Witch Hunt by Andrea Balis & Elizabeth Levy, illustrated by Tim Foley

subtitled The Cold War, Joe McCarthy, and the Red Scare.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the word “communism” has been used as a bogeyman for the average American, and is often the default label for any behavior that threatens a selfish sense of privilege. Why explain why you don’t like something if it means also facing your own smallness, when you could just scream “communism” and stay secure in your own unjustified self-righteousness instead? Insidiously, the same people who do this are also the ones who want to ban books that explain, among other things, what communism really is. Heaven forfend that others learn the truth and realize that these book banners are merely fascists in disguise, so desperate to hold onto power that they curtail access to knowledge, with the intent of keeping those around them ignorant and, therefore, dependent.

Luckily, there are books like Witch Hunt, that do a phenomenal job of explaining to young readers what communism is, what fascism is, and why witch hunts are an affront to American values and to our civil liberties. Authors Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy use the framework of McCarthyism to do so, cleverly placing these issues in a historical context while quietly drawing parallels between that era and the present day. Most of the text is drawn straight from original quotes, testimony and reporting, interspersed with narration in the guise of “fly on the wall” asides. There’s a comprehensive list of source notes, as well as a handy timeline. Tim Foley’s excellent line drawings throughout bring the contents to life with intelligence and charm.

Honestly, I think that the only more fitting time in recent history to read books like these, about demagogues using scare tactics to curtail American freedoms is perhaps when our 45th president was first campaigning for that position (and, ugh, still is now.) Because holy wow, the similarities with him and his henchmen are breathtaking. No surprise, given the influence that Roy Cohn — Bully. Coward. Victim — had on both eras, as this book deftly shows.

But it’s really the differences between then and now that are just outright heartbreaking. When elected officials and party representatives of the 1950s shunned Joseph McCarthy it’s because they knew that he was an extremist whose harms would far outweigh any political gains they might be able to profit from themselves. Nowadays, the center has allowed itself to be held hostage by the paranoid rabble-rousing of the far Right: instead of being a bulwark against fascism, as the United States government was mid 20th-century, it’s allowing the Right to erode any sense of decorum, balance and measured consideration in our halls of power. Were Joseph Welch to demand “Have you no decency?” of these people now, he’d be laughed at. Decency in this day and age is too often seen, if not outright vilified, as weakness.

That said, Witch Hunt isn’t just a clever, engaging lesson in history, distant or recent. The book strongly suggests that people in power, both in government and in the media, should work harder to expose the fascists cloaking themselves in the American flag while hypocritically decrying the “unAmerican” behavior of others. Any spotlight given to the sensational claims of these publicity-seekers should be accompanied with a healthily critical coverage.

As both historical text and handbook for readers wishing to fight injustice, this is necessary, illuminating and highly accessible reading. Recommended.

Witch Hunt by Andrea Balis & Elizabeth Levy, illustrated by Tim Foley was published April 16 2024 by Roaring Brook Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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