Moving Post- Post-Truth in a Trump Biography for Young Readers by Martha Brockenbrough

Authors, Political Viewpoint, School Libraries

By: Jamie M. Gregory

The 2016 Oxford Dictionaries word of the year was “post-truth.” Oxford Dictionaries defines post-truth (adjective) as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It is most often seen paired with the noun politics, signifying growing irrelevance and distrust.

In an age of increasing rejection of mainstream and established sources of information (see: human influence on climate change, anti-vaccine communities, “fake news”), educators are struggling to teach critical thinking skills. How does society learn to distinguish facts from opinions in a post-truth society? There is still a need to clearly distinguish truth from falsehood, of course. But how to teach these thinking skills in public schools is not an easy choice when faced with backlash from parents and administrators, paired with the Trump administration’s increasing attacks on mainstream media, making long-established credible sources of information appear fake, even dangerous.

Teachers and school librarians may be more wary of the materials they make available to students in classrooms and school libraries, not wanting to appear biased, cause complaints, or even be censored by school officials.

Unpresidented: a Biography of Donald Trump by Martha BrockenbroughBeing interested in intellectual freedom in school libraries, I was delighted to receive a copy of Unpresidented: a Biography of Donald Trump (Starred review, School Library Journal, Winter 2018) by Martha Brockenbrough at the ALA Midwinter Meeting this past January in Seattle, WA. I’d read reviews and was intrigued by her factual approach to providing young readers with a broad view of President Trump’s life in an attempt to provide context for current events. As she writes in the forward, “My hope is this book gives readers a broad and deep understanding of Donald Trump and his place in the past and present, an understanding that is both fair and accurate.” I recently interviewed Brockenbrough as a way to exemplify this post-truth struggle in education and school libraries, particularly in terms of politics. Below are excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length.


Did it feel overwhelming to take on a project like Trump’s biography, particularly for young people?  

Writing any biography is a major undertaking. The central task is to understand the person’s life in its totality, and to distill a coherent, true, readable account. Writing one for young readers adds a layer; the key here is to provide the context that makes a life resonant for people who don’t have quite as much life experience. The challenge for me was to keep track of new developments, which happened daily, and to see how they fit with his long-term patterns. To do this, I used a giant spreadsheet of events, noting my sources of information. My goal was to create something that would still be relevant in 20 years’ time.


Did you feel like it was particularly important to include as many endnotes as you did because of the intensified “fake news” phenomenon created by this presidency?

My Alexander Hamilton biography was also extensively footnoted. Not quite as many as the Trump book, which has more than 1,400. But I am all about transparency of sources, and I absolutely want readers to know where they can go to find more information. […] Here, I want people to continue believing in such a thing as facts. Trust in this is the entire basis of the social construct. There is no rational discussion without a shared set of facts, and it is absolutely possible to establish one. It is evil to pretend no such thing exists. There is no factual relativism. And while reasonable people are sometimes misinformed, goodwill can correct this. Disinformation, on the other hand—something we are seeing happen today—is a tool of tyrants.

The “fake news” charges Trump levels against the media are devastating. As I mention in the last chapter of the book, this is straight from the playbook of Hitler and Stalin. Just writing this is uncomfortable. But it is also a fact. The courageous response to uncomfortable facts is not to deny them, but to accept them and then decide how to respond.


In the book, you spend a good deal of space defining and providing examples of disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and the drawbacks of human intelligence—how do you think teachers can address these issues with students in such a divisive political climate without appearing biased?

Bias is NOT talking about these things. Here we have someone (and his enablers) trying to redefine reality. So talking about this looks like a biased act, but it isn’t.

And as long as we stick to factual information, we can do this without worrying about what people are saying about us. This is what courage looks like. It’s doing what you know to be right and letting people have whatever opinions they will have. And optimism is about believing that facts matter, that there is such a thing as truth.

Practically speaking, though, a lot of teachers can’t do this. But they can certainly bring up Hitler’s words. They can certainly quote Stalin. They can certainly show these patterns in history. They can read the works of experts like Timothy Snyder. Students will be able to draw their own conclusions, which is what we want, anyway.


Have any teachers or librarians shared with you stories of censorship related to President Trump? Or reluctance to engage in learning about and discussing the presidency?

I’ve encountered a fair amount of this, starting with reviews. The New York Times, for example, included it in a roundup of “political” books. All of the others were picture books, which as we know are meant for a much younger audience. The reviewer lamented the existence of the book and wished it could have been more positive, and something that explained how we got to this point. That’s all good and well, but without telling young readers truthfully where we are, why should they be interested in how we got here? This is an example of wishful thinking on the part of adults. We wish we didn’t have a president who lied. Who said outrageous things about people of color. Who described white supremacists carrying torches and shouting racist and anti-Semitic slurs as “very fine people.” And yet, these are the facts, and I believe young people—many of whom will be voting for the first time in 2020—deserve to know them. That it makes adults uncomfortable is irrelevant. I serve young readers. I don’t want to coddle grownups.

