At first glance, John Barron Dennison’s 45’S ABC (illustrated by Greg McLeod) visually conveys a traditional children’s book of the alphabet-learning variety. Alliterative strings of words and phrases; charming (mostly) cartoonish images reflect the words; a central theme—here, the current occupant of the White House—links everything. But looks are deceiving, and this is not quite a classic children’s learning book. It’s a book for the rest of us, and especially for those who find current political news cycles horrifying. It offers a high-level overview of three years of disorienting, mind-numbing scandals in a unique format and is well-suited as a gift for parents of young children who share these sentiments, but make sure they read through it before they open this one up for a bedtime read-along.
Each letter receives its own entry, A to Z, with capital and lowercase versions prominently displayed (“BIGLY A, tiny a”). After rereading it multiple times, it does still convey those learning oriented aims, but it’s also, centrally, a work of sweeping, withering political criticism. Because of its barbed contents, it’s hard to say whether or not it’s a kid-appropriate book. If it is, it’s surely not one for actually alphabet-learning-age children (sample entry: X, “X can sometimes vex. Xenophobic Xenophobes”). But given the coarseness and vulgarity of daily politics in 2019 America, who’s to say anything in it—even the explicit references in the entries for, say, “G,” “P” or “S” in 45’S ABC, which should not be spoiled—is nothing even young kids have not already heard.
Supporters of the current President could find bits and pieces mildly amusing, though most likely will abhor it for its mercilessly mocking. For anyone else, especially for those left-of-center politically, Dennison’s book gives an eccentric but robust stocktaking of the past three years in Trump’s America. News and politics obsessives will be reminded of banal, near-forgotten stories (“Covfefe”) and ongoing, calamitous policies (“Polluting with Pruitt”). Everything included is elevated by Greg McLeod’s artwork. Some of the figures are truly adorable; others are ghastly, grim reminders of our crisis-ridden political reality (I mean this in the best possible way). The two-headed, vaguely Seussian monstrous representation of “Javanka,” a/k/a Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, is now my all-time favorite, while the consistent characterization of Trump throughout the book totally breaks with common versions elsewhere in books or newspaper editorial cartoons. Yet, the charm and whimsy served in large doses raises the one through-line critique that came to mind on finishing it.
It’s been said that still being able to laugh amid political calamity is a vital thing–hence, we frequently see the publication and dissemination of satirical and parodic works in authoritarian regimes throughout modern history. There is some truth to that. Regardless, there’s room for whimsically assailing the President, like here, and there’s room for bleakly, more-bluntly condemning him, as in the works of Eli Valley. It need not (should not) be either/or.
As a whole, John Barron Dennison and Greg McLeod’s beautifully apropos 45’S ABC hangs together well, and for readers who need to laugh so as not to cry, or those wanting a gift for a friend or family member who loathes our strange current moment in American politics and culture, this is a solid option.
~Andy Carr for IndieReader