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‘Daddy, What’s an Originalist?’ – The New York Times


Children’s bookstores are full of titles celebrating Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court justice. Why not Amy Coney Barrett?

It’s a question that bothers Bethany Mandel, the editor of a new series of children’s books aimed at conservative families. The series, called “Heroes of Liberty,” features a roster of luminaries of the right that so far includes Alexander Hamilton, Ronald Reagan, Thomas Sowell, John Wayne and, indeed, Justice Barrett. Margaret Thatcher will be next.

On Twitter and in her opinion columns, Mandel is a conservative firebrand and a fierce critic of what she views as liberal policies such as mask mandates for children. But the books, she insists, are not ideological.

“For me, it’s: ‘Who do I want my kids to be reading about?’” Mandel said in an interview.

The books are the latest sign of how red America and blue America are becoming separate cultural ecosystems. From TV networks to coffee, chicken sandwiches to automobiles, Americans increasingly want the products they buy, the clothes they wear and the media they consume to be infused with their political preferences and values.

Growing up, Mandel said, “I hated American history.” As a child, she was more likely to be found reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” or “The Baby-Sitters Club” series than biographies of, say, Winston Churchill.

Now, she says, there are too many left-wing titles flooding bookshelves, and too few options for parents like herself, who prefer their children learn about “the values that made America great.”

The new series comes amid a conservative backlash against books focused on race and sexual or gender identity that is playing out across the country and in political campaigns. Republicans say these books are invading public schools and libraries without their consent. And while Democrats often flag works they find problematic, liberals denounce what they see as a retrograde effort by groups on the right to censor viewpoints that conservatives dislike.

Republicans in Congress have rallied behind a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that would grant parents a federal right “to know what their minor child is being taught in school, including, but not limited to, curricula, books, and other instructional materials.”

And while it remains to be seen whether that agenda captures the imagination of voters nationwide, the timing of the new series seems to fit a moment when many on the right are unhappy with what they see as the cultural hegemony of the left.

Mandel, a convert to Orthodox Judaism who home-schools her five children, said she was disturbed when one of her children stumbled upon “The Breakaways,” a graphic novel about a middle-school soccer team that includes a character who is undergoing a gender transition.

“It kind of spooked me a bit,” she said. “I don’t feel like I can go to the library and have my children pick out a book anymore.”

It’s not that Mandel has a problem with L.G.B.T.Q. identities, she insisted. It’s that she wants to discuss human sexuality with her children on her own terms — and thinks there are millions of other parents who feel the same way.

“I don’t want other people dictating those conversations and how they occur,” she said. “You want that to happen on your lap.”

The books are not always subtle. At times, they can sound like an essay from a Heritage Foundation scholar.

“Ronald Reagan believed in God, family, and patriotism,” a concluding passage in the Reagan book reads. “And he believed America would remain strong as long as its government avoided the mistakes of communism. It should never try to do for people what they ought to do for themselves. Nor should it run their lives for them.”

The Barrett book, Mandel said, was mostly intended to celebrate the idea that a woman could have seven children and still rise to the pinnacle of her profession, without it reading like conservative propaganda.

It’s not an easy feat to pull off. One passage seeks to explain Barrett’s link to Antonin Scalia, the arch-conservative Supreme Court justice known for his strict interpretation of the Constitution.

“Amy liked Justice Scalia a lot,” the book reads. “She loved his big rolling laugh and his sense of humor. She also admired him because she, too, was an originalist.”

The messy realities of the characters’ lives can sometimes pose a challenge, too, for a series aimed at parents who don’t want to have to “pre-read” books before they buy them.

How, for instance, to deal with Hamilton’s out-of-wedlock birth? “That was really tricky,” Mandel said. “There was a lot of debate about that and we decided not to touch it in the end.”

Some of her ideas have yet to be approved by the publishing board, which includes Yoni Greenwald, a businessman from Miami, and Rotem Sella, an Israeli publisher. Anne Frank, Brigham Young and Mother Teresa are among Mandel’s potential future subjects.

“They are all on the table and possibilities,” she said.

It also was difficult at first, she said, to find illustrators who were willing to risk possible “cancellation” by their liberal peers. “You can’t give an inch to the mob,” Mandel said.

Would she make a children’s book about Trump?

She gave a quick answer: No.

Mandel, it turns out, is a huge fan of a popular series of children’s books by Brad Meltzer, a novelist whose first hit was a thriller about Supreme Court clerks. They’ve compared notes over Twitter. And though their projects are radically different, their origin stories are strikingly similar.

In an interview, Meltzer said he was inspired to create the series, “Ordinary People Change the World,” because he was tired of his own children “looking at reality TV stars and thinking, ‘That’s a hero.’”

His children’s books are apolitical and are built around the themes or values each subject represents. He chooses figures from history who are widely admired: Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, Neil Armstrong, Rosa Parks.

“Heroes are mirrors,” Meltzer said. “You show me your hero and I’ll show you who you are.”

  • Shane Goldmacher analyzes Trump’s recent comments about the 2020 election, writing that the remarks “have stripped away any pretense that the events of Jan. 6, 2021, were anything but the culmination of the former president’s single-minded pursuit of retaining power.”

  • Republicans are debating how forcefully to resist President Biden’s forthcoming Supreme Court nominee, Carl Hulse writes, mindful that they have little power to stop his pick from winning approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

  • President Biden promised to mail 500 million coronavirus tests to Americans before the federal government had secured them, according to new reporting by Noah Weiland, Katie Thomas and Jessica Silver-Greenberg.

IN THE MOMENT

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has set off a flurry of reporting on who President Biden might choose as his replacement.

High on the list of potential candidates is Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former Breyer clerk who is now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Our colleague Elizabeth Williamson, the author of the forthcoming book “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” reminds us that Jackson was the federal judge who sentenced the so-called Pizzagate gunman in 2017 to four years in prison.

For those who don’t remember the case: Edgar Maddison Welch, then a 29-year-old man from North Carolina, brought an assault rifle into a popular pizza joint in northwestern Washington, D.C., and fired it at a locked door. He’d been spending time on internet forums populated by conspiracy theorists and was convinced that the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, was harboring and abusing children in a secret dungeon.

Welch’s incursion terrorized the restaurant’s customers and “literally left psychological wreckage,” said Jackson, who was then a district court judge in Washington, D.C. Her remarks from the bench became a revealing exposition of her view of the role of the criminal justice system.

In sentencing Welch that day, the judge declared her bafflement that anyone would take such violent action “on the basis of an internet rumor.” But her admonishment of Welch was tempered with compassion for a deluded man who she was convinced sincerely believed he was rescuing children, Williamson writes.

“I believe that you thought that you were being helpful in doing the right thing,” Jackson told him, according to a transcript. “You weren’t some robber who burst into the restaurant looking for money or trying to benefit yourself personally. I know that, and I’ve taken that into account.

“But the problem is that, in our society, no matter how well intentioned, people are not permitted to take matters into their own hands. Acting violently even for good causes is not OK,” she said.

In sentencing Welch, Jackson expressed her intent to deter copycat violence in statements that, in retrospect, read as prescient.

“The fear is now that, even though no one was physically harmed in this case, other people who are worried about other issues will take up arms with the intent of sacrificing lives in order to achieve what they believe is a just result.

“That kind of system of justice is utterly incompatible with our constitutional scheme and rule of law,” she told Welch, adding, “Your assault was an assault on the rule of law and not just the people in the restaurant and in this community.

“And what that means for this Court is that it needs to impose a sentence that deters similar potential future conduct. That risk now looms large.”

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.


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