Bongo the gorilla has a problem. Well, two of them. First, a group of hyenas armed with coconut cannons is invading his village and snatching the residents’ cupcakes. To make matters worse, Bongo wants to shoot the invaders with his own coconut cannon, but some of his peacenik animal neighbors want to outlaw all cannons, instead. When the cannon-control advocates get pelted with coconuts in a hyena attack, Bongo pulls out his arsenal and shows them the error of their ways. The best way to stop a bad cartoon animal with a gun is with a good cartoon animal with a gun.
That’s the message, at least, in Paws Off My Cannon, a children’s book co-written by former National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch and published by a year-old Texas company called Brave Books. As a political allegory, the story leaves certain issues unaddressed: What happens if the hyenas get their paws on military-grade coconuts? Would background checks make it harder for hyenas to get cannons in the first place? But Brave Books, with its growing catalog of brightly-colored paperbacks, isn’t aiming for nuanced arguments. Its goal is something bigger: to become a literary hub for the wee and anti-woke, searing a conservative viewpoint — and, sometimes, conservative talking points — into the youngest minds.
Brave Books tackles conservatism issue by issue, and practically news cycle by news cycle, aided by a set of celebrity co-authors who lend their bona fides and visibility. In addition to Loesch, Dinesh D’Souza and his wife, Debbie, co-wrote a book about the dangers of socialism, featuring a fox who tries to price-fix pies. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw co-wrote an allegory about cancel culture, centered on a swan who punishes animals who offend her. Lesser far-right stars have co-authored books meant to challenge abortion, transgender identity and critical race theory.
And last spring, in its biggest splash so far, the company published former Donald Trump defense aide Kash Patel’s The Plot Against the King, a storybook about the Steele dossier. “Let’s put this amazing book in every school in America,” Trump posted on Truth Social when it came out.
How does one turn the Russiagate saga into a children’s book? Transpose it to a medieval kingdom called the Land of the Free, toss in multiple puns — the knights’ shields read “MKGA” — and cast the political players as heroes and villains. Patel himself is the book’s protagonist, a wizard decked in blue-green robes named Kash the Distinguished Discoverer, who teams up with his loyal friend Duke Devin to defend King Donald against Hillary Queenton. There’s a sinister messenger named Keeper Komey, a set of unreliable heralds whose banners read “Post” and “NYT,” and multiple references to a “steel box” containing slime.
Someone who spent the bulk of 2021 internalizing cable news might understand what these books are all about. But it’s hard to imagine that person would be a child.
Brave Books might represent the peak of the children’s book wars, a proxy fight over cultural values that are playing out over school library shelves and bedtime stories. The mainstream publishing industry, trying to make up for a decades-long lack of diversity in children’s books, has been putting out scores of new titles with main characters of color, LGBTQ themes, and sometimes, explicit lessons about racism. Conservatives have responded with a new wave of book banning, from efforts to strip books from libraries to laws that restrict the kinds of stories schools can share with children. And some are taking a page from the alternative-media playbook and launching competing publishing companies — others have names like Heroes of Liberty and Conservakids — railing against liberal indoctrination as they attempt indoctrination of their own.
In this arms race for young minds, Brave Books stands out for its naked politics. Where many liberal books promote the soft politics of inclusiveness, and many conservative books promote generalized patriotism, Brave Books are thinly veiled political diatribes, cast with brightly-colored animal menageries and marketed to parents as an antidote to “wokeness.” “PREPARE YOUR KIDS TO FIGHT AGAINST LIES,” reads the company’s website.
The pitch might well appeal to far-right culture warriors with kids and grandkids and nieces and nephews. But whether the books will appeal to actual children seems, if not an afterthought, then at least a secondary question. The main goal isn’t to create great literature — relatable, lyrical, moving, emotionally resonant — but scoring political points. And that raises a big question about Brave Books and anyone else with designs on training young minds: Can you win the culture wars without actually caring about culture?
