. They must select what is representative. As Brockenbrough writes, “One instance of a behavior is interesting, but a pattern becomes important.”
Trump Allegories for Children
Picture books distill verifiable patterns of behavior into allegorical portraits that illuminate some of Trump’s defining features, reminding us that truth arrives in many genres—not just straight biography. From New Zealand, Sophie Siers and Anne Villeneuve’s Dear Mr. President (originally published as Dear Donald Trump) finds young Sam writing to Donald Trump for advice: he has decided that his “big brother … exactly fits [Trump’s] description of an undesirable person,” and wants a wall to divide the bedroom that the two share.
Via family, teachers, and library books, Sam learns about walls and ultimately comes around to his father’s view that “communication and negotiation are always preferable to separation.” The book shows why walls are bad policy, and why Trump’s habitual classification of people into “good” and “undesirable” is foolish.
Currently available only in its original Swedish, Bosse & Bella och trumpna Sullen Donald (Bosse and Bella and Sullen Donald), and in a Danish translation, Dumme Donald bygger en mur i børnehaven (Stupid Donald builds a wall in kindergarten), Måns Gahrton and Amanda Eriksson’s picture book finds new kid Donald arriving at nursery school, bossing his classmates around, and insisting that they build a wall in the playroom so that the littlest children cannot enter. The book highlights Donald’s autocratic petulance and shows why such behavior may not be the best strategy for getting along in nursery school or in life.
Though it never identifies its vain king as Trump, the Italian picture book The Wall—by Giancarlo Macri and Carolina Zanotti, illustrated by Mauro Sacco and Elisa Vallarino—uses the wall to argue against racist logics of difference. When the king demands, “Banish everyone who doesn’t look like me!” and insists that a wall be built to keep them out, he quickly learns that his vanity project requires the labor of those he has banished. Unlike his American counterpart, this despot learns from his mistake and ultimately decides that the wall should be torn down (though, like Trump, the king blames his bad idea on an aide).
One preelection book personifies Trump as an attention-seeking, incompetent megalomaniac. Aaron Reynolds and Sara Varon’s President Squid never mentions him by name, but its title character’s diction, ignorance, massive ego, and bright color (albeit pink instead of orange) evokes then candidate Donald Trump. In Trumpian cadences, Squid brags about being a “Big Boss,” having a big house (“It’s absolutely TITANIC!”), and his fame: “I’m the most famous sea creature on this whole page! Do you know that guy? Of course not. He’s a nobody.” It’s a fable about a candidate motivated by vanity and a hunger for power, but utterly unprepared for the job he seeks.
Activist children’s books can help children and the adults in their lives survive the regime.
The humor in allegorical Trump picture books is a vital part of their truth-telling. Laughter mitigates the effects of the Trump presidency’s ongoing gaslighting. Over time, the constant need to refute this administration’s lies exhausts the brain. As Maria Konnikova writes, in Politico, “When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. … It doesn’t matter how implausible the statements are; throw out enough of them, and people will inevitably absorb some.” Yet, as humor scholar Sophia A. McClennen suggests, in its ability to engage both heart and brain, satire can cut through the lies.
Readers of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling sequence (2008–2012) will remember that there are other ways to shake off the fog of lies. All too resonant with our current moment, the villain of these YA fantasy novels, King Leck, is graced with the power of gaslighting. Protagonist Katsa’s love for a man endangered by Leck’s gaslighting snaps her back to reality, enabling her to save herself, him, and others who have fallen under Leck’s spell. But, as Leck’s daughter discovers, deposing him does not also remove the effects of his lies.
In The Language of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer writes that “words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”3 When such poison infects language, it gets transmitted to the next generation—even one that opposes the former regime. By exploring the effects of gaslighting, Cashore’s novels might help teens slough off the lies of the Trump era and whatever may follow it, and they underscore the very real threat that Trump poses.
How to Survive
Often overlooked in debates about how to report on or write about Trump is the fact that, in his presidency, we face actual evil. As Teju Cole wrote directly after the 2016 election, “Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.”
We must not forget that Trump’s government is committing crimes against humanity right now. Since Trump agreed to stop family separations in June 2018, Customs and Border Protection has separated an additional 245 children from their parents. Thousands of asylum-seeking children who arrived before April 2018 have not been reunited with their parents, because “United States Customs and Border Protection did not collect specific data on migrant family separations before April 2018.”
Seven children seeking asylum have died in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol—or, really, were killed by their active neglect. And then there are reports of molestation, of abuse, in custody. And the fast-tracked deportations, in which immigrants—including some who have been in the US for years—are deprived of due process and thrown out of the country. This mistreatment of asylum seekers by the government has been accompanied by an increase in the bullying and harassment of certain populations in schools, including children of color as well as—to quote the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2016 report on the issue—“immigrants, Muslims, girls, LGBT students, kids with disabilities and anyone who was on the ‘wrong’ side of the election.”
Activist children’s books can help children and the adults in their lives survive the regime. The first such children’s book to focus on Trump, Maya Gonzalez’s When a Bully Is President: Truth and Creativity for Oppressive Times (written in both English and Spanish), uses the concept of bullying to historicize our sociopathic “president.”
The metaphor of the bully contextualizes America’s history of crimes against humanity—murdering Native Americans, enslaving and murdering people of African descent, exploiting Mexican Americans. It also allows the book to address the “echo” of that bullying in the present: discrimination against “Muslim and Sikh Americans, Asian Americans, and many immigrants,” as well as “LGBTQ Americans, disabled Americans and Americans who identify as women or girls.”
Gonzalez locates hope in manifestations of community: “Together we look and see WHAT A BULLY IS. Seeing keeps us strong.” As she explains, this broader historical context helps us “see that bullying is not based in truth,” and to know that “standing in your truth keeps you strong.” Children can speak out against bullies or stand with those who are being bullied. But they don’t have to.
If less specific in their advice, John Seven and Jana Christy’s We Say No!: A Child’s Guide to Resistance (2017) and Rob Sanders and Jared Andrew Schorr’s Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights (2018) recognize—and encourage—the many varieties of activist resistance. Though neither names the specific regime being fought, many references in each gesture to the immediate present. They remind readers that taking action is the most reliable form of hope.
And, as the best of these children’s books do, they inspire action by telling the truth.
Thanks to Nina Christensen for introducing me to Dumme Donald bygger en mur i børnehaven(Stupid Donald builds a wall in nursery school), and for translating the title. Thanks to Elina Druker for translating the book’s original, Swedish title. Thanks to Jules Danielson for introducing me to The Wall and to both Jules and Betsy Bird for confirming that Christmas in July is the first children’s book to feature Mr. Trump.
This article was commissioned by Marah Gubar.
- Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan, 2017), p. 71. ↩
- Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (Tim Duggan, 2018), p. 164. ↩
- Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, translated from the German by Martin Brady (1957; Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 15–16. ↩