Fruitful Thinking

Local author promotes diversity in humorous children’s book

By Jessica Laskey
December 2019

Like many of us, Jeff Durston was quite troubled by the rhetoric coming out of the Republican primary in 2016. So what did he do? He wrote a children’s book.

“I wasn’t consciously thinking, ‘How can we resist this?’” Durston says. “I started thinking about how we could push back against the values we don’t support. My daughter was 3 at the time and we would read books to her every night. I realized that a lot of children’s books are passing down core, fundamental values like friendship, acceptance—human themes.”

The social science teacher—who works in Elk Grove and lives just outside of Downtown—started to draft a story he thought captured the essence of the issues at play in the political sphere without making the book incomprehensible to its youngest audience—or reprehensible to its older readers.

He sent the text to a friend of a friend, Hannah Howerton, a Roseville-based illustrator with values-driven children’s books of her own (“The Little Lemon that Leapt”) under her anti-bullying brand Lionel’s Place. Howerton lent her charming illustrations to Durston’s words and “Make America Grape Again: How One Misguided Orange Almost Ruined the Whole Fruit Salad” was born.

The book features a misguided orange who believes that eliminating the “imperfect” fruit is the key to restoring his nation’s greatness. (Yes, the orange bears a striking resemblance to the person currently occupying the White House, even down to the hair and the hat.) While a pointed political satire, the book strikes a gentle tone told in Dr. Seussian rhyme, with the orange inadvertently helping his citizenry realize the key to their greatness is their diversity.

“Even if you take the allegory out of it, the fundamental idea of the book is tolerance,” says the 37-year-old author, who reads the book to his now 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, but also gets plenty of feedback from adults—on both sides of the aisle—who love its subtle humor.

“It’s not too snarky. The focus isn’t on the orange, the focus is really on the lesson. When you get to the end of the book, it feels like the perfect time to have an important discussion about diversity with your kids.”

The book is available online and in local stores such as The Avid Reader (in Sacramento and Davis) and DISPLAY California in Oak Park, and even in Madison, Wis., where Jeff Durston’s wife is from. It has sold “surprisingly well,” thanks in part to a photo Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg posted on Twitter after Jeff Durston approached him with a copy of the book at Chocolate Fish Coffee. The “Make American Grape Again” team recently completed its first successful book fair in Berkeley, with many more to come.

“This book gives us a lot of confidence,” says Jeff Durston, who has no plans for a sequel as of yet (though “ImPEACHment” would sell itself), but he does have a memoir about his years teaching in central Oakland tucked away waiting to be published.

“I think the book stands out because of its title and its humor, but our biggest hope is that it allows conversations with 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds about what’s on all our minds. We hope it allows catharsis.”

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