Like many first ladies before her, Hillary Clinton adopted a fairly common extracurricular during her years in the Oval Office—not gardening, not re-decorating the East Wing, but something almost as soft: She wrote Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Letters from the White House Pets, a children’s book chronicling mail sent to the first pets and the history of first pets in general. This, as Rebecca Traister has pointed out, from the woman who had “been named by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 powerful lawyers in the nation in both 1988 and 1991.”
But even more than they have authored children’s books, first ladies have been the subjects of juvenile literary entertainment. It’s not hard to see why: These women tend to choose humanist causes, they’re obvious role models, and they wear colorful outfits. According to a Wikipedia page called List of Books by or about Hillary Rodham Clinton, there are at least 40 titles for children and juveniles alone—coloring books, biographies, and themed books that include a chapter or a section on Clinton.
These books tend to have three things in common: a focus on Hillary’s personal and professional achievements, overt feminist messaging, and an obviously related downplaying of Bill’s role in Hillary’s success. This isn’t surprising: Explaining Hillary Clinton to children can’t be easy. “I remember at the time I was writing having to think about how to introduce the subject of President Clinton's affair,” said Ilene Cooper, senior editor at Booklist magazine and author of A Woman in the House (and Senate). “That's the trick, clearly presenting the facts without giving kids more than they want or need.”
Unsurprisingly, the books tend to focus on the high points, especially early ones: Her graduation speech at Wellesley that was quoted in Life magazine, her work for the Children’s Defense Fund, her role in investigating Watergate. When they touch upon the lower moments, like the failure of her healthcare reform legislation, the narratives tend to focus on redemption. In Kathleen Krull’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight, a young Clinton writes to NASA as a child and is told women can’t be astronauts. Krull flipped this dismissal on its head, invoking flight metaphors and using poetic one-liners that were inspired by Clinton’s own words in her autobiography, Living History: “You don’t have time for fear.” “Try harder—you can do better.” “Dare to compete.”
Also unsurprisingly, many of these books more or less skip over Hillary and Bill’s relationship. Krull’s book, for instance, says nothing of how or when they met, but includes a two-page spread on the birth of Chelsea Clinton. “She gave birth to her own daughter and began whispering encouragement. You can be anything you want—even an astronaut.” When I asked Krull about the way she portrayed Bill’s role, she conceded, “[Clinton] made a crucial, wise decision marrying Bill, [but] people were talking about her becoming the first woman president when she was a young woman, before she married Bill.”
At least one of these authors has addressed the elephant in the room. Cynthia Levinson, a children’s author whose chapter book on Hillary will come out in 2016, told me, “I can’t not mention Bill because I don’t know of many couples who are as intertwined as they are.” Levinson chose to use Bill’s “inappropriate relationships,” as she puts it for her eight to twelve-year-old audience, to get into “how [they] affected [Hillary Clinton] personally in terms of her introspection intellectually, but especially emotionally, religiously, [and] also politically”—a prudent strategy, since it's difficult to gauge how successful it’ll be amid so many less-PG characterizations.
But even with this slightly more even-handed approach to the less glamorous aspects of Hillary’s life, these books are still motivated by an imperative to celebrate rather than denigrate. Levinson is, in fact, something of an long-time acquaintance of Hillary Clinton, who lived on the same hall as Levinson during Clinton's freshman year. If Hillary wins the nomination and then the election, it’s a safe bet that there will only be more children’s books about her in coming years. But she probably won’t be writing them, and we can only hope that they won’t be about her pets.
Correction: This article originally stated that Levinson and Clinton lived on the same college hall during their freshman year of college. Levinson and Clinton lived on the same hall during Clinton's freshman year, but Levinson was a junior in college at the time.