Of Kid’s Books and Kings (a.k.a. Where’s the Elected Official?)

Why are the governments in popular fiction for kids and young adults almost never elected?

I have two boys, now in third and sixth grades. My wife and I still read to them every night, so I’m familiar with a lot of the popular kids’ fiction of the past 10 years. In every major book or series I can think of–Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson books, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Gregor the Overlander series–political authority either resides in monarchies or is controlled by some other self-selected group of elites, often with special powers.

A few of the books we’ve read have raised tough questions about these authoritarian arrangements and the injustices they entail. Right now, for example, I’m reading the excellent Bartimaeus trilogy to my sixth grader and appreciating the story of popular resistance against a tyrannical aristocracy of greedy magicians. Most of the time, though, poor governance is implicitly blamed on flaws in the character of individual leaders. Villains bring us down, and heroes make things right. Institutions, it seems, are irrelevant.

As a scholar of democratization and a liberal by political philosophy, I really don’t like the message this pattern sends to my kids. Governance is a very hard and perpetual problem, and the parade of gods, kings, and magicians traipsing through kids’ fiction reinforces the authoritarian fantasy that benevolent dictators offer an elegant solution. I realize that fiction isn’t meant to mimic reality, and I understand how these struggles between powerful beings of good and evil make a terrific scaffolding for storytelling. Still, I can’t help but wonder how this steady diet of government by kings and wizards prepares kids to make sense of the politics they will encounter as they grow up.

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  1. Tammy

     /  September 12, 2011

    Love this post, Jay! I’ve thought about role-models/implicit messages in children’s literature related to other topics. Never this. If you decide you’re on to the next children’s literary best-seller, I would only as that in addition to lessons about democracy and tyranny, you integrate a mix of female characters too. But that’s a different set of role-modeling challenges. In any case, given the influence that my fourth grade social studies class had on my understanding of American government, I think you’re on to something.

    • Thanks, Tammy. And agreed about female characters. Actually, that’s another mark in favor of the Bartimaeus trilogy I mentioned. One of the handful of narrators in those books is a girl who’s a leader in the “commoners'” resistance, and women are presented as equals among the ranks of the greedy magicians, too. I’ve only read the first and most of the second books, but if you’re looking for something fun and smart to read, I’d check them out.

  2. Great observation! Perhaps this is why people fail to complain as the office of President continues to accrue more and more unconstitutional power, from one term to the next across both parties. Intelligent people are willing to say, “this situation is so dire, if we just gave the President complete power for a little while, all could be solved!” That’s of course pure insanity. Political leaders rarely give power back once taken. And there’s no evidence that a single individual’s prescriptions are going to solve any of society’s ills. Usually, rash, unchecked decisions just make things much worse. This is one of the reasons for the creation of the Tea Party movement… to counter this trend and move things back into the realm of constitutional checks and balances.

    As to the “why” of it, well I would guess that monarchies are easier for children to comprehend, especially since they tend to reflect (and reinforce?) the parental governmental structure. Representative governments are harder to explain in the context of a children’s story, thus they are discarded as plot elements. I’m not sure there’s a good solution to this other than treating government as more of a “black box” without explaining the details. But most children’s stories, again for comprehension and also teaching morals, is basic good vs. evil stuff, and that’s pretty hard to convey without a specific hero and villain (usually in a position of unchecked power).

  3. You’re reading fantasy. These kinds of tropes are pretty much embedded in the genre.

    As you note, some stuff does manage to break from this (Bartimaeus, which is awesome, Harry Potter to some degree), but not much.

    You might try Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark series if you want something that really tackles the issues you raise: the characters even spend time arguing about whether bad monarchs/advisors are the problem or the institution itself. His Prydain Chronicles does wind up with a “good king” but is a bit more ambivalent than your standard fantasy. In Taran Wanderer the main character spends a lot of time in the Free Commots and Alexander suggests that these are much better forms of political organization than lordships he also visits.

    • Fair enough, but it should also be possible to embed a story in a world with magic without portraying virtue as the solution to all problems, no? Can’t magicians elect their governments, too? Or, better yet, think of the potential for dramatic conflicts if magicians and Muggles/commoners had to share an elected government…

      • I see your point, but I’d just reiterate that fantasy — particularly “high fantasy” and “portal fantasy” is pretty constraining because it usually entails a romanticization of the ancien regime. This is pretty hard to avoid for, among other reasons, the genre expectations of its audience and the fact that it usually involves good-evil metaphysics. Some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s stuff problematizes (Tigana, Last Light of the Sun, Lord of Emperors) without introducing anachronistic governments.

