In an interview on The Colbert Report shortly before he died, Where the Wild Things author Maurice Sendak dismisses one of Colbert's children's book ideas as "so bad that it not only will sell, it will make pots and pots of money." Like Colbert's fictional counterpart, Mike Pence's family had the same idea when they released a book this week about their pet rabbit Marlon Bundo, Marlon Bundo's A Day in the Life of the Vice President. But just when they thought they had cornered the market on children's books about the First Bunny of the United States, Last Week Tonight staffer Jill Twiss wrote her own Bundo book, and it's not only much better than Pence's, but exposes the soullessness of it.
The Pence book, by his daughter Charlotte and her mother Karen, tells of, literally, a day in the life of the Vice President and his bunny who comes with him to work. The artwork depicts Marlon Bundo visiting famous government buildings, and teaching kids about his "Grampa's" important job. Here's an example of the book's prose, when Bundo accompanies Grampa to the Oval Office:
"Grampa has lots of meetings,
And other important events,
But the most important meeting is first,
That’s the one with the president!
“I love the Oval Office
With its fluffy carpet to walk on.
And I nibble on a carrot,
While Grampa and the president talk on.”
If you found yourself dozing off while reading this, don't worry, the rest of the book is just as bad too and I'm not saying this because I don't like Mike Pence: I'm saying this because his family's book insults the intelligence of its target audience. There's no plot, no characters to engage with, and no stakes in the story. The rhyme scheme assures that some adults may have some fun speaking it if they're forced to read it aloud, but who cares how well you can rhyme if your content is so unexciting? The only good thing about it is that if you read it to your kid before bed, they'll fall asleep before the end of page one.
The Pence book brings us back to a startling discovery from 1954, when the children's book world grew alarmed by a Life Magazine authored by John Hersey, who discovered that young kids didn't like reading because their teachers were forcing bland stories like Dick and Jane down their throats. With their simple sentence structure, the Dick and Jane books may have taught children basic vocabulary but their bland characters and non-existent storylines didn't engage them, making them uninterested to pursue reading on their own. In response to this development, Theodore S. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was asked by his editor to write a book "that first-graders can't put down."
Accompanied by a list of 300 or so words that they'd understand, Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat, a masterpiece of children's literature that will always engage young readers and adults. But the genius of that book comes not just come from his illustrations or his rhyme scheme, but from Seuss's message that it's OK to get in a little bit of trouble as long as you act responsibly to pick up the pieces, as the Cat does. This isn't the kind of thing that kids think about when they read it - heck, I didn't even realize it until I was in my 20s - but it's there all the same. Other authors like Sendak and Tomi Ungerer followed Seuss's lead, writing books with unconventional protagonists and strong morals that would offer lessons to young readers without being didactic.
Just as The Cat in the Hat responded to the vanilla Dick and Jane, Last Week Tonight's Marlon Bundo book shows up Pence's by offering a story with distinct characters and a strong message of accepting others for their differences. Bundo, who falls in love with a male rabbit named Wesley, wants to marry him so they can "hop together forever," and all the other animals in their garden agree. But then the villainous Stink Bug (who sports Mike Pence's hairstyle) says they can't. This excerpt shows how author Jill Twiss engages her readers, speaking directly to them instead of down to them:
"Let me tell you a bit about The Stink Bug. The Stink Bug was In Charge. He was Important. None of the other animals could quite work out why he was In Charge or how he was Important, but he was. And that meant he made the rules. That meant all the animals listened to him even though he was - and this is true - very stinky."
This kind of prose engages both kids and adults by being fun to read. What's more, it teaches children about storytelling, since children's books with no obstacles to overcome, like Dick and Jane and the Pence-Bundo book, aren't enough to satisfy them. And while the book's message is blunter than The Cat in the Hat, it never feels didactic, since Twiss keeps subverting our expectations right to the very end. Not only does she teach the kids about democracy by having the animals stage an election to kick out the Stink Bug, but she even has Bundo and Wesley's wedding ceremony officiated by a lesbian cat who brings her wife - reminding young girls who feel different that they can see themselves in
Even though the two books have only been available to the public for a day, Last Week Tonight's has far outsold Pence's, and it's currently number one on Amazon (Pence's is a lowly six.) Surely this will disappoint them, but what will no doubt make them even angrier is that a book which uses their rabbit to teach kids tolerance towards gays is getting more traction than theirs. Make sure you buy a copy for your kids, or even for yourself - you'll not only be rewarding the LGBTQIA charities that receive the proceeds, but you'll read a heartwarming story that reminds us what the best children's literature can do.
And in case Pence and his family retaliate by praising Marlon Bundo's namesake as a true man's man, just remind them of the rumors about Brando's alleged bisexuality and then see how they respond.