The Magazine

Bedtime Stories

Matt Labash, doting father.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By MATT LABASH
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I'm not against children's literature, though I'm not exactly for it either. Books make kids smart. Smart kids grow into smart young adults. And smart young adults will eventually compete with us in the workforce, hastening our obsolescence. As I tell young people when they ask me how to get started in journalism: "First and foremost, shut the books and watch lots more television, preferably cable news." I can feel them dropping IQ points by the minute.

Since I wish my own kids no competitive disadvantage (someone has to take care of me when writing opinion journalism has been outsourced to Bangalore), there are children's books aplenty in our house. Not that they get read by me. I leave the reading to my wife, partly because, though she's only in her 30s, she reads as well as most 40-year-olds, but mainly because I'm in the words business, and after a punishing day of reading ugly news and celebrity-hate sites, I'd rather look at pretty pictures.

On nights I tuck my sons in, I'll often bring my laptop and crank up the YouTube. We have our own story time of sorts. I show them favorite musicians and natural wonders and men fishing for mako sharks off kayaks. I pose deep philosophical questions, such as, "Who do you think would win in a fight, a jaguar or an anaconda?" Then we check it out. If I have trouble holding their attention, I go to the money question: "Who wants to watch a fat kid fall off a bike?" "I do!" they'll clamor in unison.

I am not teaching them cruelty, I am merely teaching them hard truths. Fat kids have a more difficult time sticking the dismount when jumping dirt bikes. That's not sizeism. That's physics. If you object to this parenting method, your quarrel isn't with me, but with the Laws of Science.

This being election season, however, I recently decided to resume reading duty when a review copy of a new "children's book" came my way, Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope. I am violently against poisoning children with politics. While my own prejudices are legion and on display, as I rail against both Democrats and Republicans around the house, dyspeptic as Archie Bunker, I don't encourage my children to follow suit.

If I wanted them to blindly accept agitprop, I'd put them in one of those madrassas like young Barack Obama studied in when he was learning how to become a terrorist. Rather, I want my kids to be freethinkers. They shouldn't inherit my opinions as some kind of birthright. They should work through complexities and come to their own understanding, so that they adopt my opinions as theirs in the fullness of time.

Not everyone is as fair-minded. There are many political children's books of a questionable nature these days, from Why Mommy is a Democrat and It's Just a Plant: A Children's Story of Marijuana on the left, to Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed! and Help! Mom! The 9th Circuit Nabbed the Nativity! on the right. I'd rather bring skin magazines and loaded guns into my kids' room than this innocence-defiling political porn.

But since my 8-year-old, Luke, is obsessed with presidents (he can recite them all in reverse order), and since Obama seems a pleasant enough fellow who will likely be the next one, I figure I'll give this short bio a go. It's a mistake. From the opening line, which reads, "One day Hope stopped by for a visit," my kids seem puzzled. "Who's she?" asks my 5-year-old, Dean.

From there, it's a propaganda bake-off, a saccharine ball of mush, seasoned with schmaltz and battered in treacle. To give but one example, young Obama does not merely go for a jog along the Hudson River, he notices "the river of hurt and hate and history that separated blacks and whites. ... Don't worry, said Hope. I will be your bridge. In time, you will be the bridge for others."

I want my kids to learn something about Obama, not to worship him as Barack H. Christ, as though they were Messianic cultists or MSNBC hosts. In one illustration, Obama actually has his hands outstretched in J.C.'s trademark come-unto-me-ye-little-lambs pose, his silhouette outlined in glittery stardust that looks like fireflies. Fortunately, my kids are hard sells. "Why are moths eating Barack Obama?" asks Dean.

I have another book on deck that came as part of the set: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight. "Is she the lady who still wants to be president?" asks Luke. But I can't bring myself to read it. Tomorrow night, I tell the boys, we'll do something more healthy, wholesome, and thought-provoking.

We'll watch fat kids fall off their bikes.

MATT LABASH