Brave Books was founded by an ophthalmologist named Trent Talbot; his LinkedIn page says he specializes in cataract surgery. Making the media rounds in the summer of 2021, he described an epiphany a year earlier, when his first child was born and he started surveying the children’s media landscape. At the time, Talbot told Fox Business’s Larry Kudlow, Ibram X. Kendi’s picture book Antiracist Baby was topping the Amazon sales charts; Netflix was airing the French film “Cuties,” which included scenes of twerking 11-year-olds; and a new Nancy Drew mystery featured a gender nonconforming character. “Yeah, Nancy Drew, they got Nancy,” Talbot noted, explaining why he decided to counterprogram.
Brave Books did not respond to my request to speak with Talbot. But in a podcast this past June with Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow, Talbot said he started the company from scratch, and didn’t seek out established children’s book writers to create the catalog. “I put together this amazingly creative sort of ragtag group of people basically from my local church,” he said. He recruited celebrities to lend their fame and their favorite issues and set up a subscription model. (A new volume comes every month at $18.99 per book, with a slight discount if you pay for a year upfront.)
With the exception of The Plot Against the King, which Talbot has described as “a one-off,” the Brave Books stories are set in a magical alternate universe called Freedom Island, filled with talking animals and conservative buzzwords. Each book comes with a fold-out map marked with villages and mountain ranges; the southwestern corner is marked “Car-a-Lago Coast.” The main nemesis is a vulture named Culture — subtlety is not the guiding principle here — who tries to poison innocent animals with progressive ideas. In the company’s first book, a parable about gender identity called Elephants Are Not Birds, Culture gives an elephant a beak and a set of fake wings and watches as he plummets out of a tree.
Each Brave Books entry also comes with an afterword for parents, filled with suggested games and discussion questions to drive home political concepts; much of it gives off the quasi-fun vibe of educational workbooks, math flashcards and cutthroat third-grade dodgeball. Following a reading of Paws Off My Cannon, parents are instructed to steal cupcakes from their children, while the kids are told to fight back by throwing wadded-up balls of paper at their parents. (The overarching message appears to be that more ammunition works better than less.)
Discussion questions can veer into the weeds of policy, in case kids missed any nuances in the book — Paws Off My Cannon, for instance, contains an implicit instruction to follow local gun laws, even if you don’t like them. (“Sighing a deep sigh, Bongo packed up all his cannons and pushed them across the river.”) Sometimes, kids are simply urged to ignore what they’re hearing from outside the conservative bubble. As a chaser to Elephants Are Not Birds, the book suggests that parents blindfold their children, speak in a fake voice to mimic the book’s evil vulture — “Make it sound how you imagine Culture would sound,” the book advises, which would be what? Whoopi Goldberg? Chuck Schumer? — and give false directions through the house so they bump into furniture. “What happened when you trusted Culture’s voice?” parents are told to ask their kids. “What are some places you can hear things that aren’t true?”
I reached out to Brave Books and some of its authors, asking to talk about sales figures and the general public reception, and heard back from only one: Ashley St. Clair, a young conservative influencer who co-wrote Elephants Are Not Birds, who responded with a single word, “No.”
Talbot told Breitbart’s Marlow that The Plot Against the King had sold 40,000 copies. A message a few months earlier on a writers’ job board, posted by a Brave Books staffer, advertised a job for a middle-grade writer and noted that the company overall had sold 70,000 books so far.
If that’s true, Brave Books has a ways to go before it catches up to some of the biggest sellers; Antiracist Baby has sold more than 300,000 copies since 2020, according to Nielsen BookScan, while The Pigeon HAS to Go To School!, a book with zero political content, has sold more than 500,000 copies since 2021.
Still, the book industry has evolved to create opportunities for an upstart company like Brave Books. In the early 1990s, 90 percent of children’s book sales went to libraries, which have extensive vetting processes for new acquisitions, says Stephen Mooser, co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Now, libraries purchase only 35 or 40 percent of new children’s books. Schools and churches might buy them in bulk. And today, Mooser says, “a lot of book sales go to parents who were read to by their parents at night.”
