Art credit: Daniel in the Lions’ Den/Peter Paul Rubens

Story Time in Heck

By Steve Watkins

I’d rather have been Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, one of my favorite Old Testament stories, plus I always liked saying their names, but since there was only just the one of me I settled for thinking of myself as a modern-day Daniel in the lions’ den as I strode in a light rain past the free hot chocolate tables and the not-so-free donut trucks and into Riverbend High School in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. The lobby had been converted for the day—the first Saturday in December—into what looked like the tail end of a yard sale when all that’s left are a bunch of crappy books laid out on folding tables, plus a couple of bowls filled with rubber balls and pencils.

I skipped past the handful of bargain hunters vulturing around the yard sale detritus and followed a trickle of folks (bags carefully checked by armed security guards) into the school auditorium where 200 white people—an enthusiastic gathering of self-styled “Christian Warriors”—were just finishing up something. Maybe an opening prayer. An energetic woman in a green SkyTree Books T-shirt—that would be Riley Lee (Texas A&M grad, dietetics major), young president of the fledgling “faith-based” publisher that’s marketing itself as “an alternative to the sexually explicit content distributed in Scholastic’s book fairs”—then emceed a quick run through the Pledge of Allegiance, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “God Bless America” (“From the mountains/To the prairies/To the oceans/White with foam”). Then she handed off the baton for a meandering welcome by the book fair’s sponsor, a schlumpy guy named Mark Taylor who doubles as the Spotsylvania Public Schools superintendent.

Taylor, who once snubbed an invitation I sent him to a book group called the Marye Street Rod and Gun Club to discuss Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which he’d recently banned from Spotsy’s schools and which I used to teach to international baccalaureate high school students, told the book fair crowdlet he was footing the bill for bringing SkyTree to Virginia and renting the school for the day, though he didn’t say how much it was costing him, only that the money came out of his own pocket and not a nickel from county coffers. 

Not that I believed him.

The phlegmatic Taylor groused for awhile about the sinful state of the world and the need for a rating system in libraries like they have in the movies, then went on to extol the virtues of home-schooling his own kids, one of whom has publicly announced that she no longer has anything to do with him. He noted that he didn’t allow them to watch TV when they were growing up, which was why they and he never saw the old ’80s and ’90s sitcom Growing Pains starring a teenage version of the guy all these white people had come to hear speak, a D-list actor turned Christian conservative activist/entrepreneur and children’s book author named Kirk Cameron. Cameron is also an anti-vaxxer who at the height of Covid organized not one but two protest caroling events that drew dozens of people to the parking lot of a mall in Ventura, California, to put the Christ back in Christmas. 

I had gone to the SkyTree book fair out of curiosity, and because I’m one of the Scholastic authors who Mark Taylor, Kirk Cameron, and their onward Christian soldiers want booted from the schools because of all the smut we write and peddle. In my case, the books are about teenagers in the Resistance in occupied Paris; the juvenile detention system; and Wolfskinder, the thousands of children orphaned and abandoned to survive on their own in the winter forests of East Prussia after the Red Army invasion at the end of World War II. 

Back in November, a young woman named Lanah Burkhardt—an employee of SkyTree’s parent company, Brave Books, masquerading as a Concerned Citizen—told a Texas school board that when she was 11 she read a Scholastic novel that wrecked her life. The book depicted “a single kiss,” she said, which was enough to lead her into a debilitating addiction to pornography that left her depressed and suicidal at 13 and has deviled her ever since. She begged the school board to stop hosting Scholastic book fairs to protect children from “sexual obscenity.” 

SkyTree and Kirk Cameron have been promoting a video of Burkhardt’s tearful lamentation with some apparent success. One school board member called for replacing Scholastic book fairs with SkyTree, to which Burkhardt responded, “All glory to God.” SkyTree and Brave Books have also compiled a list of offensive titles, with excerpts, that they’re circulating to expose Scholastic’s supposedly woke agenda “pushing Marxism, gender confusion, and the LGBTQ lifestyle on children.”

You can see why I might have been a little nervous.

Of course, there’s famous, then way below famous there’s book famous, and I’m not even that, so while I may have felt as though I was a Daniel walking into the lions’ den, I doubt anybody else saw me that way, or even knew who I was—just a standoffish guy in a Pie & Chai T-shirt looking a little paranoid. Then again, Mark Taylor did give me the stink eye when he walked past where I’d stationed myself at the side of the auditorium to observe the goings on. Or he might have been suffering a bout of dyspepsia from too much free hot chocolate and too many not-so-free food truck donuts.

