Just a few days ago, Briana wrote a discussion post on the increasingly common idea in publishing that plot should trump logic in fiction when it comes to MG and YA. I agree with Briana’s fundamental argument that we learn from fiction and therefore should not ignore logic when writing it. However, I wish to expand upon this by focusing specifically on the importance of representing realistic politics in children’s fiction. I have written many a recent review expressing disappointment in the bizarre politics I have seen in MG and YA, but have not yet clarified part of the reason that these representations bother me so much. Part of it is just that I like logic and do not like to see it twisted for the sake of drama. But part of it is that I think it is important for children to understand how the world works, how power structures operate–and how they can operate in those structures to defend their rights and the rights of others.
Children’s books typically are written to demonstrate how children can be heroes, take a stand, and make a difference. It is therefore odd some of these books do not present realistic representations of how children can make their voices heard. Take, for example, Chris Grabenstein’s bestselling Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series. In the second book, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, Mr. Lemoncello builds a library but ends up fighting a random group of people who declare themselves the board and then just as randomly want to close the library because it has too many books checked out. Then they randomly decide to censor books. In the third book, Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race, Mr. Lemoncello’s library is again threatened when a random woman claims he stole her board game idea decades ago. Without a trial, he is declared guilty by public opinion and the mayor kicks Mr. Lemoncello out of his own library and declares that a rival game maker is now the library head. In both books, adults are wildly flouting the law–but no one ever mentions it. Instead, the children race around having a quirky adventure and setting things to right in a manner just as random as the rest of the book.
But what would happen if these books had been written, not solely to provide the drama of Mr. Lemoncello in disgrace and his library threatened with closure, but also to reflect how the law actually works? What if someone had pointed out in the second book that the library is privately funded by Mr. Lemoncello and that outsiders cannot walk onto his property and declare themselves board members? What if it had discussed what library boards actually do and how they are elected and appointed and what powers they hold and which they do not? (Censorship is not one of their powers.) In the third book, what if someone had reminded the mayor that Mr. Lemoncello is innocent until proven guilty? What if they had asked the mayor to resign because he kicked a man off his own property and installed someone else as owner of that property–when he did not have the legal right to do so? What might children learn if not the following: the limitations of power in government, the right to a trial by jury, the right to be innocent until proven guilty? An understanding of how the law actually works would allow them to fight for their rights in the real world.
Even more fantastical stories could benefit from showing more realistic politics. In Jodi Meadows’ The Orphan Queen and The Mirror King, for instance, the protagonists–a deposed princess and the prince she loves–both seem to be making up laws as they go. Often because they want what is convenient to them, not because they have actually considered how it would affect the country or how the public might respond. These books are suggesting that the characters can basically do whatever they want and it’s okay–because we like them. We know them, we’re rooting for them, we’re invested in their romance, so who cares about what the rulers of the country actually have the authority to do or what the rulers should do, even if they do have the authority? If the characters were disagreeable and we were reading about them from the perspective of a street urchin or an immigrant denied refuge, we might very well hate them. But instead we see the story from Wil’s perspective, and from the court’s, so we feel glad that Will is excused and honored for every illegal, immoral, or questionable action; the book encourages us to ignore politics and the law when they would thwart true love or cause our heroine to be justly imprisoned.
But what if the books showed a more realistic version of politics where the protagonists, Wil and Tobias, had to face the reality that they might not be able to do whatever they wanted precisely because they have been born into power? What might readers learn? Perhaps they would understand better the limitations of power a monarch might still have, if not because of the law, then because of the court of public opinion. Perhaps they would understand that rules and laws should not be broken indiscriminately because of “special circumstances” because then monarchs might turn into tyrants. The books try to discuss such things, but do so illogically and so there is no real consideration of the burden and the limitations of power. And that’s a shame because teen readers might have been encouraged to think about how they could use numbers and public opinion to effect change. They might have been encouraged to remember that rulers should always have limits, and not set themselves about the law.
Many people remain ignorant both of their rights and of the limitations of governments. This makes it difficult for them to work within or against the power structures that might be working against them. Children’s fiction, which often seeks to empower children and to give them a voice, seems like the perfect place for children to learn about how they can stand up for their rights. But how can they if the politics shown to them are not only not realistic but also completely illogical?