I also had a librarian reach out to me personally saying some of her colleagues opposed adding it to the collection because it was “political.” This is a factual book. It is a negative portrayal of Trump. That’s what the facts warrant. Let’s not politicize reality.

On the flip side, before the book came out, I was in Virginia at a book festival. I had a copy of the book and I showed it to an audience of hundreds of middle schoolers. Hands shot up. They asked me earnestly to read it to them, and I did read some excerpts. These kids are hungry for the truth.


What do you hope young people learn after reading your book?

I hope they learn the difference between image and reality. Trump has an image of being a successful businessman. But by objective measures (his performance vs the rest of his industry), he is not. I hope they learn to trust factual information so that they can make a reliable, supportable judgment.


Disinvited Author

In the process of this interview, Brockenbrough received word that a scheduled school visit had been cancelled. The school librarian reported that the school administration felt she would be an inappropriate visiting author, and that Unpresidented may offend some of the district’s constituents (Brockenbrough has written 9 books, including books for young adults such as Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary [Starred review, School Library Journal] and The Game of Love and Death [a Top Ten Book of the Year for Kirkus and Publishers Weekly]. She also provides writers’ workshops to students). Brockenbrough responded:

“There is nothing in the book that is an unsupported fact. So, schools need to decide whether facts are too uncomfortable for them to teach. That really is a community value. I know I believe kids need accurate information, but not every adult working in service to young people does.”

She dedicated Unpresidented in part to “the Parkland Generation: You know what to do.” Coincidentally, the 2017 word of the year was “youthquake: a significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”


Jamie GregoryJamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working in her 6th year as a school librarian at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC. Previously she taught high school English and French for 8 years. Her academic interests include book censorship and academic freedom in K-12 schools, inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and literacy in high school classrooms. She is an active member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians serving as the 2019-2020 Chair of the South Carolina Book Award committees. When she is not reading or researching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons cooking, traveling, playing board games, and going to Iron Maiden concerts. Find her on Twitter @gregorjm.


  • I want to thank Ms. Brockenbrough for her book, helping young readers to understand the anomalous and unstable nature of our current administration, and why our Constitution is under threat.
    I applaud her endorsement of facts as the basis for judgments. In fact, Ms. Brockenbrough has signed two recent letters on the Reading While White Blog. The first condemned an author for actions at a conference, although they based their response only on account of one individual involved. The letter also asserted that an author could not, by definition, question the work of a specific critic. The second is a letter demanding that the curators of the children’s literature exhibit currently at the University of Minnesota essentially recant their views and completely revise their work to accommodate the perspectives of one group of viewers. Both of these choices represent challenges to intellectual freedom, and a contradiction of the values which Ms. Brockenbrough espouses in this interview.

  • Emily, you are misrepresenting both letters here. Meanwhile, criticism isn’t censorship. Not is it any form of deception. Why you spend so much time and energy resisting the efforts of scholars who are determined to decenter whiteness and create actual intellectual freedom for all is a mystery.

    Meanwhile, a great many of us will continue to work for better children’s books.

  • The distinction here is that Martha understands the nature of intellectual freedom and doesn’t think it’s the right of white people to do and say whatever they want without facing criticism.

  • Dear moderators,

    The above comment feels both disingenuous and off-topic. Rather, she seems to be bringing up past grievances that has nothing to do with the topic at hand for the sole purpose of tearing down the author, rather than engaging in any cogent discussion of the facts. I would like to respectfully request to have that comment remove and will encourage Ms Schneider to try again. You may remove my comment as well.

    Kelly Barnhill

  • I urge readers to go to the letters in question on Reading While White, and to reach their own conclusions about the distinction between criticism and censorship. If criticism is acceptable, then it cannot be off-limits for particular authors or critics, or only when applied to people of designated groups.
    It seems that comments are off-topic if you do not wish to address the topic. Ms. Brockenbrough’s interview specifically emphasizes the importance of using the truth to make judgments, about Trump, but also about other subjects. My comment is entirely relevant. Encouraging people to sign a letter attacking a writer without most of them having any idea what actually happened, would seem to contradict Ms.Brockenbrough’s warnings. People may choose to sign the letter, and others may choose to question the letter.
    If your basis of shielding someone from criticism or subjecting someone to criticism is race, then I do have an issue with that. Finally, the ceaseless argument that you and your supporters alone care about children and the books written for them, while others do not, is just ad hominem and untrue. Fortunately, there are many, many authors, critics, artists, librarians, and caregivers who care deeply about children and young adults. We are from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, but we should all be working towards the same goal.
    Thank you again, Ms. Brockenbrough, for your book exposing Trump’s lies to young people and teaching them how to approach citizenship with intelligence and concerted action.

  • Kelly Barnhill, what you are recommending is censorship. Instead of attempting to silence Emily Schneider —
    for bringing up the issue of intellectual freedom (here on the intellectual freedom website) — why not
    argue with her on the issues she raises? Do you not see the irony of what you’re suggesting — here on the “Office of Intellectual Freedom” website?