The use of literature to train young minds is as old as children’s literature itself. The first English-language books for children were the Horn Books, religious books that came out in the 1500s, and were filled with scripture passages and warnings about the devil. “Very literally, they were written to scare the hell out of children so that they didn’t go to hell,” says Kathy Short, a University of Arizona professor who runs an annual conference on children’s books.
Nor is it new to infuse a children’s book with political content, says Leonard Marcus, an expert on children’s books and the author of Show Me A Story: Why Picture Books Matter and a 2021 book about children’s book censorship, You Can’t Say That! In the years just after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, whose wife was a schoolteacher, enlisted some of the best illustrators and graphic designers in the new Soviet Union to create books for children, embedded with communist philosophy. One such book, Tsirk (The Circus), highlighted the way people —and an elephant — work collectively to make a circus succeed. “He understood very clearly the power of children’s books to shape ideology,” Marcus says. (Stalin later kept the program but “took the art part away and made the books very grim-looking,” he says.)
Sometimes, though, readers have imagined a political message in children’s books where none was intended, Short says: In 1963, a handful of states banned Leo Lionni’s picture book Swimmy, the story of a small black fish who meets a school of small redfish. To scare off predators, the fish work collectively to arrange themselves into the shape of a big redfish with a black eye. Some readers thought it was a sleeper story about communism.
Today, the hot-button issues are critical race theory, LGBTQ themes and, to hear some conservatives complain about it, an overall “woke” vibe that amounts to brainwashing. Many new titles celebrate multiculturalism and tolerance in broad terms; in the weeks leading up to the school year, the New York Times bestseller list for children’s picture books included three different books about diversity in schools. Some offer more pointed lessons about race; a kids’ version of the 1619 Project spent weeks on the Times’ bestseller list this year. Everyone wants to get in on the market: Pottery Barn Kids sells a “Conscious Kid Picture Story Books Bundle,” a set of seven board books with titles like Dreamers and We Are Water Protectors, for $127.
Some titles almost feel as if they’re trolling the right, and provoking the desired response: “There is something deeply sinister happening in the world of children’s literature,” the conservative writer Bethany Mandel warned in The Spectator in 2021, citing a book called The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish.
Whether the bulk of these books constitutes fresh perspectives or liberal indoctrination is often in the eye of the beholder. Short argues that the best literature invites children to imagine different points of view. Many new books — such as When Aidan Became a Brother, about a transgender child, or Dreamers, about a mother and son who are immigrants — “aren’t about morality as much as they are about reflecting the experiences of people in the world,” she contends.
But conservatives question which experiences children should be exposed to, and when, and where. Since 2021, at least 17 states have imposed bans or restrictions on the types of books that can be taught in school or stocked in school libraries, according to Education Week. In 2021, the American Library Association recorded a record number of challenges to books in school and public library collections, mostly over titles centered on race or sexuality. In May, State Farm stopped sponsoring a group called the GenderCool Project, which distributes books about transgender and nonbinary identity to elementary schools and libraries, after a publicity campaign from the conservative group Consumers’ Research. (The group had launched a website, “likeacreepyneighbor.com.”)
Historically, censorship has been hard on librarians and teachers, but it often improves the sales of individual books, Marcus says. (The list of once-feared classics is a distinguished one, from Where The Wild Things Are to Harriet The Spy to A Wrinkle In Time.) And children have a way of finding what they want, Marcus says. In the 1970s, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret — the target of censors for its frank discussions of sex and religion — became a bestseller when it went into paperback. It happened to be right around the time when B. Dalton started selling books in shopping malls, Marcus said. Pre-teens slipped into the stores and bought the cheap paperbacks in droves, and the mall retail staff didn’t know enough about books or culture wars to steer them in another direction.