Either way, by the time of the possible stink eye, Kirk Cameron had taken the stage and was working his shtick, starting with an apology for wearing California shoes in wet Virginia, moving on from there to a comedic riff on drag queens in public libraries and how maybe library officials who’d been turning him down all over America would let him do readings, too, if only he had a drag queen name and looked better in a dress, ha ha ha. That was followed by another side-splitter about how he was going to have to turn in his man card because he was wearing a fanny pack, but gosh darn it, aren’t those things just so convenient and aren’t we happy they’ve come back in style? 

All of which was warmup to a lengthy and tedious exegesis, with grainy slides, on America’s tragically overlooked National Monument to the Forefathers, formerly known as the Pilgrim Monument, an 81-foot granite monstrosity that was meant to commemorate the Mayflower Pilgrims and honor the nation’s supposed founding ideals, etc. It’s Cameron’s stump speech at public appearances, and I had the sense that he could recite it in his sleep and quite possibly was doing just that in the Riverbend auditorium. He’s even made a short film about it called Monumental that you can buy or rent, plus T-shirts. It was during an interview hyping the video a dozen years ago that Cameron made headlines for telling the British interviewer Piers Morgan that homosexuality was “unnatural,” “detrimental,” and “ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.” 

The now-defunct Gawker, one of the few publications to give so much as a nod to the existence of the actor’s prosaic “documentary,” titled its review “Kirk Cameron: A Bigot in Pilgrim’s Clothing,” which pretty much said it all. God sided with Kirk, of course, and had Hulk Hogan sue Gawker not long after for posting a sex tape of the pro-wrestling legend (real name Terry Bollea) lieth-ing carnally with a friend’s wife. The invasion of privacy judgment drove Gawker into bankruptcy and turned the website into a pillar of salt.

Cameron has been working hard to monetize bigotry and Christian nationalism ever since. Not that he’s without his redeeming qualities.

He says he regrets a lot of scenes from Growing Pains, for one thing, especially those in which he was supposed to be a cool ladies’ man but was actually a privileged teenage dick. Like the episode in which he went to bed with a girl and in the morning had to ask, “What’s your name again?”

By all accounts, Cameron has been a steady and loving spouse and parent since then. Chelsea Noble, the actress who played his girlfriend on the show, was his girlfriend in real life. They eventually got born again, got married, and raised six kids, the first four of whom they adopted. Kirk and Chelsea went on to co-star in a series of “Christian-themed” movies about the Rapture—Left Behind I, II, and III—in which Chelsea’s character, a reformed sinner, ascends into heaven, where she’s given a crystal tiara by Jesus. Really. Kirk, meanwhile, played an investigative journalist named Buck (because he’s always bucking the system) who also makes it to heaven. He doesn’t get a tiara, but he does get his first name back—also Cameron in the movie—because in the Sweet Ever After everything’s perfect and there’s nothing left for him to buck.

Kirk and Chelsea have been very public about the fact that they don’t believe in lip-kissing outside of marriage, even pretend, which may have limited their roles some over the years. In a film called Fireproof, Kirk played a firefighter who’s been a privileged adult dick but turns things around in his tanking marriage thanks to a Christian self-help book called The Love Dare, which only sounds dirty. There’s one kissing scene in the otherwise chaste movie, and when they filmed it, Chelsea insisted on being a stand-in for the actress playing Kirk’s wife. 



Once Cameron finished feeding his Pilgrim fixation at Riverbend High School, he invited all the children—with parents’ permission, of course—to join him down in front of the auditorium stage. The kids sat on the floor; Cameron walked among them in his California shoes; SkyTree dietitian Riley Lee cued up the projector for a reading of Kirk’s first children’s book, As You Grow. Story time started off with a little Q&A, the author asking if the kids had any animals, pets, whatever. There were, as expected, a lot of cats and dogs, but also quite a few chickens, which Cameron deduced must have something to do with the high percentage of home-schooled children present. This in turn led to him praising the superior orange yolks in home-schoolers’ home-raised chicken eggs vs. the yucky yellow yolks you get in grocery store eggs. Cameron also confided to his rapt audience that he had been allergic to both cats and dogs when he was growing up so had pet snakes instead. His sister, meanwhile, had hamsters, a few of which Cameron said he stole from their cage and fed to his snakes—a revelation that shocked the book fair kids and had them recoiling in audible horror. Realizing he’d crossed a line between sharing and scaring, Cameron backpedaled furiously, stammering that he had been 9 at the time, and 9-year-old-boys are all terrible, aren’t they? and that’s why he’s thankful for Jesus.

