With the release of Rush Revere and the Star-Spangled Banner provocateur Rush Limbaugh has now officially published twice as many books for kids as he ever did for adults. It’s not hard to see why: Kids’ Lit, as we’ve come to call anything scientifically engineered to separate younger readers’ from their parents’ money, is big business.
Unfortunately, the zeal to manufacture as much of it as possible doesn’t guarantee that kids are treated to the most nourishing of entertainments. These are product, after all, and who cares if anyone actually “reads” the things? If they sell, then job well done.
Well, at least I’m reading them. For a series offered (since Book 2’s First Patriots I refuse to believe Limbaugh actually writes these anymore) by the champion of conservative radio – with talent on loan from God, he says – they’ve been surprisingly, shockingly apolitical. Almost to a fault, really. Rush Revere and the Star-Spangled Banner may be the weightiest, wordiest of the books so far, but it’s also the most disappointing.
The adventure time go-around operates under a pallor of sickness, beginning with the book’s dedication, then mentioned again in a cryptic forward (which is, strangely, not attributed to either Rush or Kathryn). It continues by having the grandfather of main character Tommy hospitalized with some unnamed illness, becoming the jumping off point for an educational trip to the nation’s capital and beyond.
If that isn’t enough, the second-to-last photo (of one of the series’ younger fans holding copies of the books, a feature that’s continued here) shows a little girl, Alexia B., in a hospital bed with IV catheters taped to her arms. Not only is Alexia adorable, but she’s also apparently a direct descendent of the original Pilgrims William Bradford and Elder William Brewster, whom fans first ‘met’ in the original book, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.
This familial linkage is a constant theme in the Rush Revere series, whether earned or strained, as we’ve been informed that Limbaugh’s wife (and series’ co-writer) Kathryn Adams Limbaugh is herself a descendent of Declaration of Independence co-drafter and second President, John Adams. So is Historical Consultant, Jonathan Adams Rogers, whom I still can’t find a lick of info about anywhere, and is most likely related to Kathryn.
Tommy, depressed there isn’t much he can do to help his ailing grandfather, agrees to go with his favorite history teacher, along with regulars Cam, Freedom, and Freedom’s enthusiastic grandfather to the US capital: Washington, DC, for a fact-filled, historically themed field trip.
And let’s not forget Liberty, Rush Revere’s time-traveling, wise-cracking horse (who can also turn invisible, or something like that). By now, Liberty is clearly the Jar Jar Binks of this series, his buffoonery and flatulent antics – no doubt aimed at making younger readers laugh – taking up far too much valuable time and space that might’ve gone to showcasing a few more Exceptional Americans, especially those pertaining to the Star Spangled Banner.
There’s nothing wrong with instilling a little patriotism in the breasts of younger readers, even if such lessons lean a little close to home. The United States seems to be the only nation where showing open familiarity and enthusiasm for one’s native land leads to charges of jingoism and cultural exclusivity. There’s been a strong current of anti-Americanism brewing over the past few decades, and nowhere has this misguided (some might say lopsided) response been than in the public educational system.
Yes, the Rush Revere books are pretty transparent in their appeal: the main characters each fill their respective diversity check-boxes with aplomb, if hesitantly. Time-traveling though some of America’s thornier historical epochs – especially those when Native Americans and blacks didn’t enjoy the same rights and liberties as their white compatriots – is something the series is smart enough to not avoid, however crassly, as though simply acknowledging these events renders the subject closed.
But perhaps this book’s, and by extension the series’, biggest misstep is its characterization of women, specifically those Exceptional American women that have been conspicuously absent thus far. Granted, we do get to meet First Lady Dolley Madison, wife of 4th President James Madison, who saved Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington (itself a copy, as it turned out, but that matters little) from the impending British invasion of the US capitol in 1814. But it’s just Rush and Liberty running into Mrs. Madison by themselves, with none of the children present.
