It’s been fairly difficult to score copies of the Healthy Holly titles, whose shady distribution brought down their author, Catherine Pugh the mayor of Baltimore. There was the question of how many picture books Pugh wrote “dedicated to improving the physical health of children.” The size of their print runs was also a mystery. Had the FBI impounded them all as evidence or were there still dusty boxes languishing in warehouses around Baltimore?
Now that Pugh has resigned her post and been indicted for corruption, copies have been drifting onto the market. The three published in 2010, “Exercising is Fun,” “A Healthy Start for Herbie!” and “Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow” are turning up more often than the fourth one, “Walking with your Parents is Fun,” which was glimpsed during the Healthy Holly segment that aired April 7 2019 of “Last Week Tonight.” John Oliver, will you donate your copy to Cotsen, if your staff didn’t lift the picture of it from the Web? Likewise the fifth, “Vegetables are not just Green.” Neither Abebooks nor Ebay have listed copies when I’ve checked, but there are images on Google.
The Cotsen collection now has copies of the first three–“Exercising,” “Herbie,” and “Fruits. ” A few interesting details. ISBN numbers, check. One was printed in Canada. A social media presence was established on Facebook and Twitter for the series in “Herbie” and “Fruits.” To writer her directly, an e-mail account was set up: HealthyHolly@HealthyHolly.com. The address of Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC in Baltimore was given for those wanting to place orders by phone or snail mail. As of last week, the e-mail address and telephone number were disconnected….
Copy editing, layout, and back cover design are credited to Carmelitta Green. She doesn’t seem to be an experienced graphic designer or the series would have been more uniform in concept, with the same features in the same order in the same place in every book. The “bookplate,” which provides the owner with three lines for recording name and address, was not placed on the inside front cover, but on any preliminary page where there happened to be room. Title page placement is also haphazard. In “Herbie” and “Fruits,” it was on the back of the half title, falling on the left-hand side of the title spread where the frontispiece should be. On the right hand side where the title ought to be, is technical information about publication normally on the back of the title. To underscore the first book’s message that physical movement is healthy, the words “fun,” “exercise,” “healthy,” “walk,” “walks,” “walking,” “ride,” “riding,” “rode,” swim,” “jumps rope,” “jumping rope,” and “dancing” (but not “bike”) are set in bold. This feature was dropped in the other two books.
The hilarity over the embarrassing blips in punctuation has sidelined the more important question, are the Healthy Holly books any good? Let’s put aside the rolling revelations about Pugh’s business practices and assume that at the beginning her desire to persuade children to eat better and exercise more was sincere. The author of a self-published book of poetry, Mind Garden: Where Thoughts Grow (2005), Pugh probably didn’t realize that the Healthy Holly project meant embarking on the challenge of writing short fiction to teach children how to live well. Readers can and do scoff at the earnest author and thumb their noses at the advice being proffered. Critics are notably hard on any children’s text that smacks of didacticism.
Pugh must be a firm believer in the saying, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief” because she makes Holly talks like this… “I will be healthy.” “Welcome to my world where exercising is fun.” “Fruits taste so good. They are sweet and juicy. They are healthy.” “When he [little brother Herbie] gets bigger, I will help him have fun eating right. I will help him exercise…He will be like me. I’m Holly and he will be Healthy Herbie.” Any kid with an ear will probably suspect they are being talked down to and the repetitive vocabulary and wooden rhythm of the dialogue is anything but engaging. And what kind of payoff does Holly offer young readers for following her tips? “Eating healthy and exercising will help you to live longer like your grandparents.” It takes a while for children to correlate change with time, so will this pitch resonate, much less make sense, to the intended audience for the Healthy Holly books?
Holly, with her brown skin, dark eyes, and Afro-textured hair seems to have been conceived as a role model for Baltimore’s children of color. But these images of her on the back covers suggest that the character were drawn by three artists working largely independently without conferring about continuity. Or were the differences deliberate? Holly could be of Near Eastern descent. Or African-American. Maybe even Filippino or LatinX.
Holly’s world isn’t described in much detail–Pugh left that job to Andre Forde who was enthusiastic about the mayor’s campaign to help children. He never met her. He considers himself as an entrepreneur rather than an artist, so he probably farmed out the illustrations to other people in his organization or outside contractors. Whoever did them, the illustrations depict a generic cityscape in Candyland colors, where there are clean, green parks to play in and quiet streets where bikes can be ridden three abreast. Her fit, full-figured mother has the time to walk her to the library during the day, as if she doesn’t have employment outside the home. Holly’s intact nuclear family lives in a comfortable, well-furnished house and sits down at night to a home-cooked dinner, not fast food or takeout.
Pugh preaches the benefits of Holly’s healthy lifestyle as if it didn’t cross her mind how hard it might be for many families to emulate it. This comes out most clearly in Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow. Holly’s family does not live in a food desert and the food budget is sufficiently generous that her parents can take her on an educational trip to the grocery store where she’s allowedto chose fruits that match the favorite colors in her crayon set (Holly, who looks seven or eight in this book, is surely too old to be thrilled by this proposition). The scenes in the produce department look as if they were created by someone who has never gone food shopping. The strawberries, cherries, and blueberries, which have not been drawn to scale, are packed loose instead of in containers. (Examine the pictures carefully and you’ll see that some of the fruits have been drawn and others Photoshopped in). Instead of bagging the fruits and arranging them carefully to protect the delicate ones, Holly and her mother just pile them into the cart, where they are will get bumped and squashed before they check out.
The mixed messages of the Healthy Holly books may be the result Pugh’s inexperience as a writer, more than her desire to find alternative sources to finance her political ambitions. Whatever the circumstances and motivations, these amateurish picture books are on a par with most children’s books being published outside normal trade channels. Pugh didn’t have to rely on Amazon.com to distribute her works, having set up an LLC for the purpose. For less savvy writers, Amazon offer a means to promote values they believe are not being voiced loud enough by the majority culture. Forgoing the services of a professional editor may be seen as a trade-off worth taking: knowing that the message will not be diluted may be more important to the aspiring author than good grammar, attention to accidentals, and competent production.
In the end, it comes down to this: why would a young reader trust Holly as an exemplar? She acts as if she would never ever sit on the couch watching cartoons, drinking soda, and crunching Pringles. Doesn’t she ever struggle to overcome the temptation to eat tasty foods laden with salt, sugar, and preservatives that are full of empty calories? Her mom knows her nutrition and has the money to buy accordingly. But what about a working mom without access to decent grocery stores, money to buy fresh produce, and time to cook? In Holly’s fantasy world it’s no more complicated than just saying “No,” which is, of course, a big, fat lie. Aspiring and doing are two different things and the ability to do so may depend largely on the socio-economic class a person belongs to.