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Arts & Entertainment

Not Just Stories: Six Children’s Books For Fighting Fascism

After a Denton ISD assistant principal was reassigned for publishing a book starring alt-right memes, here is a list of kids’ books that promote equality.

School starts tomorrow in the Denton Independent School District. One person who will not be in attendance is Eric Hauser, former assistant principal at Rodriguez Middle School.

Hauser was removed from his position yesterday after coming under fire for his self-published children’s book, The Adventures of Pepe and Pede, which features two characters strongly associated with the so-called alt-right movement that enabled right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and white nationalists: Pepe the Frog and a centipede. In the book Pepe and Pede work together to save Wishington Farm from a bearded alligator named Alkah.

Pepe, a popular Internet meme who first appeared in 2005 in the online cartoon Boy’s Club, was co-opted by the alt-right and white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. Likewise, the seemingly innocuous term “centipede” has become associated with trolls for Trump. It’s a reference to an episode in a viral video series called “You Can’t Stump the Trump,” in which footage of a 2016 presidential debate is overlaid with audio from a nature documentary describing the nimble, predatory nature of the centipede.

It’s worth noting that the president has leaned into these appropriations, tweeting to his followers both the centipede video and images that depict himself and members of his team as Pepes.

Hauser disavowed having any knowledge of the blatantly racist connotations of both Pepe of the centipede, and Denton ISD initially claimed that they would not seek action. But the district relented and removed Hauser from his role on Monday. Superintendent Dr. Jamie Wilson cited the reason for Hauser’s removal: “Our community understands our primary focus is the education of our students. Anytime something occurs that becomes a distraction to the learning process, we will address it.”

He’s being reassigned to a role in the district outside administration or direct education.

As a resident of Denton and the mother of a young child, I was appalled that an assistant principal in my district would have the gall to a). Write and publish such a blatantly white nationalistic, racist book targeted at children, and b). Claim to have zero knowledge of the images’ association with the alt-right, while referencing two of the group’s most identifiable contemporary symbols. Even more disturbing is the shoulder-shrugging brushoff and/or outright defense of Hauser’s actions because of the notion that children’s books are merely harmless stories.

If you are a parent, you know how quickly your children pick up on things, and how quickly new developments in their imaginations become part of the everyday, part of your “normal.” The alt-right is steeped in the tradition of normalizing the obscene and despicable, and their tactic of co-opting existing imagery and symbols is a way of dividing the public over the rationalization of context and semantics. Take a familiar image, infuse it with hate, and watch the resulting confusion fracture communities. The Nazis are experts at this sort of overt/covert use of semiotics, particularly when appealing to children.

Therefore, the danger of dismissing a book such as Hauser’s as a one-off, a story, is playing directly into the sort of multi-tentacled approach with which white supremacists infuse their ideologies into the public domain.

To that end I have compiled a list of books that seek to counteract the kind of racist nationalism and linear thinking co-opted by right-wing extremist operatives. These are visually engaging while encouraging creative and critical thinking, social justice, empowerment, and provide historical and personal context when appropriate.

Brick by Brick, Guiliano Ferri: This wordless board book for little ones features two groups of animals who take down a wall and build a bridge to one another.  

Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, Edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel: Poems, short stories, and comics – 43 rare selections in all – carry a questioning spirit and promote equality, responsibility, civil rights, and hard work.

Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust, Eve Bunting: As difficult as it is to talk to kids about genocide, this book makes a case for speaking up when it looks like neighbors are in danger.

Maus, Art Speigelman: For older kids, a graphic novel and primer on how fear is passed down through generations when a group of people is oppressed.

Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, by Kay Haring (Author), Robert Neubecker (Illustrator): An example of art as coping mechanism, and a primer on the use of success and power to build others up.

The Story Of Ruby Bridges, Robert Coles: Vivid illustrations by George Ford serve the story of one of America’s youngest, bravest-ever activists.

More resources and booklists can be found at The Anti-Defamation League, Social Justice Books, Raising Race Conscious Children, and The Southern Poverty Law Center.

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