Marlon Bundo and the Market for 21st-Century American Children’s Book Publishing

Am I the only person who remembers last March’s tempest in a tea pot?  When Last Week Tonight with John Oliver hustled into print a picture book allegedly about BOTUS Marlon Bundo (Bunny of the United States) a day before the publication date of the one by his owners Charlotte and Karen Pence, wife and daughter of Vice President Pence?

Independent booksellers called out Oliver for choosing Amazon as the distributor of a heart-warming but barbed story about the courtship and marriage of the rabbits Marlon and Wesley.  Its author Jill Twiss pointedly dedicated it to “every bunny who has ever felt different” and the last line is “it doesn’t matter if you love a girl bunny or a boy bunny, or eat your sandwich backward or forward.”  The first printing sold out overnight and for weeks Amazon couldn’t fulfill orders and offered no ship date without a word of apology.  I lost patience and got a copy within a few days from a small independent bookstore in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Oliver and  Company got its fifteen minutes of fame until the media moved on to less amusing but more important events as they erupted on the national scene.  The two books have continue to sell. Today on Amazon’s list of the one hundred best-selling children’s books about rabbits, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is number two after Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. Numbers four, seven, eight, and nine are, respectively Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny, Margery Bianco’s The Velveteen Rabbit, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and Brown’s The Runaway Bunny The Pences’ Marlon Bundo made number thirty-four, barely ahead of the Kindle edition of Last Week Tonight’s Marlon Bundo and Bunnicula in a Box.  I won’t analyze these titles because that would be breaking butterflies on wheels.  It won’t be long until the field will be left again to Bianco, Brown, and Potter.  The conventional plots and pleasant but forgettable illustrations will not make either Marlon Bundo book a contender for the 2018 Caldecott Medal, whatever your politics.

John Oliver’s baiting the vice president for his views on gay marriage was the only angle the media covered.   Nobody thought to cover it as a formidable case of industrial espionage: just how did the Last Week Tonight team obtain advance knowledge of the Pences’ book and rush their illustrated satire through the press on time?  The Marlon Bundo affair is also, I’d argue, a timely reminder that the prevailing view of the children’s book market centers on firms with mainstream liberal values.  We are much more likely to have heard of Chronicle Books, the publisher of A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, than Regnery Kids, the publisher of Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President.

Thanks to John Oliver and his merry pranksters, I  realized I had brushed up against the conservative book publisher’s existence when buying political children’s books during the 2016 election, but didn’t make the connection until later in March.   The motto of Regnery Kids is “Great Americans of today inspiring great Americans of tomorrow” and its brand consists of children’s books that are “non-partisan, entertaining, brilliantly written and illustrated by award-winning authors and artists.”  Its stable includes Fox News personalities such as Janice Dean and Rachel Campos Duffy and the nation’s ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, creator of the “Ellis the Elephant” series.  Regnery’s Little Patriot’s Press has at least six titles featuring Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts characters.

Who knew that Regnery is no newcomer to conservative publishing?  Founded in 1947, it has published notable writers like Russel Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., and Donald Trump. Since 1993, it has been a part of Eagle Publishing,  a subsidiary of Salem Media Group, which is owned by the very successful and wealthy Christian broadcasters Edward G. Atsinger II and his brother-in-law Stuart Epperson.

For the benefit of future scholars of twenty-first century American children’s book publishing, the collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library really should include good samples of books produced by firms like Regnery Kids, along with the better-known award-winning authors and illustrators, which have traditionally set the ethos and aesthetics for the genre.  Silently passing over Regnery would be like refusing to collect the eighteenth-century children’s book publisher John Marshall because of his involvement in the Cheap Repository Tract project masterminded by archconservative Evangelist Hannah More to make sure the masses had reading that wouldn’t radicalize them….

Reasons to Vote: Explaining the American Political Process to Kids

Election Day is just around the corner (November 8th!). No matter your political affiliation, I think we can all agree it’s been a wild ride. . .

Since this election is contentious and unprecedented in so many ways, who better to remind us of the importance of our civic duty than Mr. Peanut?

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in process item 7139032, front wrapper

Created by Joseph R. Fisher and brought to you by Planters Nut and Chocolate Company, The Historical and Educational Paint Book (1949), tells America’s children about important historical events in our history, explains our freedom-loving government structure, expresses the true character of American virtues, and advertises peanuts. . . all while providing blank illustrations for coloring!

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So, just in case you have forgotten why voting is an integral part of the democratic process, the folks at Planters are happy to remind you:

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But if you pay attention to the fine print above, you might be disappointed to learn that men (and only men) are deemed fit for the job of governance.

You might find that a little girl named Grace is a better fit for (class) president:

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in process item 7254973, front board

Grace for President (New York: Hyperion Books for Children, ©2008), written by Kelly Dipucchio and illustrated by Leuyen Pham, tells the story of a little girl who is puzzled and frustrated when she learns that America has never had a “girl president”. She decides to remedy the situation by declaring that she will become president some day, but that to begin her burgeoning political career, she’ll start with Woodrow Wilson Elementary’s mock election. But first, she’ll have to beat Thomas Cobb (and his burgeoning misogyny).

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 Grace ran a great campaign. But as we might (unlikely) see in just a few weeks, sometimes a tight election comes down to just a few electoral votes:

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And with Wyoming secured, Grace was able to snag that magic number of 270 electoral votes, thus paving the way for her dream o, one day becoming president of the United States.

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But if you don’t want Grace to be the president of your school, it is always your unalienable right to choose Donald Trump as your principal (or maybe not):

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A self-published endeavor, Trump for Principal is a “a children’s book for American grownups” written by Beth Schaefer and illustrated by Hasby Mubarok (Evanston, Illinois: Books On A Whim Inc., 2015). With a few illustrations that are just a little too crude to show on in a blog post about children’s literature, this satirical picture book portrays what a Trump Principality might look like, bolstered with bonafide Trump quotes to boot:

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Principal Trump crowns himself Mr. Universe, Page [32]

Principal Trump crowns himself Mr. Universe, Page [32]

A Trump style holiday party in the gym, Page [22]

A Trump-style holiday party in the gym, Page [22]

But of course, if Trump’s not your guy, who else is there?

Who could follow in the footsteps of these great leaders and role models?

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Not sure?

Don’t worry, our next book will tell you…

hilarytpspreadWritten by John Winter and illustrated by Raul Colon, Hillary. . . is not a satire (New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, [2016]). This picture book biography follows the courageous and industrious life of Hillary Clinton and her long career in politics. Who could forget the important advances she made for America when she became the inspiration for the “Texts from Hillary” meme with her iconic sunglasses?

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And, of course, this riveting and unbiased picture books ends with Hilary Clinton’s silhouette facing the dawn of America’s glorious future:

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Who said picture books aren’t propaganda?

Don’t forget to vote!