Explaining Donald Trump to children

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Three books, one portrait - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Three books, one portrait

How do you explain Donald Trump to small children?

There are certain facts that you can state objectively. He's president. Before that, he had a TV show. There are lots of buildings with his name on them in big, shiny letters. He's from New York City. He likes to play golf.

But beyond that? Why does he have such strange skin and hair? Is he some sort of nonfuzzy Muppet? Why does everyone get so shouty when they talk about him, even the people who say they like him? Why does he get to say mean things and throw tantrums when he doesn't get his way when most children know that that sort of behavior will get you punished?

In the past week, I have acquired three children's biographies of Donald Trump. Two, both by Joanne Mattern and published by Scholastic, are called President Donald Trump. One is part of the True Book series, while the other is a Rookie Biography. The third, by Diane Marczely Gimpel, published by the Child's World, is merely titled Donald Trump. (I also checked out Trump: The Graphic Biography by Ted Rall, but that one was written and published preelection and intended for adults.)

Both copies of President Donald Trump were mailed to me at the office and were immediately confiscated by coworkers who wanted to know how one explained to children the overlap of Trump's first two marriages and the bit about pussy grabbing. The answer: you don't. Both of the President Donald Trump books just mentioned dates of marriages and divorces and included pictures of the various Trump offspring. Donald Trump avoided the issue by not mentioning Trump's marriages or children at all.

I called up James Marten, a professor of history at Marquette University who was listed as the historical consultant for the True Book President Donald Trump, to ask him what it was like to attempt to explain Trump to children. It turned out that it's just as weird as we imagined.

"We all have a sense of what children's book should be like," he says. "It's hard to imagine that genre encompassing Trump. It's not a children’s story at all. There's so much about him that's not a normal narrative of a politician that you want to tell children about. But now he's doing something children are supposed to know about because he's a president. It's hard to shoehorn him into a narrative that would be remotely familiar."

The True Book version of President Donald Trump was intended for slightly older readers, maybe in third grade or so, and it's my favorite of the three because the first entry in the glossary is "bankruptcy." Marten can't remember for sure, but he thinks he was responsible for that.

"[The book] came up very suddenly after the election," he says. At the time, most of the Marquette population was still stunned, walking around in what he describes as "a luxurious state of gloom." It was a strange time and place to be reading a children's book about Trump, even critically. Marten's job was to look over the manuscript and make sure there were no historical inaccuracies and that it wasn't too one-sided.

"When I read the draft, the challenge of that book was that it was so current, there was no judgment whatsoever," Marten remembers. "There was no perspective because he had no political life to speak of before he ran for president. All you had to go by was his business and the entertainment-type stuff and all he'd said about it. It was extremely positive. It used the language Trump uses sometimes. There was no reference to criticism of him in it. There was no political element to it. It was probably the easiest thing for the writer to do."

The current version of the book now mentions that "some people" dislike Trump. Like so:
Many people were shocked at the idea of Trump as president. He had no political experience. He had never held a public office or taken part in political activities. For this reason, some people thought he was not qualified to be president. Others loved the idea of an outsider coming in to shake up the way the government was run.
Which is kind of true, if not especially specific. The Rookie Biography President Donald Trump states more explicitly, "Trump ran against Hillary Clinton. She had a lot more experience in politics."

"The author was treading a tightrope, as they all do," says Marten, who has read many Scholastic children's history books though he has never written one himself. "How much detail can I get into? How much can I say about? How much time do I have to say something? If you don't have time to explain it, you can't say it. It's a challenge they have."

I do appreciate, though, that the True Book President Donald Trump now devotes a page to Trump's campaign promises and explains that they were "concerning to some people." It also mentions that during the 1990s, "Trump's personal net worth dropped from $1.7 billion to $500 million."

Donald Trump, intended for younger children, also describes Trump's financial problems, but in a way that a six-year-old could understand: "But then Trump was in trouble. He borrowed money from banks. He needed the money to build his businesses. But Trump could not pay the banks back. He had to give up some properties. One bank got a hotel. Another bank got his big, fancy boat." Oh no! Not the big, fancy boat!

Donald Trump also has the best description of Trump's childhood:
Donald had rules to follow at home. He was not allowed to eat snacks. He was not allowed to say bad words. He had to eat all of his dinner. . . . He liked to go to magic stores with his friend. They bought stink bombs at the shop. They also bought smoke bombs. They even bought hot pepper gum. They played tricks on their friends at school. Sometimes Donald threw erasers at teachers. He would throw cake at birthday parties.
He sounds like a delight.

I'm trying to imagine that the book's authors and art directors, realizing they were stuck with this assignment (Marten said he tried to persuade Scholastic to write a book about the election instead, but they insisted on a biography of Trump), decided to throw in as much subtle shade as they could. All three books mention that Trump's mother and two of his wives were immigrants. Some of the photos from the campaign in the Rookie Biography President Donald Trump are shot from angles that makes his hands look suspiciously small, and the time line of significant events in Trump's life has just five entries:

Note the suspiciously tiny fist. - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Note the suspiciously tiny fist.

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was 40 Presidents Facts & Fun. It contained short biographies of all the presidents, from Washington to Reagan, that included pertinent information, like their birthplace, height, eye color, and religious denomination, but also surprisingly detailed descriptions of things that had gone wrong, like Watergate. (The "fun" part was puzzles and word games.) When I looked back at it the other day, though, I noticed that the authors were obviously pulling their punches with Reagan, who had just been inaugurated when the book was published. Instead of saying anything substantial about the challenges facing his presidency, they just reiterated his campaign promises.

Marten was also a reader of presidential biographies as a child, which he says is par for the course when you grow up to get a PhD in history. He didn't know 40 Presidents Facts & Fun, but he said he appreciated the difficulty of writing about someone who was both still alive and who hadn't accomplished anything as president yet. He consulted on kid biographies of Michelle and Barack Obama too, and said they were also overwhelmingly positive.

Still. Trump.

"It's an amazing story, in a weird way," Marten says.

This is true. And now I'm wondering how the kids who read any of these books will remember them later on.


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