The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Critical Carlos reads ‘Healthy Holly’

Inside the children’s book that has landed Baltimore’s mayor in a political scandal

Copies of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's self-published "Healthy Holly" illustrated paperbacks for children. On April 1 Pugh announced an indefinite leave of absence, just as a scandal intensifies over what critics call a "self-dealing" book-sales arrangement. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Hi, I’m Critical Carlos, and I want you to read books like I do! Reading is good for your brain and helps us all learn. If you read enough books, then one day, when you’re big, you can become a state senator, and then the mayor of a large American city. And maybe you can write books of your own, too! The fun part is that you can make lots of money by selling 100,000 copies of your books, or even more, to businesses and organizations that later might need your help. Helping is nice. Everybody wins!

This week, Critical Carlos read “Healthy Holly: Exercising Is Fun!,” by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. She published it all by herself. I couldn’t find the book in stores or libraries. Not even Mr. Internet had any left! Fortunately, Critical Carlos knew someone in Baltimore who had a copy. (And if you’re wondering why Critical Carlos is writing in the third person after starting out in the first person, good catch — “Healthy Holly” does the same thing!)

In the book, a little girl named Holly learns to exercise. She walks through parks, rides a bike, dances and jumps rope with her parents and friends. Those important verbs are in bold letters in the book, to make sure we remember all the different ways to exercise, except the author sometimes forgets to make the right words bold. Oops! Holly has conversations with her parents, too, except the author sometimes also forgets to put quotation marks in the right places. Oops again! “Healthy Holly” is a little sloppy!

Critical Carlos knows he might be too old to appreciate such a successful children’s book. Lucky for us, Critical Carlos has three Critical Kids, ages 11, 8 and 5. Critical Carlos read the story out loud to all three of them at bedtime this week — and they sure had lots to say!

The Critical Kids are a little alarmed by the illustrations in “Healthy Holly.” Random objects come to life throughout the pages — street lamps, sports equipment, furniture, trash bins, clouds, even the sun! They all have faces and big smiles. “I wonder why the tennis ball is happy to be hit?” asks 11-year-old Critical Kid. Good question! “I wonder why the clock doesn’t have that many teeth,” he says next, surveying Healthy Holly’s living room. “Did the clock forget to brush its teeth?”

Wow, “Healthy Holly” has secret dental-health lessons, too!

A cloud in the sky “looks like a dolphin,” complains 8-year-old Critical Kid. “The dad looks like he has huge boobs,” she adds, pointing at various illustrations of Holly’s father. He does look like he works out a lot, but Critical Carlos decides to move on quickly from this line of conversation!

The Post's Ron Charles thinks there are real life lessons to be learned from Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's children's books — just not the ones she intended. (Video: Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

The Critical Kids have other problems with the pictures, created not by Pugh but by an illustrator. They include a “shape-shifting front porch,” as 11-year-old Critical Kid puts it, as well as “a bunch of alive things that weren’t supposed to be alive,” says 5-year-old Critical Kid. “That is so creepy.”

But they are especially bothered by the way people in “Healthy Holly” talk, which apparently is not the way actual people talk in real life. Uh-oh!

“Exercising is fun,” Healthy Holly’s mother tells her. Holly responds: “I will be healthy. I like having fun.” Eleven-year-old Critical Kid doesn’t like that exchange. “The dialogue . . . it doesn’t sound so real,” he observes. “I mean the phrase ‘I like having fun.’ Isn’t it obvious that one likes having fun? You don’t just walk up and say: ‘I like having fun! I like doing things that I like!’ ” Ouch. Everyone’s a critic at Critical Carlos’s house!

“You are jumping rope,” the mother tells Holly. “You are exercising.” To which 8-year-old Critical Kid can only say, “Duh.” You’re right, Critical Kid, it is a little odd to tell a child what she is doing while she is doing it. No wonder the three Critical Kids tell Critical Carlos that reading “Healthy Holly” does not make them want to exercise more. Tough but fair!

All the characters in “Healthy Holly” are happy. That’s nice, but isn’t it a little weird that nothing ever seems to go wrong, even for a tiny bit? “I feel like if everyone is always happy, it takes away from the reality of the story,” 11-year-old Critical Kid says. “You could have them confused sometimes.”

Good point, Critical Kid. Learning to ride a bike is hard. Remember those falls and scrapes and tears? Critical Carlos sure does! But that makes the moment when you finally keep your balance, gliding faster and faster, so much more fun and exciting!

“Healthy Holly” skips over all that. After Holly receives a bicycle for her birthday, “Holly’s mother and father took turns teaching her to ride her bike,” the book says. “Soon Holly was able to ride her bike.” That’s it. It sounds so easy!

Publishing children’s books — and selling so many copies — is usually hard work, too. Many authors try and try for a long time. But success is so much more fun and exciting when you don’t rely on bulk purchases from private corporations and state agencies, and when books arouse real interest, not just conflicts of interest, right, kids?

Who knows? Maybe the other books in the “Healthy Holly” series are much better. Will you be reading them? Let Critical Carlos and the Critical Kids know — because we sure won’t be!

Follow Carlos Lozada on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

In his new book, James Comey calls for ‘ethical leadership.’ But does he live up to it?

Can truth survive this president? An honest investigation.

How America learned to think for itself