With a presidential election this year, our country’s past, present, and future are on everyone’s minds. As candidates and their teams work hard to sway voters with speeches, debates, and advertisements, publishers are hustling too, reaching out to inform readers with books.
In contrast to this year’s political books for adults—which skew toward tell-alls by Trump administration insiders and investigative journalists—political books for young readers go beyond personalities and current politics. Children’s books scheduled for release in 2020 for the most part provide an overview of what makes our country a democracy, with titles on the presidency, the Constitution, and voting rights. There are even books examining another essential component of civic participation in a democracy: activism and protest.
“It’s an interesting time,” says Charlesbridge executive editor Alyssa Pusey. “Such books are always so important, but especially this year; that’s why everybody is doing them.”
Of course, there are the usual biographies of politicians in the news, including two spring picture books about presidential candidates who may or may not be on the Democratic ticket come November: Elizabeth Warren’s Big, Bold Plans by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Susanna Chapman (Atheneum, May), and Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Levi Hastings (Holt, May).
According to Holt editorial director Christian Trimmer, even if Buttigieg does not win his party’s nomination this summer, “educators, booksellers, and parents are hungry for more LGBTQ+-themed picture books. Mayor Buttigieg is the first openly gay person to pursue the Democratic nomination for president. Regardless of what happens, Mayor Pete will always have that distinction. Plus he’s breaking down barriers for the next LGBTQ+ candidate, so his story matters beyond the 2020 election.”
Another publisher’s offering is not on a presidential candidate but rather on the women leaders in the legislative branch whose impact is also historic. Abrams is releasing in March a revised edition of Ilene Cooper’s A Woman in the House (and Senate). According to Howard Reeves, editor-at-large at Abrams, it was essential to update the book, which was originally published in 2014.
“So much has happened for women since then,” Reeves says. “Hillary Clinton ran for president and won the popular vote. Women have marched in solidarity in numbers never seen before; and the most diverse population of women was sent to Congress. We want girls and boys to learn what an incredible part women have played in America’s history, and what an important role they have today and will have tomorrow.”
Several new books focus on the office of the presidency rather than any individual inhabiting it (or aspiring to), including The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents by Kate Messner, illustrated by Adam Rex (Chronicle, Mar.); Election Connection: The Official Nickelodeon Guide to Electing the President by Susan Ring (Random House, July); and the Scholastic Book of Presidents 2020 by George Sullivan (Dec.).
Foundations of U.S. democracy
The Constitution has come under scrutiny, as President Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress have ratcheted up debate over executive vs. legislative powers. During the impeachment hearings and recent Senate trial, the Constitution was invoked repeatedly, both by those defending the president’s actions and those denouncing them.
This spring, Black Dog & Leventhal will release OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say? by Ben Sheehan (Apr.), which is not being marketed as a children’s book per se, but is written in what the publisher promises to be a “nonboring” style that should appeal to young readers. For middle grade readers, Workman is publishing The Constitution Decoded: A Guide to the Document That Shapes Our Nation and Your Rights by Katie Kennedy, illustrated by Ben Kirchner (Sept.). And DK believes it is never too young to learn about the Constitution; it is publishing The Constitution for Babies (May).
Two other publishers’ contributions focus on specific amendments. Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means by Christy Mihaly, illustrated by Manu Montoya (Albert Whitman, Apr.), explores the First Amendment, which addresses freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Whose Right Is It Anyway? The Second Amendment and the Fight Over Guns by Hana Bajramovic (Holt, June) addresses the debate over gun control.
Albert Whitman senior editor Wendy McClure says of Free for You and Me, “This is a good way for adults to sit down with children and share what these issues are all about. ‘It’s a free country’—people say this all the time. But what does that really mean? How are these rights that children hear about relevant to their daily lives?” McClure believes that there should be early education in schools about citizenship. “Learning about one’s rights and responsibilities,” she says, “is the building block of being a good citizen.”
As for Whose Right Is It?, Holt’s Trimmer points out, “Kids face daily reminders of the threat of gun violence in the form of metal detectors, clear backpacks, active shooter drills, and the like. Young people are at the forefront of the debate. Bajramovic looked at the entire history of the amendment, alongside state and federal gun legislation, to give young readers as much of the story as she could so that they can create informed opinions.”
Several books define democracy and explore what it means to live under such a system of government. These books, for readers ages 12 and up, include You Call This Democracy? How to Fix Our Government and Deliver Power to the People by Elizabeth Rusch (HMH, Mar.) and For Which We Stand by Jeff Foster (Scholastic, Sept.)
Three more books on the subject are intended for babies and toddlers, including two DK titles: When I Grow Up... Great Leaders (Mar.) and Baby’s First United States (May). Charlesbridge is publishing Baby Loves Political Science: Democracy! by Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Greg Paprocki (Apr.).
“Children are going to see a lot of messages, signs, and posters this year,” notes Spiro, creator of the Baby Loves Science series. As with those books, she says, she sought to take “complicated ideas” on a timely topic that would be of interest to parents and “distill them to their essence,” adding, “This book provides a simple way to explain what’s going on and why it’s important. It also makes the point that in an election, someone wins and someone doesn’t; but we all still have to work together.”
