If you’re a political junkie like me, then you love presidential election years. Seriously, I live for election night coverage… it’s my Super Bowl! (I’m not kidding. I have laid in bed late at night and checked my iPhone just to find out if returns came back from close-to-call caucuses and primaries earlier this year.) Therefore, you can imagine how excited I was when a review copy of Ben Clanton‘s Vote for Me crossed my desk. Initially, I adored it for is satirical, informative, and bi-partisan look at the political process, as it stands, in this country. As a teacher of writing, I came to like this book for the book’s unique structure, its incredible humor, and its highly amusing surprise ending.
Rather than just telling you about it, I wanted to show you some interior spreads from the book (see below) and provide you with an opportunity to learn more about the author and his process. Finally, Kids Can Press, Vote for Me‘s publisher, is giving away a copy of the book to one reader who comments on this post. Please read the specifics at the bottom of this post for more information about entering your name into the giveaway contest.
SAS: It’s an election year, which makes this book an obvious pick for teachers to add to their classroom bookshelves. But why should teachers pick Vote for Me! as opposed to other books about politics?
BC: Tough question! I think there are really quite a few great children’s books about elections/politics. Some of my favorites are Madam President by Lane Smith, Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, If I Ran for President by Catherine Stier and illustrated by Lynne Avril, and I’m guessing that Amelia Bedelia’s First Vote by Herman Parish and illustrated by Lynne Avril will also be good. I suppose what makes Vote for Me! stand out, though, is the interactivity of the book. Vote for Me! is meant to be in the same tradition as The Monster at the End of This Book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and The Book that Eats People. Like those books, Vote for Me! breaks the fourth wall by addressing the reader directly and bringing them in as part of the story. I find kids really respond to that sort of a book. This is particularly a good thing for an election book to do, as elections are very much about getting people to participate and be enthusiastic. So, there is a hands-on-ish aspect to the book that I think really adds to the kid appeal and helps to increase interest in the subject matter. However, if I were a teacher, I would want to partner Vote for Me! with a few other books that go into a bit more detail about the actual electoral process. What Vote for Me! offers in terms of educational components is a sense for the U.S. political discourse and a chance to truly engage the kids in the subject matter.
SAS: The donkey and the elephant both seem rather childish. How does this reflect the rhetoric we see nowadays in politics?
BC: Sometimes I think we should switch to a word like “adultish” rather than “childish”! It has been my experience that the behavior exhibited by some adults, especially those in the political and business arenas, can be ridiculous. So, yes, both Donkey and Elephant can be quite foolish and petty, and unfortunately I think this is a fairly accurate portrayal of much of the rhetoric we see in politics today. I imagine some adults might think a children’s book should steer clear of such a pessimistic outlook. Personally, I have great confidence in even the youngest of Vote for Me!’s audience to process the book at the level they are ready to process it at. However, I really think the book is quite optimistic at the end. I feel I should clarify, though, that I did not make the book to make a statement about politics. I made Vote for Me! to entertain and engage.
SAS: The book vacillates between the characters talking to one another and talking to the reader. How did you manage to do this in such a seamless way?
BC: I’m glad that it does come off as seamless to you! It was definitely a challenge to switch between having the characters talk to each other and the reader. I had to think carefully about each word and also the positions in which I rendered Donkey and Elephant. I found that even the smallest of details could make all the difference. Often this meant moving the dot eyes a smidge this way or that.
SAS: There’s a lot of humor that seems a little sophisticated for the PreK–3 set [i.e., the asterisk that says “In fact, 97% of sheep agree that Donkey is #1. (The other 3% are the black sheep of their families.)]. Did you include humor like this to appeal to adults or do you think kids will ask their parents to explain the humor?
BC: I agree that there is quite a bit of humor that is a little sophisticated for my target audience. But I think this can be an okay thing for a children’s book to do. It is nice to have bits for an older reader to enjoy, because if an adult is having fun reading the book, then I think it helps them read the story with more enthusiasm and so the younger reader(s) with them will also get more out of it. However, I feel some of the humor might go over the heads of adults and there will be bits that kids get but their parents do not. I did not spend a whole lot of time thinking about what age group would get which jokes in Vote for Me!, but I did try to create the book with a broad audience in mind. In my book, though, kids come first! My target audience is kids and I would not have made this book if I thought it was more for adults.
SAS: What kind of relationship/history do you have with the political arena (e.g., ever worked for a campaign, are you glued to the cable news cycle, want to run for political office?)?