Invocation of the Savior made everything OK, of course—murmurs of Christian approval from the parents; hamster squeaks from the kids—and Cameron pivoted to As You Grow, a disjointed narrative about a wannabe oak named SkyTree who at the start of the book is still just a tiny acorn hiding underground, growing root fibers and sprouting his first leaf while snow blankets the world above on fictional Freedom Island, the setting for a number of the SkyTree books. (There’s even a Car-a-Lago Coast.) With some prodding from the author, the book fair kids correctly identified the season as winter, and they also correctly identified a swarm of fireflies that showed up a few pages later.

“And what’s another name for fireflies?” Cameron asked the kids, not one to miss a teachable moment.

“Lightning bugs!” the kids shouted back.

“That’s right,” Cameron said. “Because their tails light up.”

“It’s called bioluminescence!” shouted a helpful parent.

This caught Cameron by surprise, but he quickly righted himself. “Bioluminescence,” he repeated as if he’d said it first. “Now that’s a big word. You know, I was doing a reading some time ago and a little girl stopped me and said, ‘Fireflies aren’t actually insects. They’re beetles. And they have light bulbs attached to their booties.’”

The naughty-adjacent laugh line was as far as the lightning bug conversation went. No mention, obviously, of why fireflies light themselves up, which is principally to attract sex partners, and sometimes to eat them. 

The reading continued in fits and starts, and I have to give Cameron credit for making the most of his D-list performer talents to keep the children engaged as the story plodded on and SkyTree slowly grew to super-tree status thanks to God and a host of anthropomorphized creatures in Victorian duds who took to the branches themselves and even built a church up there. All was good, everybody + SkyTree having a blessed day, until suddenly, in a single two-page spread, Black Lives Matter showed up from out of nowhere to attack and burn SkyTree (pronounced “Christian America”) down to a smoldering stump. At least I think it was meant to be Black Lives Matter: coal-black tigers or wolves or hyenas—some species of malevolent cat, anyway; it was a little hard to tell. And to be totally honest, I bailed on the reading somewhere around there  so can’t tell you what happened next, though I can probably guess.

Instead, I ducked back out into the lobby to do my due diligence and check out the other SkyTree offerings, which were pretty much what I expected—ham-fisted works that included a transphobic board book called Elephants Are Not Birds and an anti-communist polemic titled The Island of Free Ice Cream: “The animals of Rushington are happy—until the wolves promise free ice cream. Asher the Fox doubts that the wolves can deliver on their promise, which springboards him into a wild adventure, exploring wealth, poverty, and the wonders of a free market.” 

The writer Janet Manley summed things up better than I could in a recent essay for the website Literary Hub: “What gets my secular goat is just how bad these stories are. They’re the children’s lit equivalent of the Trump walking on water portrait. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, it doesn’t offend me as an atheist, it offends me as a writer. The animal heads drawn onto bad AI-art-looking bodies, the crude metaphors of the trees and the heavens, the stodgy writing, the lack of anything enjoyable, plot-wise or language-wise.”

I could add a few more things here—a snippet of dialogue I overheard about why Christians shouldn’t read Lord of the Rings, the odd sighting of a couple of Bluey books and a lesser Lois Lowry that had somehow snuck into the yard sale—but truth to tell, I’ve been working way too hard in this essay to make the book fair experience sound more interesting than it actually was. The dismal program, the anorexic inventory, the bigoted D-list celebrity, the bigoted school superintendent (check out his old Facebook posts)—all were tiresome and predictable, duller and grayer than the weather outside. 

Unlike Daniel in the lions’ den (and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), my deliverance came not because I was blameless before God, but because I was bored out of my mind and left before Cameron finished reading his story, took a break to sign books at $15 a pop, then did it all over again in the soggy afternoon.

God and Kirk Cameron got the last laugh, though. For the past month, my social media feed has been inundated with ads, pitches, videos, and posts from Brave Books, with more and more pouring in every day. I showed my wife, Janet, last night, and she said forget about escaping from the lions’ den. This is turning into a flood of biblical proportions, and we might need an ark to survive. 


Steve Watkins is co-founder and editor of PIE & CHAI, a retired professor emeritus of English, a longtime tree steward with Tree Fredericksburg, an inveterate dog walker, a recovering yoga teacher and co-founder of two yoga businesses, father of four daughters, grandfather of four grandsons, and author of 15 books, two of which are forthcoming in 2024. His author website is