        This reminds me of a discussion on Henry F’s old blog about how badly most fantasy screws up political economy. It isn’t clear that real, working magic is compatible with feudalism.

  4. AxelDC

     /  September 13, 2011

    Kids grow up in an authoritarian world. They are born to parents who have complete power over them, and who may not be ideal. They are then sent to schools where teachers and principles tell them everything to do. They go to church, where the priest/minister/rabbi tells them to everything the ultimate absolute monarch, God, tells them to do. When they get old enough to work, they are under the authority of a supervisor who will fire them for not doing what they are told.

    Children’s literature merely reflects the reality of their lives. The reason we call overbearing government “paternalistic” or the “nanny state” is because it reflects the realities of childhood.

    • Thanks, exactly what I was thinking. These books aren’t actually about government in any way. They are about power – the power children have none of and are constantly subjected to the whims of. It’s mythology, not social science. To read it otherwise is terribly literal.

  5. Children’s literature is intended to reinforce parental authority, which is absolute for a minor.

  6. Dan

     /  September 13, 2011

    I am sure my son would love a story where the hero is a County Supervisor.

    And BTW, all superheros live in cities, not kingdoms.

  7. I get what you’re pointing at (though we haven’t read the same books), though I do think some of this might be misplaced because of the YA-fantasy connection.

    I mean, look at adult fantasy–do you see examples of interesting discourse over governance? Or do you see “evil villain vs. chosen one”?

    So I think it would be pertinent to look at some non-fantasy YA–if it exists anymore.

    (That said, fantasy author David Liss recently asked why fantasy has become elitist (http://io9.com/5831053/when-did-magic-become-elitist)–which is not an argument I agree with, but you might find something interesting there; and Alyssa Rosenberg connected that with a sense of political powerlessness (http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2011/08/16/296501/magic-elitism-and-power-to-transform-the-world/).)

  8. Tel

     /  September 13, 2011

    I’d say that Harry Potter is a pretty good counter-example to that. Harry is a “chosen one,” but the books really reinforce the point that only the “bad guys” think that benevolent dictatorship is a good idea, or that “mudbloods” aren’t worth as much as purebred wizards. Harry doesn’t become Minister of Magic, or King of the Wizarding World afterwards, he becomes an Auror. Institutions do fail, but that’s kind of implicit in any story with a villain in it. (It wouldn’t have been very interesting if Slughorn had suggested Tom Riddle see a team of counselors at St. Mungo’s; or if the Daily Prophet had done a proper job instead of being a mouthpiece for the Ministry of Magic). And it’s the non-governmental civic institutions like the Order of the Phoenix that really hold the society together in times of great peril.

  9. I think because a truly good dictator really IS better than a democracy. They can implement their programs with having to deal with opposition, and because they are already at the top, their incentive to be corrupted by outside powers is lessened than the average politician.

    The real problem with dictatorship is that it does nothing for stability. Institutions help ensure stability over the long term and that helps economic and technological growth.

    Also, if you really want to a realistic look at institutions, an individual can do very little to change them. You’re at their mercy. That’s a depressing enough message when kids grow up.

  10. lara

     /  September 13, 2011

    I think your essay makes a more important point about authoritarianism than kids’ lit. Authoritarianism’s appeal lies in its simplicity and lack of grey area, which also happens to make it easier for a child’s mind to process. It’s way simpler for an author to have a king issue a decree than hope that the kids reading their stories have all memorized the lyrics to “I’m Just a Bill.” Authoritarianism is also just the thing for adults whose minds never quite matured to the point of being able to process nuance, complexity, and shades of grey.

  11. Detroiter

     /  September 13, 2011

    Those are embedded tropes of the genre. See Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale for thorough explanation.

  12. “It’s mythology, not social science”
    Quite right. Even today political leaders often act like wizards or god-kings, promising $2 per gallon gas and other outcomes which they have no clue how to achieve. They don’t listen to opposing viewpoints, and spend more time putting together their wardrobes than they do talking to constituents. Fantasy fiction is just reflecting reality.

