Spiralling into political indoctrination? (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

March 3, 2023   6 mins

Chaya Raichik, owner of the popular twitter account Libs of Tiktok, has announced she is publishing a children’s book. No More Secrets: The Candy Cavern tells, according to reports, “the story of Rose, a second-grade lamb whose new teacher is more bent on giving his pupils sweets than teaching them about counting and reading”. Rose faces a dilemma: should she do what Mr Wooly asks and keep the sweets a secret, or should she tell her parents? Rose plumps for the latter — luckily for her, because in a stunning plot twist, Mr Wooly the teacher turns out to be a wolf.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed it, readers, but it seems that No More Secrets is not just about lambs, wolves, and sweets. No, it’s also about teachers changing the pronouns and otherwise affirming the gender identities of school children behind parents’ backs. Self-described queer educators are a staple of Libs of TikTok, along with other narcissists filming themselves doing or saying nonsensical things in the name of social justice: transwomen complaining about their non-existent periods, white women castigating other white women for denying they’re racist, drag queens pole dancing for babies, and so on. Raichik offers these snippets up to her 1.9 million followers daily, for general Right-wing mockery and headshaking about moral decline.

Raichik’s enemies loathe her, presenting her as anti-LGBT and far-Right. Whether or not that’s true, based on the evidence available, we at least can say with confidence that she’s no Roald Dahl. Never mind the wise author’s rule of “show, don’t tell” — Raichik can’t even seem to manage “tell, don’t send readers into a coma”. An advertised book extract describes the moment where Rose the lamb breaks down and confides in her parents over a game of Scrabble:

“‘Oh Rose, that’s not good,’ said her father. ‘It’s important you let us know right away if anyone tells you to keep a secret from us.’ So Rose told her parents everything about the candy and Mr. Wooly. Rose’s father put his arm around her and encouraged her, letting her know that she had done the right thing by coming to him. Rose felt very thankful that she was honest and that her parents helped her with this tricky situation.”

Crushing as this style is, Raichik’s book fits squarely within an emerging genre in children’s publishing, whose function is to counter-indoctrinate children from the Right in the most bluntly obvious of ways. Classics of the genre already include Matt Walsh’s Johnny The Walrus, about a small boy who likes dressing up as a walrus, until his mother gets pressured by the “internet people” to take him to the doctor to have his hands and feet surgically turned into flippers. (I think we can all see where Matt is going with this.)

And then there’s The Parrots Go Bananas!, also from Raichik’s publisher, Brave Books — the tale of a band of parrots determined to ruin the reputation of two monkeys, Bongo and Asher. This was written by Sean Spicer, a former White House Press Secretary and Acting Communications Director for Donald Trump, in order to “reveal the danger of spreading lies”. Brave Books has a lot of other titles too: Little Lives Matter, for instance, about the sanctity of early life, and The Island of Free Ice-Cream, about capitalism versus communism. Indeed, for those with some time on their hands, I recommend the Brave Books website as the source of a fun new game — guess the culture war angle, based on book titles alone! Elephants Are Not Birds may be an easy one to begin with (gender again), but how about Paws Off My Cannon? Is this about the perils of excessive masturbation or the importance of the Second Amendment? (Answer: the latter).

The Right didn’t start this, of course. In 1920, Nikolai Bukharin wrote under Soviet communism that “the salvation of the young mind and the freeing of it from the noxious reactionary beliefs of their parents is one of the highest aims of the proletarian government”.  Back then, the Left-wing preference was for children’s stories about selfless workers versus the evil bourgeoisie. These days it’s all gay penguin dadsmermaids called Julian, and anti-racist babies. But whether from Right or Left, if you strongly disagree with a particular political ideology and yet see it writ large across a hundred texts aimed at children, it can feel imperative to fight back hard. Children are literally the future, after all. To some, it may seem obvious that, where one political side is desperately trying to indoctrinate the young, the other should adopt just as aggressive counter-measures in response. I’m not so sure, though.