BC: While I take an interest in politics, I am definitely not obsessive. My main passion is children’s books. However, I was fairly active when in high school and college. I went to high school in Montana, where I was a leader in the Young Democrats club and Young Politicians. I helped out with canvassing and several campaigns. I participated in the Close Up program and really found Montanan politicians to be quite accessible. I had a somewhat similar experience when I went to Willamette University in Oregon. The Oregon capitol was right across the street from campus. I minored in politics and was a strategy team member of Stand for Children. I am about a couple years out of college now and living in Seattle. I find it much easier to just blend in with the crowd here, but I still want to do my best to be an active citizen. I used to have political ambitions, but the idea is really unappealing to me now. Perhaps someday if I truly felt I could make a difference. I find working with kids and making books to be much more fun and rewarding.
SAS: I noticed you dedicated your book to your mom and dad. Mom’s name was surrounded by a blue bubble, while your dad’s had a red bubble around it. Does this mean you were raised by a Democrat and Republican who tried to get you to side with them, or am I reading too much into the book’s dedication?
BC: I’m glad you noticed! Yes, my mom is mostly a Democrat and my dad is mostly a Republican. Originally, I was going to have the dedication read, “To my mom the donkey and my dad the elephant,” but figured that it might be offensive to call my mother a donkey. When I was a kid, though, I thought we (my family) were all Democrats when we lived in Oregon because I saw on TV that we lived in a blue state, and so I figured when we moved to Montana that we became Republicans. The two sides were really fairly fascinating to me as a kid, and as I grew up I was quite curious to figure out which I was. And what am I? I’m mostly a donkey, but I would love to see the U.S. get beyond its two-party system.
SAS: Do you ever wonder if politicians feel as hurt as the donkey and the elephant did after they engaged in mud-slinging?
BC: I believe politicians are as human as the rest of us (except for the ones who are aliens), so I would be surprised if politicians don’t feel hurt every now and then. My compassion for most politicians is quite limited, though. Just as it is with Donkey and Elephant! I think it is a good thing to deflate the egos of the powerful a bit. In my opinion, political cartoonists have really a very important job. I just wish we would do as much critiquing of rich business people as we do of politicians. And now I step off of my soapbox!
SAS: Without me giving away the ending, what made you decide upon a surprise ending?
BC: I’m not sure that any other ending would work. For what I think are obvious reasons I couldn’t end Vote for Me! with Donkey winning or Elephant winning. I did think about having them tie but decided that would have come off as too convenient and sappy. It really would not have fit with the tone of the book. Another possibility I thought about was just leaving it at a cliff-hanger where the winner is not decided, or have Donkey and Elephant ask the reader to choose and leave it at that. But I think those would have been unsatisfying endings.
The ending I went with really feels right to me. Donkey and Elephant get so absorbed in their fight that they don’t really consider a possible result beyond themselves. I’ve been told by a number of people that they really like the point I make at the end of Vote for Me! Really, I went with the surprise ending because I found it entertaining and it felt right. I was not trying to make a point. But any unintentional point(s) of Vote for Me! are ones I agree with and am glad to make.
SAS: What are you working on next?
BC: I just finished illustrating two books. One of them is the second book in a beginning chapter book series by Caroline Adderson and it is called Jasper John Dooley: Left Behind (Kids Can Press), which will be out next spring. I think it is brilliantly funny and eccentric and nuanced. Jasper John Dooley: Left Behind will be out next spring. The other book I just finished illustrating is called Max Has a Fish by Wiley Blevins (Penguin Young Readers) and it is a really funny tragedy about a boy who has a fish that can’t dance. And that will be out in September. I have several picture books in the works. The next one will not be out until the fall of 2013, though. I do have a couple other stories in mind for Donkey and Elephant, but I’m not sure if those will end up happening. We’ll see how Vote for Me! does!
Thank you for the great questions!
If you’re like me and you need something besides the back and forth rhetoric between Gov. Romney and Sen. Santorum (and the newest attacks between Pres. Obama and Gov. Romney) to get you through the next two weeks and five days until the Pennsylvania Primary, then you’ll want to pick up this book! And, as an aside, if you, too, live in Pennsylvania and the political commercials, which have infiltrated every television station, are too much to stomach, then start DVRing your favorite shows. Nothing beats a fast forward button at a time like this!
- A special thank you to Kids Can Press for sponsoring a giveaway of one copy of Vote for Me for one of our readers.
- To win a copy of the book please leave a comment about any experience you’ve had teaching about the political process with your students or something that you can take away from my interview with Ben Clanton to share with your students.
- Please leave your comment in the comments section of this post by Thursday, April 12th, 2012 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. A random drawing will take place on Friday, April 13th and the winner’s name will be announced in a blog post that weekend.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at Kids Can Press send the book out to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.