  13. Clay D. Major

     /  September 13, 2011

    Great article, Jay, and I agree with you entirely. Interesting to see the opinion of a liberal-leaning father of *boys* specific to authoritarian governance, when my dissatisfaction as the father of a girl (and only child) has been with the role of “Princess” in ancient and modern mythos: Comely, often a lovely singer, wispy through the waist (often to the point of comic disfigurement), but typically passive and patient as her Prince Charming battles [Insert Heroic Obstacle Here] to liberate her from the tyranny of Wicked Stepwhatsits or jealous crones or the odd apple-happy witch. Until recently, these women have proved poor role-models for my thoroughly modern little Millie.

    But there has been some hope of late: Disney’s MULAN is a family favorite because that girl will cut a dude; not content with sitting at home while The Menfolk go off to war in ancient China, Mulan chops off her hair, dresses like a boy and out-badasses her legion of dopey solider-types, making her own destiny without relying on some broad-shouldered hunk to sweep in and rescue her. Better still, the underrated and truly wonderful THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG gave my daughter a heroine working tirelessly (at two jobs!) to reinvent herself as a chef and restaurateur in 1920s New Orleans. I much prefer these tough-as-nails “princesses” to their starry-eyed progenitors, whose salvation tended to come only in an arranged marriage with Prince Whitey McCharmingpants.

    • tallboots

       /  September 14, 2011

      Steer away from Disney and you’ll find much better women. Not sure how old your girls are, but when they are closer to 14 or so, the Hunger Games series will give them a tough ladyfriend, and even better will be Kristen Cashore’s Graceling and Fire.

      And don’t worry too much about the Princesses, honestly. Most of the strong women you see in the world also watched Cinderella and had Barbie dolls. What you tell them is so much more important than the movies.

  14. Robert

     /  September 13, 2011

    I have noticed this when my two sons engage in creative play (which they still do, on occasion, despite the lure of Xbox). There are kings and lords, but no governors or mayors. From a mythic perspective, a king with a sword beats a mayor with a fountain pen.

    Minor tangent – back when I was running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, as an adult with adult players, I had a tendency to make economics a prominent part of the game world. There were several cities ruled by merchant guilds, in fact, which is NOT standard fantasy. Merchants are traditionally there to a) be wealthy, and b) be robbed. The subtext of ‘wealth is created by economic activity’ was my own innovation; strange, as I worked my entire career in the public sector.

  15. I’ve thought a lot about the conventions of “genre fantasy”, authoritarianism, bad examples, etc. But it’s also worth noting that a lot of radical political fiction has come out of SFF, too: an obvious and popular example would be Le Guin’s THE DISPOSSESSED.

    I also think that adult SFF frequently departs from “genre fiction” restrictions, and is awesome while doing so. If you restrict yourself to YA SFF, there’s a lot of simplistic crap. Often, this isn’t even because YA authors choose to write simplistic crap; often it’s because the author writes a book, and then the book is labeled YA rather than adult by the publisher. (This is not to say that I think all YA fiction is crap. One interesting example of this phenomenon is that Madeleine L’Engle didn’t write A WRINKLE IN TIME as a children’s book, but it was labeled YA anyway … or at least, that’s what I’ve heard.)

    This might imply that it’s not always authors who write simplistic authoritarian scenarios and then decide that those are for kids; it’s often publishers. So why are publishers deciding that those scenarios are the ones suitable for children?

    My thoughts on this aren’t very organized, so I apologize for a mildly incoherent comment, but the bottom line for me is that I think it has a lot to do with the kinds of fiction that are labeled as “for kids”. If you want your kids to have a more nuanced perspective, maybe it’s worth ignoring the branding and marketing categories.

  16. DC Guy

     /  September 13, 2011

    There’s actually been a shift in the modern children’s story narrative. It’s called Pixar. Most of these stories (made up of a cast of toys, school of fish, colony of ants, pair of monsters, etc.) probably follow a more “democratic” outcome where the dynamics of the group (not the proclivities of the ubermensch) have “won the day”.

  17. Now, here’s an interesting post over at Brain Pickings looking at the radical politics of children’s books in an earlier era: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/09/21/tales-of-little-rebels/

  18. It seems you made some progress with your question and search. I’d say there is definitely some room for additions to the market, in spite of what may be perceived as children’s (or parent’s?) limitations on grasping scenarios that are not simply “black and white”.

    I would also add from my creative writing class, that most would say a story is “driven by conflict”. However, if you look more closely, you will see that cooperation and support is almost always equally present and necessary, even if it isn’t viewed as a “driving” force. It has a Force of its own, nevertheless.

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