The Radicalization of Bedtime Stories

More and more parents are buying picture books with politically progressive messages for their young children.

Children engage in a variety of activities in a playful scene.
An illustration from What Can a Citizen Do?, a new picture book by the novelist Dave Eggers (Shawn Harris / Chronicle Books)

More than 200 years ago, when books for children first became common, they delivered simple moral lessons about, for instance, cleanliness and the importance of prayer. Today, story time is still propelled by moral forces, but the issues have gotten a good deal more sophisticated.

In recent years, publishers have put out children’s books with political undertones and activist calls to action on topics ranging from Islamophobia to race to gender identity to feminism. “The trend has definitely exploded in recent years with the social-justice books and the activism books,” says Claire Kirch, a senior correspondent at Publishers Weekly who has been covering the book industry for 15 years.

For children of all ages, books about such charged topics are, in the words of one publishing executive, coming to be seen as more “retail-friendly.” This development applies all the way down to picture books—a category for which the intended audience and the buyers are two very different groups. In this sense, "woke" picture books can be thought of as products for parents, helping them distill some of the day’s most fraught cultural issues into little narrative lessons for their kids.

The wave of politicized children’s books has come more from the left than from the right. Kirch told me that “of the three publishers that are the most well known for publishing conservative books”—Center Street, Sentinel, and Regnery Publishing—“only one really has a kids’-book line.” That one is Regnery, which has put out titles such as Donald Drains the Swamp!, Land of the Pilgrims Pride (by Newt Gingrich’s wife, Callista), The Remarkable Ronald Reagan, and The Night Santa Got Lost: How NORAD Saved Christmas.

It seems there is more of an appetite for liberal-minded kids’ books: Kirch noted that another Regnery title—Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President, by Mike Pence’s daughter Charlotte and told from the perspective of the family’s pet rabbit—was far outsold by a parody of the book overseen by John Oliver’s HBO show that imagined the titular bunny to be gay.

All children’s books are political in the sense that their authors make choices about who to include and who to exclude, which values to promote and which to downplay. But lately there has been a proliferation of books for young children infused with themes that are dear to many political progressives. This year has seen the release of picture books with titles such as Dreamers and W Is for Welcome: A Celebration of America’s Diversity. These are the newest additions to a slate of progressive-minded mid-2010s children’s books such as A Is for Activist (which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies), Stepping Stones (about the journey of a Syrian refugee family, written in English and Arabic), and One of a Kind, Like Me/Único Como Yo (about a boy who wants to dress up as a princess for a school parade). Political biographies for young children are not a novelty, but lately many of them have had a feminist bent, including picture books about Elizabeth Warren, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (wife of Alexander).

Other recent titles are about civic involvement more generally, including What’s the Big Deal About Elections and the novelist Dave Eggers’s What Can a Citizen Do?, both out this fall. "We’ve definitely seen a lot published over the past year, and have every reason to expect that will continue,” said Stephanie Fryling, Barnes & Noble’s vice president of merchandising for children’s books, referring to the trend she’s seen of books about immigration and civics in particular.

These books are of course not the first to package political issues for the preschool set. Several classic children's books of the past few decades center around issues of diversity and representation, and were thus tied up in progressive causes as well: 1989’s Heather Has Two Mommies was a landmark for its treatment of same-sex parenting, 1997’s Nappy Hair focused on African American hairstyles and identity, and 2001’s Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart dealt with poverty.

Since then, the number of books featuring marginalized identities has increased. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison examines thousands of books for kids and teens published each year, and in 2015, it found that about 14 percent of American kids’ titles were about people who weren’t white. In 2017, this figure rose to 25 percent. “We have found, however, that the increase in the number of books about people of color is due to an increase in white authors writing about diverse characters,” the Center’s director, KT Horning, told me. “It does not mean that we are seeing more books by people of color.” Even so, diversity—in children’s books and in so many other parts of society—is these days a politicized issue, and an increasing focus on it in children’s books is a development that scans to some as liberal.

Some of the messages in politically oriented books, though, might be going over kids’ heads. Sharna Olfman, a psychology professor at Point Park University, in Pittsburgh, walked me through what children of different ages might be able to understand when reading or hearing stories with political themes. She told me that very young children can empathize with another’s feelings, but that it isn’t until “middle childhood”—roughly ages 5 to 11—that they can empathize with someone’s circumstances, like coming from another country or being unable to speak a certain language fluently. After age 11, kids can start to grasp the finer points of a political philosophy. For that reason, Olfman says it’s important to distinguish between “parroting the perspective of the author or the parent” and “deeply understanding” the issue at hand.

Laura Stoker, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, put it to me this way: “Kids know that they’re Democrats before they have any clue what a Democrat is.” Stoker thinks it’s possible that children’s books touching on politicized issues are representative of broader political polarization. “Parents who feel very strongly want to produce children who feel the way they feel and adopt their values,” she says.

Still, she noted that most American children actually aren’t raised with much political instruction. “That may sound crazy to those of us who came from very, very politicized homes, but the vast majority of Americans come from other kinds of homes where that's not true,” she says. Buying woke picture books may be a popular political statement for some parents, but it seems plenty of households don’t have any use for them.