The avalanche in 2020 of children’s books about voting demonstrates the importance of citizen engagement, with titles ranging from picture books for toddlers to instruction manuals for teens voting for the first time. These books are pouring into the marketplace as primary season heats up, and will continue to be released throughout the summer and into the fall.
Straightforward titles on the importance of voting aim to educate young people about civic responsibility, regardless of whether or not they are old enough to cast a ballot this year. These titles include I Voted: Making a Choice Makes a Difference by Mark Shulman, illustrated by Serge Bloch (Holiday House/Porter, out now); Votes of Confidence, 2nd Edition: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections by Jeff Fleischer (Lerner/Zest, Mar.); Thank You for Voting: Young Readers Edition by Erin Geiger Smith (HarperCollins, June), whose edition for adult readers is coming out at the same time; V Is for Voting by Kate Farrell, illustrated by Caitlin Kuhwald (Holt, July); and A Vote Is a Powerful Thing by Catherine Stier, illustrated by Courtney Dawson (Albert Whitman, Sept.).
Neal Porter, who acquired I Voted: Making a Choice Makes a Difference, says, “I was surprised that there didn’t seem to be a book for young children that introduced voting at its most fundamental level—i.e., to vote is to make a choice—and our goal was to present this notion in an accessible and entertaining way. While kids can’t participate directly in the 2020 election, there are still many opportunities for them to vote—for their class pet or president, for instance—and to be introduced to other aspects of civic responsibility.”
Fights for voting rights
Some of the 2020 releases about voting emphasize not just the act itself, but that voting is a privilege, rather than a right automatically bestowed upon all citizens. People have fought for the right to vote from our nation’s beginnings up through the present day, as several new and forthcoming books point out, including Stolen Justice: The Struggle for African American Voting Rights by Lawrence Goldstone (Scholastic Focus, out now); Give Us the Vote!: Over Two Hundred Years of Fighting for the Ballot by Susan Goldman Rubin (Holiday House, Feb.); and Equality’s Call: The Story of Voting Rights in America by Deborah Diesen, illustrated by Magdalena Mora (S&S/Beach Lane, Feb.).
Scholastic Focus editorial director Lisa Sandell, who edited Stolen Justice, says the mission of the Focus imprint is to ensure that the next generation “comes up knowing how to think critically, and how to assess how the past influences the present and the future.” Explaining how Stolen Justice fits into that mission, Sandell notes that “suffrage is the most crucial right we have,” adding, “It’s important for young people to understand that the Constitution made promises of rights to all Americans, and these promises of rights were not granted to a huge swath of the population; it’s a problem that continues to this day” with, for example, voter rolls being purged in some states with large African-American populations, a move that many believe is being done to suppress voter turnout.
A number of 2020 releases commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, including Women Win the Vote! 19 for the 19th Amendment by Nancy B. Kennedy, illustrated by Katy Dockrill (Norton Young Readers, out now); How Women Won the Vote: Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Their Big Idea by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Ziyue Chen (HarperCollins, May); The Suffragist Playbook by Lucinda Robb and Rebecca Roberts (Candlewick, June); and History Smashers: Women’s Right to Vote by Kate Messner (Random House, July), part of Messner’s series of middle grade books on American history.
Young people have the power
Several books delve into the history of protest in this country, including Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Random/Schwartz & Wade, Feb.); Rise Up! The Art of Protest by Jo Rippon (Charlesbridge, Mar.); How to Make a Better World (DK, Mar.); Into the Streets: A Young Person’s Visual History of Protest in the United States by Marke Bieschke (Zest, May); and We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changed the World by Todd Hasak-Lowy (Abrams, Apr.).
Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights by Karen Blumenthal (Roaring Brook, Feb.) focuses on women’s roles in effecting political change both in the courts and through activism relating to one of the most divisive issues of our time. “There is no other comprehensive book on this subject for young people,” editor Emily Feinberg says, describing this book as “groundbreaking.” She adds, “We want to provide young people with the information and tools to enter this conversation meaningfully and confidently. The fight for abortion rights in America affects them; it affects all of us.”
Lerner executive editor Ashley Kuehl says, “Protest is a part of this country’s very fabric. Into the Streets is an overview of this tradition, with a lot of photos and other visuals that make it approachable for young readers. After all, young people are usually the ones doing the protesting.”
And Charlesbridge’s Pusey notes, “Young people can make a difference. Just because you are young doesn’t mean you should not be out there, trying to make the world a better place.” Rise Up! includes a history of activism in America, as well as sections on movements that have drawn in young people, and in some cases were initiated by them: the peace movement, women’s rights, the March for Our Lives against gun violence, the movement for LGBTQ civil rights, and, most recently, the fight against climate change propelled forward by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. “We want readers to realize that things don’t happen in a vacuum, that there are things that have come before,” Pusey says.
Though Abrams’s Reeves was referring specifically to We Are Power, his company’s spring release endorsing nonviolent activism and peaceful protest, he could have been talking about the impact of all of the above books when he expressed his hope that “kids today will see that they actually do have the power to make radical and important changes in our world.”