“This is gonna be one of those moments that goes viral,” Bethany Mandel said fatefully this week on Rising, the Hill’s daily news show. She was discussing a new book she had co-authored, Stolen Youth, published by the Daily Wire’s books imprint, which purports to expose the “woke agenda” employed by the left to make kids miserable. But Mandel seemed blindsided when co-host Briahna Joy Gray asked her to explain the term Mandel uses over and over again: “What does that mean to you? Would you mind defining woke?”
Mandel fumbled. “Woke is sort of the idea that, um,” she says, before stumbling more. The clip is uncomfortable, and naturally it was posted everywhere.
While many reveled in the moment, others suggested that the reaction was “kind of gross” for what was just a stumble on television. As it happens, I spoke to Mandel a few months ago for another story I was reporting, and she hesitated then too:
Aymann Ismail: What do you mean by wokeness?
Bethany Mandel: So, in terms of children, it’s the idea of turning them—I think my best example is the board book Antiracist Baby, and it is … hold on. I have it. I have the text somewhere. The idea that you cannot be neutral, that this is a fundamental reshaping of our society. In the lens of anti-racism, in the lens of sexuality, that is not what we’ve traditionally thought. It’s the idea that we’re trying to turn our kids into modern warriors in these political battles about CRT and about sexuality and climate change and all of these things.
Mandel said on Rising that she and her co-author spend an entire chapter of their book defining the term woke, and, based on the answer she gave me and the show, I might suggest that that’s part of the problem. I reached Mandel again on Wednesday, after she tweeted the rough interview herself. “I had an idiotic flub. It was just a stupid moment,” she said. “You know how you see something happening from outside of your body? Like ‘This is—why am I doing this? This is terrible!’ It was that. But on camera.” She added, “My husband made this comparison. You know that GIF of the monkey sticking its finger up its butt and smelling it? Every day, there’s that person on the internet. And today it’s me.”
For a story last year, I interviewed Mandel at length about Heroes of Liberty, a series of children’s books that offer stories about conservative American icons through an “anti-woke lens.” I thought it was worth taking a look at what she really believes outside of a “15-second sound bite,” as she said on the show. Her longer answers, to me, were more revealing. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ismail: What sprung the idea for Heroes for Liberty?
Mandel: If you walk into anywhere where there are modern books, a bookstore or library or whatever—my last count was there are 27 different children’s books about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Fine. I mean, we own one, and my daughter loves it. But in addition to those books, which my kids love, I wanted a book about Amy Coney Barrett. And it doesn’t exist. It’s frustrating that you look at what’s available in like the Scholastic Who Was series, there’s a Who Was Che Guevara? and a Who Was Fidel Castro? But it’s hard to find well-written books like Who Was Ronald Reagan?
How did you get to publishing books?
We’re capitalists, and we wanna make money. [Laughs.] We home-school, and the philosophy that we follow is very literature-based. And so I’m in a lot of kids books Instagram and Facebook groups. I just noticed that people were really frustrated. Like, “I want a book about Winston Churchill because we’re talking about World War II.” Winston Churchill is one of my personal heroes, and I think he’s a hero of a lot of folks of my political persuasion, and there’s not many children’s books about him.
I just looked up the Who Was series, and there is one for Winston Churchill.
Is it still in print?
Paperback. Printed in 2015. It’s on Amazon for $5.89.
Oh, that’s wonderful. I don’t love the Who Was books that we’ve gotten, because there are gratuitous swipes at some folks. I think we have one about Alexander Hamilton, or was it George Washington? And they’re just really poorly done.
What are some examples of those swipes? For Churchill, what would be considered a swipe? What parts of his legacy should be off limits?
I don’t know what they would swipe him about. But I just don’t trust that Scholastic would be the most generous with a figure like Churchill. Like, are they gonna call him a drunk? They’re just gonna be sort of nasty and sow the seeds, like, “This person was OK, except he was an alcoholic and used to make his secretary talk to him while he was in the bathtub” and have a cartoon view of who he was instead of this towering hero of freedom in world history. It’s the same with Frederick Douglass. You read about Frederick, and you’re like, “Oh, he was actually a piece of shit.” Same with Benjamin Franklin. Everyone in history is kind of a giant piece of shit. It’s just the truth, but it’s just not necessary. A lot of these fights are about the innocence of children and violating that innocence and making kids grow up too fast and saddling them with the problems of the world way too early.
How do you decide what to keep in a book and what to filter out?
