“His Colleagues Had Ambition”

More than the American rebels, more than their enemies in Europe, more than the angry commoners demonstrating on the streets, the Prime Minister feared his ministers, the men and women who sat at his table and drank his wine. It was a justified anxiety–his colleagues had ambition.

That’s from Ptolemy’s Gate, the third book in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, which I’m reading right now with my 12-year-old son. I really like the books, in no small part because–as the quote shows–Stroud gets politics. We might not see a lot of elected heroes in fantasy fiction for kids, but that doesn’t mean we don’t ever get a political education.

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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