The contemptuous disregard is astounding.
That’s the conclusion I came to after reading Rush Limbaugh’s first book for children, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, and its just-published sequel, Rush Revere and the First Patriots. I decided to tackle them after the children’s-literature world went ballistic at Limbaugh’s nomination for Children’s Choice Award Author of the Year. Watching the controversy unfold, it was clear to me that virtually none of the hand-wringers had actually read Limbaugh’s book about a time-traveling substitute teacher—someone had to, after all, so why not me?
I have to say, I really hoped that the book would be good. Part of this is because I am a free-speech absolutist, and the troublemaker in me liked the idea of taking on the anti-Rush hordes. Another part is because I was about to spend a chunk of my precious free time reading it. But mostly I was really, really hoping that the zillions of children who’d been given the book by the throngs who propelled it onto the best-seller list would be spending their time with a good book rather than a bad one. And the verdict?
God-awful. I mean really, breathtakingly, laughably terrible.
It’s not Limbaugh’s politics that bug me, though they are hard to miss. Narrator Rush ascribes the Pilgrims’ catastrophic mortality rate in the first winter to an ill-considered attempt at communitarianism rather than the fact that they settled, weakened by a harrowing two-month crossing of the Atlantic, in a notoriously harsh climate after the growing season had ended. (Rush and his student Tommy coax William Bradford to the realization that “Perhaps a little competition could be healthy!”) And the historical narrative that he promotes is without doubt the received narrative that was taught in classrooms throughout the 20th century and has been challenged by proponents of a more complex consideration of history.
No, it wasn’t the content that bothered me, though I tend to disagree with it; it was everything else.
The illustrations comprise semirelevant photos, archival images and thoroughly amateurish digital collages that look starkly out of place against the faux parchment backgrounds. (One is a gratuitous image of Rush holding up a bottle of his Two If by Tea iced tea.) The writing is just as rough. Take for instance this scene, in which Principal Sherman preps Ms. Borrington’s honors history class for their substitute teacher, Rush Revere, who waits outside the door.
“You know that at Manchester Middle School we have the smartest and most educated teachers. It is my pleasure to introduce you to your substitute, Mr. Revere.”
As if on cue, I opened the door to the classroom and walked in.
Remember, I said “laughably.”
Howler piles upon howler as Rush takes students Tommy and Freedom (a vaguely Native American girl in what Limbaugh probably feels is an open-minded gesture to diversity; in the second book, they are joined by African-American Cam) under his wing. With an incantatory “Rush, rush, rushing to history,” the talking, time-traveling horse Liberty spirits Rush and his students back to significant moments in American history. The precise mechanics of Liberty’s abilities are never explained; indeed, over the course of the first two books in the series, he acquires new, equally unexplained talents with astonishing rapidity. In addition to talking and traveling through time, by holding his breath he can “[blend] into his surroundings like a chameleon” to the extent that he is effectively invisible (though at other times Rush calls the process dematerialization); by staring fixedly ahead, he can “stop” time; by concentrating very hard, he can transport others through time; and by dreaming, he can create a “virtual, holographic representation” of history. (“It seemed so real!” Rush marvels.)
Both books read like first drafts that have gone through nothing more than a quick proofreading (an imperfect one; Samoset’s name is consistently misspelled “Somoset” in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims except in the author’s note and a picture caption). The design is as slapdash as the narrative; at one point Tommy hands Rush a sealed parchment from William Bradford: “I opened the letter and read: ‘Do you realize what this is?...This is an invitation to the very first Thanksgiving! What an honor!’ ” A facsimile of the “invitation” appears five full pages after it was introduced by that orphaned colon.
I could go on.
I don’t hold Limbaugh accountable for these poor excuses for literature. He has a point of view and the right to express it, and he is not a professional writer. But I do hold his publisher, Threshold Editions, a division of Simon & Schuster dedicated to “providing a forum for the thinkers and doers across the ever expanding contemporary conservative spectrum” accountable—not for the content, I stress again, but for its expression. They couldn’t send it back for a rewrite? Hire a competent ghostwriter? Pay attention as they laid it out? They could even have rejected the book, should Limbaugh’s contract have stipulated that no editorial changes be made.
Celebrity publishing has become accepted as a necessary evil across the spectrum. Insta–bestsellers by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Tori Spelling and Jay Leno help to subsidize high-quality books, people argue—and Jamie Lee Curtis’ books are really pretty good, they add. Most of these books resemble Limbaugh’s in approach to quality control if nothing else: Hastily put together, they are hustled onto the market with as little attention as humanly possible paid (time is money, after all) and with the knowledge that star power will carry consumers past such minor flaws as incoherent narrative arcs and terrible prose. The Rush Revere books have clearly been propelled onto the shelves by such thinking.
But what of the readers? Don’t the children of dittoheads deserve good books too? Feed them conservative politics and Ozzie Nelson history all you want. It’s America; they will encounter other perspectives and make their own decisions as they grow. But to convey those politics and that history with such disdain for even the most rudimentary standards of storytelling is a wrong just as staggering as the awfulness of Limbaugh’s books—though not nearly so laughable.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.