You know who I don’t envy? The editors of Penguin’s “Who Is?” series, who at some point are going to have to oversee the production of a 100-page biography of Donald Trump suitable for third graders. I think they, and the authors of the several children’s Trump biographies I’ve read for this article, face a problem.
How do you profile an American president whose life is devoid of the typical touchpoints of a politician’s life: a career in public service or the military? Trump biographers must instead work with the elements that caused him to gain public notice: his wealth, his real estate empire, his highly public marriage to and divorce from Ivana Trump, and his role in the birther controversy. Only with a vast amount of context, much of which requires sophisticated analysis, can these elements be faithfully explained. Further, Trump’s public record is typified by negative, disputed, and sometimes vulgar statements. How do you fit that into 32, 60, or 100 pages using a low unique word count?
Most troubling: How can you write about this person without the appearance of bias? If you decide to report such famous incidents as Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski, a journalist who is disabled, or callous behavior toward the Khan family, whose son was posthumously awarded the Gold Star for Bravery, the book may be accused of anti-Trump sentiment. However, the decision to skip those details could appear to display bias in the other direction.
As writer Jia Tolentino points out in her New Yorker article, “How Educational Children’s Books Are Explaining President Trump,” these titles “model a set of euphemisms and exclusions that help transform the shocking into the ordinary.” When children’s series nonfiction is being covered in The New Yorker, you know our world is spinning off its axis.
Maybe the best place to start is at the beginning. Series biographies are terrific at laying out the facts about an individual’s early life in a calm, chronological manner. For example, each of the Trump books for children I read told me the following things I didn’t know about Donald Trump:
- He has three living siblings.
- He played baseball and other sports in high school.
- He got in trouble a lot in elementary school (he is variously described as “mischievous,” “troublemaker,” “bold,” and “unruly”).
- He had a paper route when he was a kid.
I was a little surprised to learn about his siblings, as I’ve never seen any of them in the news or standing next to him on a stage. And while most of these titles mention that Trump was so frequently punished in grade school that detention became known as “the DT’s,” only the 66-page Donald Trump: 45th U.S. President by Dominick Reston (ReferencePoint) brings up the time that Trump punched his music teacher in the face in second grade, an episode reported by Trump himself in his memoir The Art of the Deal.
The Reston title goes on to reveal the event, uncovered by Trump biographer Gwenda Blair, that prompted his father to send him to military school in eighth grade—Fred Trump discovered a collection of knives, “some with blades nearly 12 inches long,” that Trump had bought in Times Square, trips taken in defiance of his father’s orders.
Well. That escalated quickly. Why would a wealthy boy in Queens, NY, need a stash of knives? Reston doesn’t speculate. But this is a good place to pause and think about what we know of series biographies.
If Calvin Coolidge, for example, had accumulated a surreptitious cache of knives as a youngster, would that fact make it into Calvin Coolidge: Our 30th President? Surely it would. But if “Silent Cal” had collected knives as a boy, that would have been the most remarkable fact about his early life. For Donald Trump, who cultivates an outrageous persona, it barely rates. How does an author pick which facts are pertinent when so much about the subject is over-the-top?
Perhaps this is why these anecdotes from his youth, before he was in the public eye, seem so vital.
Concise? Or misconstrued?
Like Tolentino, I found passages in which the authors work so hard to be neutral that they end up softening the effect of Trump’s language, avoiding specifics, or giving him the last word. In the pursuit of linguistic economy, negatives are often blunted. To what extent do these elisions obscure the facts?
- In ABDO’s Donald Trump, students read that Trump “was bold and full of energy” as a boy. “Bold” is not synonymous with “in trouble a lot.”
- Children’s Press’s A True Book: President Donald Trump concludes with, “Millions of Americans are counting on him to help improve their lives.” Certainly true. But can you accept this book in your library without an accompanying statement to the effect that “millions of Americans immediately took to the streets to protest his views?” That is also a fact.
- The statement “Donald Trump had a colorful career before entering politics” in DK’s The Presidents Visual Encyclopedia is so neutral as to be meaningless.
- Jill Sherman, in her 50-page book for Lerner, Donald Trump: Outspoken Personality and President, says of The Apprentice, “Trump believed he could use the show to teach TV audiences about business.” Other authors state that Trump agreed to the show to help rebuild his brand after high-profile losses in the 1990s.
- The two-page Trump entry in DK’s Eyewitness Presidents includes three sentences about Trump’s real estate career, without mentioning bankruptcies or lawsuits—is that an accurate précis?
Books with a longer page count can incorporate more context and nuance. A.R. Carser’s Donald Trump: 45th U.S. President (ABDO) touches on the Trump University lawsuit, including his attack on the presiding judge, and devotes significant space to his business practices, including the Fair Housing Practices lawsuit, Trump Tower labor dispute, and Atlantic City losses.
The Reston title is even more frank. Examining the “stunned” reaction to Trump’s victory, Reston describes campaign behavior that ran counter to collective wisdom about how successful candidates behave: “Trump was accused of inciting hostility against women, immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, Jews, and even military veterans. According to various fact-checking websites, Trump’s speeches and public statements often fell short of the truth.”
Interestingly, both “A.R. Carser” and “Dominick Reston” have only one book credit to their name, inviting the speculation that both are not only pseudonyms but new pseudonyms.
These books all went to press before the inauguration. Possibly the best coverage of the 2016 campaign can be found in Ann Bausum’s Our Country’s Presidents: A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency. Bausum neatly lays out how and why the slogan “Make America Great Again” appealed to some Americans, while others associated it with oppression.
When I was offered the opportunity to read and review the batch of children’s biographies of Donald Trump that the industry has rushed to place in school libraries, I jumped at the chance. It bothers me when I have strong feelings about something that I don’t understand, and in this case, both halves of that statement are certainly true. And if I don’t get it, it’s more than likely that children are confused, too.
News occupies a more prominent place in the lives of kids than it used to, a sentiment echoed by Beth Sutinis of Time Inc. Books in a recent article in the New York Times, “Telling Trump’s Story to Children: For Book Publishers, It’s Tricky” by Katherine Rosman. While, for example, kids in 2000 may have been dimly aware of the “hanging chad” controversy, I think it’s fair to say that it prompted fewer questions than any one of a dozen news items from the 2016 election. We owe it to ourselves and our students to make sure they have resources in place that will answer those questions.