Book Review: Matt Walsh's Johnny the Walrus

This is a terrible children's book that could have been great if the author could have just pretended to be subtle. Our protagonist, Johnny, is a kid who loves to play make-believe. One day, he pretends to be a walrus, fashioning "tusks" for himself with wooden spoons, and "flippers" from socks. Unfortunately, Johnny's mother takes him literally: she has him put on gray makeup, gives him worms to eat, and takes him to the zoo to be with the "other" walruses. Uh-oh! Will Johnny have to live as a "walrus" forever?

With competent execution, this could be a great children's book! The premise is not realistic—no sane parent would conclude their child is literally a walrus because he said so—but it's a kind of non-realism common in children's literature, attributing simple, caricatured motivations to characters in order to tell a silly, memorable story. If there happens to be an obvious parallel between the silly, memorable story and an ideological fad affecting otherwise-sane parents in the current year, that's plausibly (or at least deniably) not the author's fault ...

But Matt Walsh completely flubs the execution by making it a satire rather than an allegory! The result is cringey right-wing propaganda rather than a silly, memorable story that I could read to a child without feeling ashamed. (It's well-known that the left can't meme, but that advantage doesn't secure the outcome of the culture war if the right can't write children's literature.)

Rather than being a silly non-realistic children's-literature grown-up, Johnny's mother is portrayed as being duped by social media and medical authorities. ("But Johnny's mom's phone said it's not just pretend / 'Only a bigot would say that! How dare you offend!'", with angry emoji and inverted Facebook thumbs-up icons bubbling out of her phone into the scene.) We get illustrations of protesters bearing signs saying "Human Walruses Are REAL Walruses", "Literally Walrusphobic", "He/Him/Walrux", &c. The worms come in an orange pill-type bottle labeled "Wormones." (Separately, mollusks would be more typical walrus fare, but that's not the main problem here from a literary perspective.) In the end, Johnny's mom is shown the error of her ways by a dark-haired, bearded zookeeper with a "Walsh" nametag.

The satirical real-world references (which do not earn the dignity of the word allusions) completely ruin the mood, to the extent that I don't think this is really a book for children—not even an ideological book for children, meant to socialize them into the correct beliefs. It's a novelty "children's book" for the brief amusement of ideologically conservative grown-ups.

This might partially explain the poor illustration quality. The illustrations aren't ugly, just—very amateurish. The visible sketch-lines mark it as the probable product of Matt Walsh's friend who likes to draw sometimes, rather than a serious artist with a portfolio. To compete in the regular children's book market—to try to be the kind of book someone would unironically give as a gift for their niece or nephew, you want the illustrations to be beautiful or endearing, something kids or their minders will want to look at many times. Johnny the Walrus just—doesn't have that ambition. The ideological gimmick is the point. The point having been made, there was evidently no need to spring for a more expensive artist than Matt Walsh's friend who likes to draw sometimes.

I don't think this was inevitable. With care, it should be possible to pull off children's literature that maintains its integrity as children's literature while pushing back against the tide of gender identity ideology. (Which should mostly just look like children's literature from the before-time when "gender" was a synonym for sex if the word existed at all, with a few subtle modifications to defend itself in the current year.) But Johnny the Walrus is not trying to have that kind of integrity. Not recommended.

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