For some liberals and conservatives alike, it’s tempting to imagine that a book could change a child’s worldview forever. That idea has spawned numerous book projects from the right, such as a series called The Tuttle Twins, written by the head of a conservative Utah think tank. The series’ website promises that each book explains “a different aspect of the principles of a free society: free markets, competition, individual rights, the non-aggression principle.” From the left, there’s a picture book for three-to-seven-year-olds called Race Cars: A Children’s Book about White Privilege, which seems equally not fun. When I spoke to Short, she pulled out a copy of Antiracist Baby and read a passage aloud: “Nothing disrupts racism more than when we confess / the racist ideas that we sometimes express.” We both paused to imagine how this might go down at bedtime. “I think this is written for the parents,” she concluded. “This is not a book for a baby.”
Still, there’s a soft space between political values and standard children’s book values, and it tends to be owned by liberals. Books implicitly endorsing inclusion, tolerance of LGBTQ people, and celebration of different races and cultures dovetail a bit more neatly with classic themes of wonder, curiosity and emotional expression. Dreamers has a clear pro-immigrant message, but it’s presented in a poetic swirl, with abstract text about the joy of discovering new places and the love between a mother and a son.
The Brave Books fare, by contrast, doesn’t have a lot to do with emotion; its cartoon animals are cute(ish) but somewhat lacking in inner lives, and its on-the-nose political allegories feel at once too abstract and too specific for the average five-year-old to understand. It’s as if the company imagined what a theoretical kid would like (Gorillas!) but gave less thought to what the kid might be able to relate to. (Gorillas with coconuts strapped onto their chests like ammunition, expressing the right to bear arms?)
Mooser, who has written more than 60 children’s books, predicts that young readers will know the difference. “Kids are not stupid,” he says. “And they can see that somebody’s trying to teach them a moral of some kind.”
On the other hand, Marcus says, it’s hard to know for sure how children will react. Often, kids are influenced by their families, and they want to like books that are given to them by people they care about. In other cases, they tend to declare their own taste. Marcus wrote a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the author of the classic Goodnight Moon. But his own son thought Goodnight Moon was boring.
From a librarian’s standpoint, the best way to respect young readers is to vet books for quality, and offer a range of options that account for different tastes and worldviews. The American Library Association arms librarians with criteria for adding to their collection, says ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada: supporting intellectual freedom, encouraging debate, offering opposing viewpoints. “What we like to emphasize also,” she says, “is that simply having access to books does not necessarily change one’s ideology.”
The Williamsburg Regional Library in Williamsburg, Virginia, carries political children’s books of all stripes, assistant library director Sandy Tower told me — including The Plot Against The King, which was purchased at a patron’s request. (Williamsburg is one of a handful of library systems across the country that carries the book; in several cases, librarians told me, it was donated by a library user.) “We do try to have a diversity of viewpoints available for our users,” Tower says. But the most popular titles, by far, are the “Pete the Cat” series, Dragons Love Tacos and the collected works of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! creator Mo Willems.
Those books are all silly, fantastical, slyly poetic, fully detached from the news cycle and deceptively difficult to pull off well. “Picture books are considered extremely difficult to write,” Short says. “I remember Ezra Jack Keats” — the author of the 1962 classic The Snowy Day — “saying that it would take him a year to get a picture book down to 50 words.”
That could be the ultimate obstacle to Brave Books’ goal of embedding ideas into children’s minds: even the ones that rhyme are precisely the opposite of poetry. At the end of the D’Souzas’ anti-socialism book, Freedom Day the Asher Way, the title character reflects on what he has learned about macroeconomics through his ill-fated pie pricing experiment: “I cannot control what prices should be. / The market works best when everyone’s free.” As bedtime fare, it’s a far cry from Goodnight Moon. (On the flip side, it could really help a child fall asleep.)
Sometimes it takes an expert to distinguish between a storybook and an agenda. When a librarian in Williamsburg reviewed The Plot Against the King after its initial lending, Tower says, she decided it belonged in a different category altogether: adult political satire.