For a start, it’s an open question whether any of these books work on kids as intended. Granted, if Facebook is anything to go by, the world is not short of children parroting favoured political attitudes to the delight of their parents — “so proud of this kiddo for coming out to the pro-life/anti-abortion [delete as appropriate] rally with me, and even making her own placard!” etc. — but that hardly establishes anything Freud hasn’t already explained. And we can’t tell for sure to what extent reading one particular book, or a few, actually shapes young minds, given how hard it is generally to associate any single childhood influence with moral development in a particular direction. The combined cultural forces coming at a child are immense and overwhelming, and rarely can be reduced to any single particularly influential factor.

What does seem true is that, in the short term at least, heavy-handed moralising tends to send some contrarian-minded children to the opposite pole out of sheer rebelliousness. Had my junior self been confronted by drippy Rose the lamb and her overbearingly sanctimonious parents, l feel I might well have been tempted to run straight into the arms of the nearest blue-haired, non-binary teaching assistant, begging to be rescued.

And there’s also the fact that, for each of these books to work as they are supposed to, the young reader should already have been exposed to the ideas of the ideological enemy. In reality, though, very few kids are likely to encounter both side of the aisle — and especially not given the sort of parent who would buy these books in the first place. Without insight into the other side, books such as Raichik’s and Walsh’s won’t make much sense to a young reader at all. Without knowing that Walsh’s story about the boy who dresses up as a walrus implicitly critiques the practice of medically transitioning youths, it reads like an inexplicably gruesome horror story – the mother wants to do what to her son? Surgically carve his hands into flippers? Equally, without prior exposure to the Right, children are not going to know there is any special ethical significance to the idea of gay penguin dads. They will probably just assume they are learning facts about the natural world.

But the biggest problem with any of these political forays into children’s publishing is that they are a performative war between two sets of adults that basically hate each other, with young minds as the battle terrain to be won or lost. Apart from anything else, this makes the books in question very boring. The best and most engaging children’s literature captures something about being a child and reflects it back in a way that they can understand. It can be anarchic, dream-like, funny, or sad, but it must talk first and most directly to the child, and only second to any adults eavesdropping. Books written in order to wage culture wars against other adults are unlikely to do this.

In the way that books such as Raichik’s use children’s literacy for adult ends, they are not so far away from a different form of literature-based performance, also happening this week: World Book Day. Once a year, modern parents are expected to dress their kid up as a favourite book character for school, and many take up the call very enthusiastically. For others, it’s an exercise in humiliation. My own days of fishing madly about in a meagre dressing-up box at 8.45am shouting expletives are over, but I remember the feeling. And there was also the embarrassing fact that my children did not really like reading books at all, and certainly not the sort of books that would send the “right” signals to my peers. The high point of my World Book Day career, if you can call it that, was when my 10-year-old son went in clutching the Top Gear Annual, dressed as his favourite fictional character, Jeremy Clarkson. (At the time, I just felt relieved because we already had the cords and a jumper.)

With occasions such as World Book Day, just as with the parental purchase of books like Raichik’s or their Left-wing equivalent, there is a strong sense of performance for other tribe members, and of children being used as somewhat bemused pawns in adult games. In a world where smartphones and X-Boxes loom distractingly on the horizon for most adolescents, where reading for pleasure is dying out among adults, and where English degrees are disappearing from universities, it probably feels important for the middle-classes to convince themselves that their children still read books and not just TikTok captions.

It’s hard to predict the future of World Book Day, and other such attempts to tell ourselves that valuable things from the past are still safe in our hands. Perhaps the culture wars will eventually result in Rose the conservative lamb squaring up to Julian the progressive mermaid in playgrounds across the nation. More probably though, the whole performance is already on its way out. Though it will cling on for a while as a form of historical re-enactment — kids in strange costumes gingerly holding up books in assembly, pretending they know what to do with them — eventually it will die, along with the desultory habits of reading that were used to rationalise its existence. And helping the whole process along will be books about non-binary giraffes and communist ice-cream sellers, written by axe-grinding political obsessives, killing off childish excitement at the written word one heavily pointed sentence at a time.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.