In her essay below, my friend Martha Brockenbrough describes her editor, Jean Feiwel, as “fierce.” This is the exact word I would use to describe Martha herself: fiercely kind, fiercely funny, fiercely generous, fiercely grammatically correct (I offer as proof her book, Things That Make Us [Sic]), and fiercely honest. Her respect and concern for young readers has taken many forms, including her latest project, a biography of our current president: Unpresidented (Feiwel and Friends).
Unpresidented, a biography of Donald Trump (Feiwel & Friends), is an unusual book. Most biographies of presidents written for young readers present the man in a favorable light. The morning after the 2016 election, I woke up sick to my stomach that children would be given a false version of Trump, one that ignored the reality we’d all seen on the campaign trail.
Misleading children doesn’t sit well with me. Children need and deserve the truth, delivered with love and support.
And the reality of Trump was and is unpleasant. He’d lied (most everything he said was at least partially untrue). He’d demeaned women. He’d said racist things. He’d displayed anti-Muslim bias. He’d mocked a disabled reporter and a war hero.
I also knew enough about Trump to know his business record was dotted with bankruptcies, and that he’d failed to pay contractors on many occasions. I honestly don’t see a big difference between that and robbing someone on the street, except a big businessman is more likely to get away with the theft because of his power in society.
I wanted to write a factual story about this president. And even though my editor told me she didn’t have the stomach for the book, I embarked on an intense research project. I read everything I could get my hands on, and I started keeping a timeline of the rapid news developments (I used Excel with lots of columns to tag categories and label sources).
What I learned made me feel this book was even more urgently necessary. His relationship with Russia, which I had shrugged off when it came up during the campaign, struck me as deeply worrisome. His continued lies lay the groundwork for authoritarianism—the opposite of the system of government most Americans cherish.
One thing writers are told never to do—return to an editor who’s rejected a project—I did anyway. A year into Trump’s presidency, my agent returned to the brilliant and fierce Jean Feiwel, who has published three of my nonfiction works. This time, she was eager to publish.
The book covers his entire life and beyond. It reaches back in time to his grandfather’s immigration (meant to dodge the German draft and the thing that cost him his citizenship). It covers how his father made a fortune with the assistance of the American taxpayer. And how Trump’s business decisions during his career left him worse off financially than if he’d never worked at all. It also covers his campaign and the first 540-some days of his presidency chronologically–this is something most books about Trump haven’t done, and it was astonishing to see all of the turmoil covered as it happened. (Sometimes, we don’t learn about something until it’s reported months later, and seeing all of this stuff when it was actually happening creates a clearer picture.)
My mission was to write a diligently researched book that identified key patterns in Trump’s life. His behavior. His attitudes. His values. This gives a young reader—or any reader—a faithful understanding of who the 45th president is. There are more than 1,400 footnotes. There’s extensive back matter. And it was vetted by fact checkers and a lawyer, so I feel confident it is the trustworthy guide that readers need and deserve.
Martha Brockenbrough is the award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can learn more about Martha on her website.