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Washington University Professor Writes Anti-Trump Children’s Book … For Adults

A page from D.B. Dowd's "A Is For Autocrat."
D.B. Dowd
A page from D.B. Dowd's "A Is For Autocrat."

There’s no shortage of political books hitting the market right now.

Few, if any, look much like Washington University professor D.B. Dowd’s contribution to the genre.

He based his satirical indictment of the Trump administration, “A Is For Autocrat,” on the form of an “ABC” book — the sort that beginning readers use to learn the alphabet.

Each letter, in Dowd’s telling, builds a case against the president: “A” is for autocrat, “B” is for brutality, “C” is for corruption. Dowd illustrated each letter and wrote a paragraph or two to explain each point. Scott Gericke designed the book.

Dowd, the founder and namesake of Washington University’s D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library, drew on his deep familiarity with the history of illustration. His inspirations ranged from children’s magazines to a German-language encyclopedia published in 1896.

He hatched the idea for the book after coming across a 1946 pamphlet that proposed a guide to proper behavior for children. He said he was struck by the impression that Trump violates each of the values expressed there.

“Something in the simplicity and clarity and cogency in the writing of this code of conduct for children made me want to turn it against Trump,” Dowd said. “Somehow to use the discipline of writing briefly and cleanly and directly about a subject of importance — and then to put it next to a picture.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Dowd about the concept behind “A Is For Autocrat” and the creative process that resulted in the illustration for the letter H.

D.B. Dowd: We’ve all been hostage to the headlines in recent years, where there’ll be one extraordinary story after another about some question of fact that we thought was settled, or some approach to governance that seems alarming and we’ve sort of become acculturated to it.

I felt compelled to respond in some way and to do more than simply mutter.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: Why choose the form of an “ABC” book?

Dowd: One thing I really wanted the book to do is — OK, it’s kind of paradoxical — to use a form designed for small children to speak to adults about a very serious subject.

It ultimately seemed correct to me. Because when you speak to kids, especially when we speak to kids about hard subjects, we think really carefully about how we build those sentences. And how we help a young person understand, maybe that something really bad has happened or that there’s a very challenging situation that’s occurring.

We’re in a moment of deep, national crisis. And there is so much incautious, loose, irresponsible speech, that it’s sort of like whispering in a room where people are shouting.

Goodwin: Let’s look at one of the spreads in the book: “H" is for hubris. To illustrate that point you use presidential advisors Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Why’s that?

Dowd: He has inserted himself into these settings and responsibilities, as has his wife, that are simply beyond his experience level.

There’s something sort of offensive and deeply silly about them at the same time.

Goodwin: How did you illustrate the idea?

Illustrator D.B. Dowd
D.B. Dowd
Illustrator D.B. Dowd

Dowd: So, I study the history of illustration. I study the culture of illustration. I have kind of a big collection of period children’s magazines.

So, I’m thinking about: What are the visual sources for that? And then it was — boom, of course! “Jack and Jill” magazine ran these spreads in the late 40s, early 50s. The center spread was always a paper doll cut-out set. Paper dolls were a very inexpensive amusement that involved a character, a figure. But then on the page with them, on the paper with them, would be different outfits that they could wear. You know, an evening gown or a business suit or any number of the costumes of adulthood.

And Jared and Ivanka have been playing grownups on the world stage.

Goodwin: And your illustration for “H is for hubris” is two paper cut-out dolls of Trump and Kushner with different outfits — cowboy boots, a model jet plane, a baseball uniform.

Dowd: Yes. ‘If I can put on the outfit, I can do it.’

Goodwin: D.B., your father was a federal judge, appointed by Ronald Reagan. And I know he passed away before the 2016 election but you did have the chance to watch the Democratic and Republican conventions with him that summer. Has he been in your head at all as you’ve worked on this project?

Dowd: Yeah, I’ve thought about my dad a lot.

I learned the discipline of clear thinking from him. My politics diverged from his quite a while ago, but I always loved talking politics with him. You know, our dinner table was an exciting but hazardous place. If you wandered into a sentence or a paragraph ill-prepared to defend your position, you could get eaten for breakfast pretty fast.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.