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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Teaching kids right from left

A Torrance publishing executive says he sees too many children's books with liberal views. His titles aim to tilt the shelves the other way.

June 01, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

PUBLISHING executive Eric Jackson's first foray into children's books was a cartoon tale of two brothers and a lemonade stand.

Hoping to earn money for a swing set, young Tommy and Lou squeeze lemons until their little hands ache. But they are thwarted by broccoli-pushing, camera-hogging, Jesus-hating liberals who pile on taxes and regulations and drive the boys out of business.

The book, "Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!," came out two years ago. Jackson said it sold nearly 30,000 copies, which in the publishing world made it a bona fide hit. That success reinforced Jackson's view that the nation's bookshelves had tilted way too far left and that a correction was in order.

Kindergartners these days can leaf through a picture book promoting the virtues of medical marijuana. They can read a fairy tale about two princes who get married -- to each other.

But where are the children's books denouncing affirmative action? The fairy tales promoting gun rights?

"You don't hear a lot of umbrage out there about conservative books being foisted onto kids," Jackson said. "There's a need in the market for books that show the other side of the equation."

Jackson's small independent start-up, World Ahead Publishing, staked its first claim on that market with the tale of the rapacious liberals and the lemonade stand, marketed under the imprint Kids Ahead.

Two other (far less successful) cartoon books followed, taking on Hollywood and "activist" judges.

Now, World Ahead is expanding into more sober-minded children's books -- and is going head-to-head with Scholastic, the powerhouse of children's publishing.

Scholastic will be coming out in September with "The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming," a 176-page call to action aimed at children ages 8 and up. World Ahead will counter with its own book intended to debunk global warming and discourage environmental activism.

Kicking back in his Torrance office on a recent afternoon, under a giant poster of Ronald Reagan, Jackson glanced at a news release touting the Scholastic book. The cover illustration shows a child sitting cross-legged in the grass, cradling Earth.

"It's just so -- so -- what's the word?" marketing director Judy Abarbanel asked.

"Nauseating," Jackson suggested.

*

CHILDREN, he complained, are bombarded with tree-hugger propaganda: SUVs are bad. ExxonMobil is worse. Polar bears are drowning. The planet needs saving, and fast.

Jackson's response: Stop stressing.

He doesn't buy the international scientific consensus that human activity -- chiefly the burning of fossil fuels -- is causing the planet to warm. President Bush on Thursday tempered his hesitation on the issue, urging global curbs on pollutants.

Jackson, however, remains a skeptic; he maintains that any government solution would be worse than the problem. So he gets alarmed at the thought of children petitioning Congress to ban Hummers.

"We want to teach them it's not freedom or the free market or business that's the enemy here," Jackson said.

The trick is putting those concepts in a format preteens will read. Over the winter, World Ahead sent out a request for proposals from prospective authors. On this sunny afternoon, over pizza, Jackson and his four employees have gathered to review the most promising manuscripts.

First up is a story about a boy named Jake who watches a dire film about global warming in school. Jake walks home cursing every SUV -- until his best friend, Ben, sets him straight with a didactic lecture disguised as dialogue.

The story makes its point perfectly clear; at one point, Ben tells Jake, "There is NO conclusive evidence that humans are causing the Earth to heat up."

But Norman Book, vice president of World Ahead, had a few objections: "There's no plot, or narrative, or anything else," he said.

There was a murmur of assent. This one was a clunker.

Next up: a science-fiction tale about aliens who discover Earth in the future and find it in ruins. It turns out people have brought on this crisis by demonizing the wealthy, punishing energy producers and rejecting "greatness" -- all in the name of combating global warming.

"It's like Earth is the way it would be if Al Gore had his way with it," Jackson said. But though he found the premise intriguing, he concluded the book wouldn't fly with his target market of third- through eighth-graders.

"It feels heavy-handed for kids. Heavy-handed for everyone," Jackson said. "I felt like I was reading Ayn Rand."

*

SPIKY-haired and baby-faced, Jackson, 31, founded World Ahead about two years ago, after stepping down as a director of marketing operations for PayPal. His first release, "Thank You, President Bush," established his political bent; it is a collection of essays from leading conservatives praising the administration.

Jackson continues to publish conservative political and economic books for adults, including his own "The PayPal Wars," which he jokingly described as "the greatest book ever written. Well, the second-greatest -- there is the Bible."

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