By: guest contributor and author M. Earl Smith
One author’s experience trying to bring Che Guevara to the heartland.
When I first began writing I had no desire to write picture books for children. In fact, it was only through the frustration of being forced to write a picture book while in college that I came to the realization that, hey, maybe I had something to share with the younger readers of the world. After all, I remember growing up in a time where there weren’t a lot of books about the heroes of the labor movement, or of the radical left, or of anyone, really, save for those that our capitalistic society tells us to worship.
That first book, Little Karl, was about treating others how you wanted to be treated, which is a universal message. The thing that made my book different was that Karl, in this instance, was a young Karl Marx. I even went so far as to paraphrase a Marx quote, and to dedicate the book to the working class worldwide. And while I didn’t end up on any best-sellers lists, I did receive favorable reviews, along with the odd accomplishment of having the best-selling title for Michelkin Publishing in 2017.
I wasn’t satisfied with using the titans of the left for allegory. I felt that children, especially children from the United States, had long lacked decent, even heroic representation of those on the left, and so I sat out to do just that. My second book, Stars Over Latin America, would speak to the formative years of one Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, an Argentine Marxist revolutionary known for his work worldwide on the behalf of the working class. Stars Over Latin America was released on March 9th, 2018, and quickly became a top seller on Amazon, in children’s Latin American history.
Given the success of the work, I set off on a nationwide tour, one that would take me to 14 states in 2018. Despite the political overtones of my work, I was not expecting any pushback. After all, the work is light on actual theory, is violence-free, and, as with most picture books, is told in a way that is relatable to children. For the most part, it was just that. There was a couple of angry social media posts when I visited Sandpoint, Idaho, for example, but things were rather quiet. That changed when I planned a visit to Wichita, Kansas.
I spoke to four bookstores in the area, as well as the public libraries in Wichita and nearby Clearwater. I signed copies for the local Barnes and Noble, I did a discussion at the library in Clearwater, and I scheduled school visits through two bookstores. Blue Baboon Books scheduled me to appear at the St. Jude School, a private, Catholic institution, and Watermark Books scheduled me to appear at Colvin Elementary and OK Elementary.
This was when things took an odd turn. Unprompted, Blue Baboon Books contacted me and told me that the principal at St Jude had decided that the students were ‘too busy’ and cancelled my visit. Later the same day, the store told me that they were ‘understaffed’ and could not host my scheduled author visit on Friday, November 16th, 2018. I have emailed the store several times since then and have received no response to my queries about rescheduling. I did not think much of it, at first. After all, I still had five events scheduled in the area.
I landed in Kansas on November 14th and made the trip to Barnes and Noble to sign store stock the next morning. It was there that I received a call from the rep at Watermark Books, who informed me that Colvin Elementary School had cancelled my visit…for the same reason that St. Jude had provided. My suspicion grew, and was finally confirmed when, a short time later, I was forwarded an email from Watermark, sent by one Rick Wilson to the librarian at OK Elementary School. In his email, Mr. Wilson, a local minister, questioned the place my work would have for schoolchildren and offered a line-by-line critique of my work.
I was flabbergasted. As writers, you hear about censorship. We all teach, with severe faces, the concept of Fahrenheit 451, and we all wag our fingers incessantly at Hitler burning books in Munich (although I would argue that there was less finger wagging when religious groups steamrolled copies of NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, but I digress). Yet to see someone spoil an event for children, some who are both capable and dream of becoming writers themselves because of some confused, red-scare, juxtaposed anti-communist rhetoric is so absurd that it would border on hilarity, is both infuriating and disheartening as a writer. Have we come so far that public elementary institutions bow the knee to local zealots, in a flagrant dismissal of the First Amendment, in an iconoclastic denial of everything we claim to hold dear? Would those who are the faithful, as a minister claims to be, dare deny our children the right to explore ideas that run contrary to what they have been taught?
Should I bring lighter fluid and copies of Stars Over Latin America to the church grounds, so that we can use them to burn me, and those like me, at the stake, like they did in Salem 400 years ago, and in France almost 900 years ago?
Writers, as the curators of words, present alternate views on the world on a day by day basis. It is our job to make sure that history, regardless of which side it comes from, is presented to children. The idea that our own personal beliefs do not influence our work is just as ludicrous as the idea that a historical figure exists that perfectly aligns with our point of view. In the United States, there is a group that, sadly, ties patriotism into a fervent, almost cult-like devotion to certain figures, ideas, and symbols. The flaws of those characters are either ignored outright (see slave owners such as George Washington), or excused away as being “of their time” (see Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings). Yet the second that someone presents the work of someone who views the world differently than the American Dream myth, they are either shouted down or they are, ironically, twisted, contorted, and used to continue that ethos.
M. Earl Smith is a writer that seeks to stretch the boundaries of genre and style. A native of Southeast Tennessee, M. Earl moved to Ohio at nineteen and, with success, reinvented himself as a writer at the age of 30. After graduating from Chatfield College (with highest honors) in 2015, M. Earl became the first student from Chatfield to matriculate at an Ivy League institution when he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. The proud father of two wonderful children (Nicholas and Leah), M. Earl studied creative writing and history at UPenn, graduating with an MA in English in 2017. He is currently enrolled in the Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, MA. He is currently a professor of children’s literature at Rowan University, and a professor of composition and rhetoric at Harcum College. When he’s not studying, M. Earl splits time between Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Boston, with road trips to New York City, Wichita, Kansas, and Mystic, Connecticut in between.