I’m not one to hurl premature charges of sexism, but it helps to consider the facts. Up to this point, each and every Exceptional American, be they military, doctors, or politicians, have all been male; each called “awesome!” or “cool” by Rush’s excited and engaged students. Is the implication that the troupe, mostly boys, wouldn’t find Mrs. Madison or other historical ladies equally awesome or cool?
Not that we’re ever given the chance to find out. Betsy Ross, creator of the original US flag, and Mary Pickersgill, who sewed the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write his anthem, aren’t characters in this story whatsoever. Indeed, their existence meriting a single shout-out – in the footnotes! – accompanying a single picture of Betsy at work.
So what about the main female characters? Elizabeth, the blonde-haired cheerleading queen with sociopathic tendencies, continues to be the reliable foil and main agitator. We’ve also got new character Maddie, a young homeschooled girl whose doodling in the US Capital attracts the attention of the group, instantly becoming fast friends with her.
Then there’s Freedom, a young Native American girl and main character, who’s clearly the most intelligent person in this series, and sadly becomes largely forgotten in the hustle and bustle in this adventure. Sure, she’s got a cool grandfather in tow (largely wasted as his role is to mainly parrot Revere’s patriotic certainties), but her total exclusion from the time-traveling fun is noticeable – even by the other characters. When she notices the boys’ returning from a trip to the past, no doubt by their stench, they took without her she questions them:
“Hey, you guys didn’t time-travel without me, did you?” She eyed us suspiciously. She could probably smell the eighteenth-century sewer lingering on our cloths. “I owe you one, Freedom,” I said. “I will remember to take you to a great spot.”
A great promise from Revere…but he never does, insteading taking Tommy on a solo trip to meet with Francis Scott Key while he was drafting the original lyrics to what would become the nation’s National Anthem. I get why the tricorne hat-wearing Rush character would spend so much time on the Tommy character; his grandfather is sick and possibly dying, after all. We also saw him use this tactic in the last book, The American Revolution, with Cam disappointed this his dad was off fighting in Afghanistan.
But using time-traveling historical lessons as a quick pick-me-up? It makes me shudder to think that the only reason we’re introduced to Freedom’s likable grandfather is to set up a sympathetic tale in the future just for her by enfeebling him.
Let me be clear: this story spends more time, text, and space on a time-traveling, wise-cracking horse (with quasi-invisibility powers, remember) and his pickle-induced gastrointestinal issues than developing any of its female characters, historical or otherwise. When learning has to share the same space with the lucrative needs of appealing to younger readers, fart jokes win out every time.
This is a best-selling series (A New York Times best-selling series, no less) and they continue to make them, so clearly the publishers are doing something right. However, a quick online search tells you that almost nobody is reviewing them, save for yours truly, with any kind of intellectual and objective honesty. I’ve been parsing through them since book one, and as I’ve been lucky to receive review copies direct from the publisher it’s a good bet that someone out there is reading this.
It’s not all bad news, of course. Rush and his time-traveling crew embark on a fairly substantial field trip to learn about civics, covering just about everything in Washington, DC from exploring the nature of government, separation of powers, the roles of congress, the Supreme Court, and much more. More, that is, except for the actual Star-Spangled Banner and its writer, Francis Scott Key, both relegated to just a short chapter towards the end. In fact, so little space is spent on them a better subtitle could – and probably should – have been used instead.
The worst thing about this book isn’t that it’s a thin-veiled conservative agitprop, aimed squarely at turning your precious brood into GOP loyalists. Yes, there are elements embedded here that will automatically set off alarm bells for some: the realities many military families go through and homeschooling for starters. I refuse to believe making one of the new characters a homeschooled girl is in any way as politically inceptive as it sounds; there are millions of homeschooled kids which are never, ever mentioned in most kid fiction.
No, the worst thing about Rush Revere and the Star-Spangled Banner is how poorly structured it is, and how easily its missed opportunities come at the expense of nonsense and fart jokes. As nice as the lessons on governmental responsibilities and creation of the Bill of Rights are, it would have been more appropriate had the authors focused more on the book’s subject matter – and those actual historical persons associated with it – than page after page of stale jokes and wooden dialogue, none of which sounding remotely authentic.