Writing Realistic Politics in Children’s Fiction Matters More Than You Might Think

Discussion Post

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?

18 thoughts on “Writing Realistic Politics in Children’s Fiction Matters More Than You Might Think

  1. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    What an interesting discussion! I do think that politics could be an interesting addition to some MG and YA books if it’s done in a way that makes sense. I agree with you that the Lemoncello books just sound plain illogical, and we certainly don’t want to throw logic out the window when we write children’s books. I give a little more leniency to books in a fantasy world, but I agree that certain standards should still be upheld. I’ll confess that I hadn’t thought of this at all with Orphan Queen and Mirror King—I enjoyed those books, and I’m trying to rethink them now through this lens. Very interesting!

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    • Krysta says:

      *SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE ORPHAN QUEEN AND THE MIRROR KING*

      I really enjoyed The Orphan Queen and the Mirror King. I keep recommending them to people. Still, I can’t get over what a terrible spy Wil is (she keeps her secret documents in the desk and under the mattress!) or how Tobias lets her do whatever she wants with almost no repercussions. He knows she’s not really a duchess, but lets her hang out in the palace for weeks. He knows she’s done magic that has endangered the entire kingdom, but lets her stay in the palace as a guest. He knows she is indirectly responsible for the death of his father (she was working with and harboring the man who assassinated the king, yet he believes she’s totally innocent and doesn’t even take her to task for making and giving Patrick the map he used to commit the crime) but doesn’t accuse her of complicity or even really tell her that, if not a murderer, she’s really pretty stupid (maybe too stupid to rule a kingdom, honestly). He knows that she is also indirectly responsible for the collapses of the cathedral and another death–but still really doesn’t do anything about it.

      Then it gets better. He has her sign a treaty even though she’s not a ruler of any kingdom. Then he lets her go back to her old kingdom…as..what? It’s Tobias’s kingdom and it has a governor. If he wants her to have it, he has to remove the governor and announce that he’s giving it back. Or that he’s going to marry her and then they’ll share both kingdoms and, hey look, now there’s no issue. Instead he sends deposed princess back to her old kingdom so she can have an impromptu military coup with…the military of the country she’s fighting…? Because…Tobias really wants to give it back, but is too weak to fight his own governor or something? More shenanigans ensue until they both end up married like everyone knew they would anyway, considering that Wil is essentially a criminal for performing magic, creating a magic human that is the reason a woman died and an entire country was wiped out, abetting an assassination, impersonating nobility, robbing warehouses, etc. etc.–but Tobias never did a thing about it because he’s in love.

      You can bet the lower classes are gossiping about how nice it must be to have royal blood and be excused for anything while poor Tom down the road there stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving children and is jail. Or maybe did a bit of magic to light a fire to stay alive and is now probably dead, killed by the law. Meanwhile deposed princess is kiling people and doing magic on a scale no one’s seen before and she gets handed her old country back on a platter as a reward. After some more people die for her to get it, of course, because Tobias is such a weak king he can’t control his own governor.

      Again, I enjoyed the books. I just don’t think they bear a lot of scrutiny when you think about the politics. 😀

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  2. karen blue says:

    You may some very valid arguments for correctly teaching children how the law works. I totally agree with your reasons.
    Just to play devil’s advocate, I also think children might not be able to understand those concepts and it may take some of the fun out of fiction if everything has to be lawful and/or politically correct. I know some books are there to teach, but I don’t think children’s fiction always needs to be.
    Great topic!

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    • Krysta says:

      I would like to think that middle school children and teens are capable of understanding the law. If some are not, quickly introducing a concept such as being considered innocent until proven guilty should not be too taxing and would actually be beneficial if they are ignorant of their rights. I am not advocating a law book, just acknowledging the actual law in books set in the contemporary U.S. or illustrating in a plot the consequences of a ruler setting themselves above the law.

      Liked by 1 person

      • karen blue says:

        I totally agree that middle school and high school aged books should teach the right laws. I am thinking more about my small kids, who are age 8 and 9. They are not reading middle school books just yet. I know most of what my daughter reads is fantasy books where laws can be anything the world proposes. If the book is set in our reality then it should follow our laws. If not then you are right, it is sending the wrong message.

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        • Krysta says:

          Ah, I see. My post referred to MG and YA books any gave an example of MG series and a YA series, so I was specifically thinking about those age groups. I agree that picture books and beginner readers might not be focused on politics as much. ☺

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Lynn says:

    Yes!! Totally agree. I read Fly By Night earlier in the year and was surprised by how detailed the political system was (even if it was silly) and it really added a lot to the story. I don’t think I would have loved it half as much weight it because it gave the book such a vivid setting.

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  4. Tarissa says:

    Excellent points you’ve brought out about literary politics. I believe authors should try to mimic real-world circumstances, even in a fictionalized or fantasy world. It doesn’t all have to be based on the type of politics that I know of either (as in, American), I could see fantasy politics being based off other country’s laws, or even politics from a different time setting. But if the politics in a book are solid, I think it makes the rest of the plot seem more cohesive too.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes! They can certainly have different political systems in different books. I’d just like to see the logic of each political system be taken into account. For instance, I’m pretty sure the world of The Orphan Queen doesn’t have the “innocent until proven guilty” rule. (Actually, it’s totally unclear what powers the king does or does not possess.) But it does seem to be governed partly by popular opinion. That is, when the prince decides to let a known criminal reside in the palace rather than in a jail cell, he should expect backlash. It doesn’t come. Why? I don’t know. I guess that wasn’t part of the plot the author sketched out? We have more pressing things to worry about than keeping the throne?

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  5. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    This is a great way to continue the discussion!! I think that’s such a great point about how this could be educational in a really positive way if books were more realistic. I think that if a book is making serious points, it should pay attention to realities of law. Of course, if the writer wants to write a tyrannical system there are plenty of realistic examples too, but that doesn’t mean they get to avoid realism 😉

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes! It’s not like every political system in a book has to be the same or follow the U.S. or be a model government. It just has to make sense! If you’re going to set yourself up as a tyrant, there have to be consequences. People have to be unhappy or plotting against you or otherwise somehow conditioned so they like being ruled by a tyrant. You can’t just have your characters wildly flout the laws and have no one say anything because that would get in the way of their little clandestine meetings!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Milliebot says:

    This is a fantastic point! It’s certainly something missing from a lot of children’s books. I don’t notice it as much, but there are times I’ve scratched my head at the lack of logic (can’t think of an example right now).

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    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes I just want a character to SAY something. If we must have the mayor throw Mr. Lemoncello off his property for alleged plagiarism, can’t a voice in the crowd just feebly protest “innocent until proven guilty” so we know that the author knows this is all rubbish? It would make me feel so much better. 😉

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