    And Anna Ursu, I’m confused by what you’re saying. You say that Martha Brockenbrough “doesn’t think it’s the right of white people to do and say whatever they want without facing criticism.” Does this standard just apply to white people with whom you disagree? Or does it also apply to Martha Brockenbrough?

  • Emily, for someone who seems so passionate about intellectual freedom, your habit of going from blog post to blog post to criticize BIPOC diversity advocates feels a lot like you’re trying to silence these women.

  • I’m confused. You’re really just saying you disagree with the letters she signed, right? That’s the point of your comment, I think. That you don’t like the letters? (which are not actually what this post is about)

  • Perhaps we could also consider the irony of someone using the comment space on a post about an author’s book, in order to criticize that author’s free exercise of her own intellect in signing letters that address racism in our industry… all in the name of “intellectual freedom.” Your definition of “intellectual freedom” would mean supporting an author’s right to sign any letter with which she agrees, free of any repercussions to —or association with — her literary work and career, would it not? Except that these discussions are never really about some supposedly impartial standard of free expression; they’re about maintaining the existing racist power structures in our industry, through the suppression of anti-racist speech in the name of “freedom.” See also: the tactics of the current occupant of the White House.

  • Dear Emily:

    The letter that people signed summarized what happened. The events matched the description of what happened given immediately after the incident to the victim’s colleagues. The inconsistent narrative came from the perpetrator. Suggesting that anyone was gathering signatures from people who were unaware of what they were signing is disingenuous and borders on the libelous. What’s more, no one impeded anyone from sharing “their side.”

    Further, I’ve never said anyone is immune from criticism. But Dr. Debbie Reese is an expert on racism and discrimination against Native Americans. What’s your specific expertise in this particular subject? You comment frequently whenever Dr. Reese’s name comes up, and those of us who read your words would love to understand how you have come to be an expert in bias against Native Americans in children’s literature.

    As far as caring about children and young adults, well in my view the best way to do that is to provide them with literature that is written with care, thought, vision, and expertise. Part of that is understanding power dynamics, unexamined racial and other biases, and nuances in language that continue to harm. Might you consider the possibility that you would benefit from really spending time reading her work and learning from the nuances she adeptly raises?

    Also, people who allegedly care for children—as school employees—also think it’s fine to give the ones who can’t afford lunch jelly sandwiches, as happened in a school district just this week. I am sure those people sincerely think they are showing “tough love.” I’m sure they feel that they have spent their life working with children, and that this means their care is entirely benign. We must care. And we must take care in how we do that.

    I will continue to vigorously champion literature for children that is free of bias, hatred, and harmful stereotypes.

    For my own part, I have learned to pay close attention to this criticism, because I find—with deep reflection—that my layers of bias begin to slough off. I see and understand, and I am 100 percent certain this has made my work better. Not perfect, but better.

    There is self-interest involved. Better work stands a chance of lasting; watch Jon Hughes movies from the 80s and see how the misogyny and racial bias sits. We know better now. Likewise, the Little House books contain language that is harmful for children to hear.

    And of course, anyone is still free to write books without understanding these issues. They can increasingly expect criticism. That, too, is intellectual freedom.

    Finally, censorship occurs when a government or public entity suppresses the publication of material—particularly the sort of book like UNPRESIDENTED.

    I am grateful for the First Amendment. I am in favor of debate, and will continue to point out language that is false, and even more, that which dehumanizes, because that will never be an intellectual position I can stomach.

  • Please find here the link to the ACLU’s statement on censorship. The broadly accepted definition is not limited to government censorship:
    My comments are deemed off-topic, but not Ms. Brockenbrough’s promotion of her book.
    How is lunch shaming of children who cannot afford to purchase food relevant to my comment? What are you implying, Ms. Brockenbrough?
    I don’t think that you really want to know about my expertise, but rather to just insinuate that I lack knowledge or experience as you define them. Anyone who chooses to can look up my credentials.

  • I would respectfully remind everyone about our commenting policy:

    “Commentary and reactions to content are welcome. Comments are open to all but are moderated by OIF staff. Comments should be relevant to the specific post to which they refer. OIF reserves the right to remove, or not to publish, comments unrelated to the topic of the post or the purpose of the blog. Spam, flaming, personal attacks, and off-topic comments are not permitted and will be removed or not published. Those wishing to post a longer response or opinion are welcome to submit content for consideration via the guest contributors submission form.”

    This post is about the book “Unpresidented” and the author’s work on the book and her experiences as an author of “Unpresidented.” Posts should discuss the substance of the blog post. Posts that address other topics or issues are off topic and will be managed per our policy on off-topic posts.

    Deborah Caldwell-Stone

  • It is disappointing that Martha was disinvited from that school. I reviewed her book and found so much in it that teachers could use to push back on the ways that Native peoples are depicted in kids books and school textbooks, lesson planning materials, etc.

    I was especially struck by information she shared on page 93 about the Trump kids chipping rocks to look like arrowheads, burying them in the woods, and then selling their fake arrowheads to kids for $5.00.

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