One of the first books that we did was about Alexander Hamilton. We’re of the mind that we’re not conservative but wholesome. We understand our role is to tell a story and not to take on more than we think is our appropriate place in telling a story to a child. And so, for Alexander Hamilton, we didn’t talk about his out-of-wedlock birth. We didn’t talk about his infidelity. We try to talk about a character in American history in a way that we would feel comfortable reading that story to our children. We tried to tread as lightly as we could about his childhood because it was incredibly tragic. I hear from a lot of parents that, especially in these social media groups, like, “my kid was adopted out of foster care. They’ve had a lot of trauma,” these individual stories that you might not necessarily think of because they’re not your experience, but there’s a lot of kids out there who have a lot of trauma that we try to keep in mind. We try to be more gentle and more sensitive to make it a book that we felt a bigger swath of parents would feel comfortable reading to their children.
As Heroes of Liberty was born, Johnny the Walrus, by Matt Walsh, became a huge Amazon bestseller. Ben Carson wrote a children’s book. There’s Conservakids, Brave Books, Tuttle Twins …
I think everyone saw the same hole in the market that we did at the same time. The industry of publishing on the children’s side is extremely ideological in one direction. And I think that lots of folks saw a market opportunity the same way we did. And it’s just that simple. Tuttle Twins is the original—they’ve been around for several years. We didn’t know about Brave Books or Conservakids. Theoretically, we’re all after the same market share, but we all know each other; we’re all friendly.
You must see that at the same time you say you don’t want to use kids as child soldiers in this culture war, Tuttle Twins doesn’t hide that it’s essentially conditioning kids into becoming culture warriors.
I’ve read Tuttle Twins to my kids, and we’ve had really good conversations about them. The nice thing about a book that you’re reading to your kids is that you can disagree with the book. You can take a pause and say, “Oh, I personally I don’t love that.” You can debate it with your kids and you can have a conversation.
Some of the Tuttle Twins are over my head; some of them are fantastic. They have an education book that was, like, really, really great. The book is called Education Vacation, and it’s about a family deciding to home-school and taking school on the road, going to Europe, thinking about education in a different way. I love that. I don’t think it’s indoctrination. I think that they’re introducing topics and conversations. And for the Tuttle Twins products that get a little bit older, there is a little bit more of that. But I don’t think it’s like indoctrination.
On one of the pages from Tuttle Twins’ Education Vacation, there’s a portrayal of public school as a conveyor belt where kids are being literally factory-brainwashed. Is that a good lesson to teach kids? How do you balance that with wanting to be sensitive toward kids with trauma?
I don’t think that that’s the message of Education Vacation. It’s not how my kids saw it, and it’s not how we explained it. It’s not like shoving information. It’s the conveyor belt system of education. That’s really what that book talks about. It treats the modern-day compulsory education as a conveyor belt and kids are cogs in a machine, not individuals.
The kids are gagged. There’s a machine vacuuming a kid’s mind out of their head.
It’s a hit against the idea that everyone is the same and we’re all on a conveyor belt and we all go from point A to point B. It’s a very one-size-fits-all system. The modern education system does feel a lot like a conveyor belt. I mean, speaking to someone who went to public school, everyone learns the same way and everyone uses the same textbook. I had that conversation with my kids. There is brainwashing in the system. But I didn’t talk about that with my 8-year-old. I just say, “Your brain and your brother’s brain are different, and the school system would not treat you as different. You would be learning the exact same things the exact same way.”
Can you tell me about the “woketopus”?
It’s basically a campaign that we tried to do that didn’t really land super well, because it was trying to draw parents’ attention to wokeness in Scholastic books. I have an entire box of Scholastic books in my library room in a box. The content is disturbing. There’s a book written for kids 8 and up that talks about puberty blockers and being born in the wrong body and finding pornographic magazines behind their dad’s bed. It was called Melissa, but now it’s called George. [It’s the other way around.] It’s by a writer named Alex Gino. My friend’s kid was recommended this book in her school library by the librarian. It goes back to this whole idea that we’re introducing topics that are just not appropriate and not the place of a book or a librarian to introduce to an 8-year-old or a whatever-year-old. Because there’s a lot of really sexualized and highly politicized content in Scholastic books that I don’t think parents realize. And I think they’re starting to realize it, and that’s why we’re getting more successful and there are alternative book fair companies emerging to counter Scholastic Book Fairs because I think parents are starting to recognize what’s going on at Scholastic. It’s a powerhouse, and the content that they’re publishing is not content that I think more than half of American parents are comfortable with their kids reading.
So if the solution is more books, what is your position on books like that? Do you believe there should be a rope around them?
I don’t think there should be a little rope around it. Because then it’s like, “Don’t press the red button!” But I do think that for parents, when you check out a book at a library or if your kid checks out a book, parents should get an email: These are the books that your kids checked out at the school library. And there’s a little ding that pops up with you to check it out of your public library. FYI, other parents have objected to this content on these grounds—if that’s fine by you, that’s fine. But this has been an issue for other parents, and we just want, you know, full disclosure. We want you to enjoy this product and not feel like you’re being hoodwinked. My daughter took out a book in November, and it was a graphic novel about girl soccer players. But there’s a scene in it that I don’t find appropriate between two girls at a sleepover where they’re exploring their feelings about each other. And totally outside of the sexuality stuff, which I don’t personally have an issue with, but lots of other parents would. And I think that’s totally valid. I don’t want my kids to think that they can go explore their sexuality at a sleepover. Bottom line—not appropriate for my 8-year-old to get that idea put in her brain. And I only realized that, thank God, before she read it, because other parents had told me that their kids read it. It would’ve been nice if, when we took that out, on the checkout screen, for there to be a little ding and say, “Other patrons have expressed concerns about page 37.”
I think a lot of the anger that parents are feeling about all of this is that we feel that they’re trying to do this behind our backs. They think they know what kids need to be exposed to better than we do. And so they’re trying to sneak it in. And that duplicity is animating a lot of our distrust.
I’ve been trying to cut to, like, the animating force here, and I think that distrust is at the heart of it. But there’s something else, this idea of “wokeness” and “woke” vs. “anti-woke.” And I think people on each side use the word differently. In the spirit of just getting on the same page, what do you mean by wokeness?
So, in terms of children, it’s the idea of turning them—I think my best example is the board book Antiracist Baby, and it is … hold on. I have it. I have the text somewhere. The idea that you cannot be neutral, that this is a fundamental reshaping of our society. In the lens of anti-racism, in the lens of sexuality, that is not what we’ve traditionally thought. It’s the idea that we’re trying to turn our kids into modern warriors in these political battles about CRT and about sexuality and climate change and all of these things.
I feel like I have to tell you: That’s not at all what wokeness means to a lot of other people—
I know, but I disagree. If you read Antiracist Baby as the board book, it all sounds nice and good, except there’s no such thing as neutral—you have to be actively fighting, and you have to always be aware of your racism, and you always have to be like … This is just not something that kids need to be doing.
Go play on the playground. They will have their entire lives to talk about these things. But when you make kids so hyper-aware of race, they’re not gonna see their friends as individuals. They’re gonna see them as Black or white. And I think that’s more racist.
I experienced racism on the playground as a kid. And I’m not convinced other kids know they’re being racist or even have a good understanding of it. So, isn’t a “neutral” position on racism also making room for racism? I don’t believe that’s healthier for the mind of a nonwhite kid. When kids called me a “terrorist” as a joke and everyone laughed, that left a lasting impression on me, making me embarrassed by my own family. So while we’re talking about protecting kids from racism, I want you to explain how being neutral protects nonwhite kids from racism.
The kid who called you a terrorist on the playground, their parents aren’t reading their kids Antiracist Baby. It’s just not a concern for those parents. There are healthy ways to talk about race for all sides. And for me, as a white parent, I don’t want my kids to see people as Black or white and I don’t want them to see themselves—this is like talking about the American expansion with Native Americans—I don’t want my kids to feel like they’re responsible for the evils that white Europeans committed in South Dakota. They’re not responsible. I don’t want them to carry that guilt with them, because it’s not theirs to carry. That’s the difference here. These differences exist, and these evils exist. And for folks on my side of the aisle, it doesn’t mean that an 8-year-old has to atone for them. And I think that that’s a difference of opinion between these sides.
I don’t know if any side is saying that babies or kids need to atone for that.
When you tell kids that they’re always racist, even when they don’t realize it—in Antiracist Baby, it’s, like, No. 8: Everyone does racist or not racist things. And we always have to be aware of them and call it out. It’s basically like the idea of communism.
It’s hard for us to discuss terms like wokeness because there seems to be such a wide disparity in what people mean when they say it.
I think that people see it in different ways. I see it as an insidious thing that’s happening in America, and other people see it as, um—
An answer to something that’s insidious in America.
You say you hear that parents in general believe that the pendulum has swung too far. Is the anti-wokeness movement, and the overall production of so many right-leaning books, swinging the pendulum back too far?
We try not to categorize ourselves that way. We want to see ourselves as more wholesome. But also, our main book of the month was Rush Limbaugh. So, is that characterization necessarily like totally accurate? Obviously not. I’m just being totally honest. We see a hole in the market and I personally think every kid should know who Rush Limbaugh was because he was a very important person in our national discourse and our national dialogue in the media. And you can treat him as Che Guevara, like a saint. I just think it’s important for every kid in America to know who someone like Rush Limbaugh was.