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An Apolitical Animal? Politics and YA fiction for young people


General Election 2015 is almost here and the likely outcome seems to be that no party will be able to command a majority in parliament. The spotlight is on the voting system and a number of parties are proposing a substantial review, including an extension of the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Here in Scotland the vote was extended in time for last year’s referendum and the change will apply at Holyrood from 2016. The closest ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ got to an agreement on anything in 2014 was a consensus that young voters proved themselves thoroughly deserving of the vote, with high levels of engagement that have continued since. It’s no longer unusual for teenagers here to pop up with questions from the floor at political rallies or to take out party membership.

This experience rather flies in the face of accepted wisdom regarding political apathy among young people. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation summarises, in the UK today “young people are voting less, are less likely to register to vote and are uncommitted to political parties”.

Politics and young people don’t mix
There is a school of thought that holds enfranchisement in national politics from the top years of schooling gives young people a ”˜participative footprint’ that can lead to greater life-long involvement. And if older school students engage with politics, the thinking goes, younger school pupils may aspire to do the same.

Conversely, the Rowntree Foundation and others are concerned that artificial structures created in place of actual politics – pupil councils, say – are not effective as a substitute, since little real power is ceded to young people and apathy may in fact be established, not tackled. But another school of thought says that it’s just not possible to make politics – at least of the conventional sort – attractive to this age group.

All of which brings me round to the main point of this article, which is to wonder whether children’s publishers subscribe to this latter belief that political awareness and young people don’t mix. On the plus side, there has been a mini flood of light-hearted publications for younger children about government recently – The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin, for example, and our own Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, out in July. But teen and YA fiction seem to exist in something of a vacuum, politically-speaking. Or perhaps it’s truer to say that teen and YA books prefer their politics with a small ”˜p’ and something of a lack of specificity. So big issues such as racial discrimination or climate change are explored in fantasy worlds, or the idea that absolute power corrupts might creep into a dystopian tale. But the real-world political and ”“ especially – economic realities facing young people are less fashionable themes. This is despite the fact that many academics conclude that young people now have the dubious honour of being considered a disadvantaged ”˜class’ of their own due to the growing gulf in material circumstances between them and older demographics.

Too. Much. Dystopia.
There is perhaps an argument that, in retreading war after war and inventing dystopia after dystopia, publishing for young people offers a mirror to hold up to the real world. But do the books we publish in this vein really invite young readers to find real-world relevance in imagined futuristic catastrophes or past horrors? It’s not hard to find dystopian parallels in the current situation within the UK, nor modern wars to worry about. But my overwhelming impression is that we don’t invite young people to raise their heads, look around them and wonder if what they’re reading has anything particularly real or important to say about the world in which they live. And if it does, it certainly doesn’t propose ways in which they might find a political identity to occupy as a means of working towards change.

War fiction for children is overwhelmingly anti-war, as might be expected, but in focussing on the great loss of life of WWI in particular, tends to leave the reader with a sense of the pity of it but little thought to the specificities of right, wrong and all of those shades of grey in between. The roots of WWI are so difficult to grasp and the rights and wrongs still so debated that it would be a clever children’s writer indeed who managed to weave a digestible narrative from the backdrop of Europe in 1914. Many settle for depicting the futility of it all instead. A reader accused Barrington Stoke on Twitter earlier this year of publishing ‘pro-WWI’ titles; we responded that our WWI titles focus, without exception, on the horror of that conflict. She asked why we have never published anything featuring a conscientious objector. Our response was that none of our authors has ever approached us with a book about one, but the point has stayed with us. The narrative of World War One is so often one of powerless peasants sent to war by distant, unaccountable masters. There is little reflection on people engaging in an active manner with the structures that still take us to war today.

”˜Katniss is pretty passive when it comes to the big fight’
Many dystopian books are, to my mind, little more than escapist adventures fanning at best a sort of general understanding of the importance of equality and freedom and at worst adolescent tendencies towards self-dramatisation of a fairly facile ‘it’s so hard being me’ variety. Take Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. A reluctant figurehead to a rebellion, Katniss spends a lot of time obsessing about two boys between whom she feels she must choose and detailing the hair, make-up and fashion looks her styling team create for her in the name of rebellion. She spends less time asking relevant questions of the politicians who would use and abuse her. She’s a victim, of course, but she’s also regularly cited as a strong heroine for female readers (while Bella Swan, say, is demonised as a Bad Thing for doing… erm, a lot of the same). Actually, for all the hiking and hunting and firing of arrows, Katniss is pretty passive when it comes to the big fight for freedom. For evidence, compare her actions to those of her original love interest Gale. She is moved to act only when compelled to; he may make questionable choices, but does so because of an active decision to ally himself to a cause.

One of the books I’m proudest to have published in my time reimagined Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Kidnapped is the story of a boy falsely implicated in a murder and caught up in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rising, and this recast it as the story of a boy falsely implicated in a terror attack and caught up in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s brilliant – pacey and thought-provoking, and not afraid to tackle the attractions of the cause to which the protagonist inadvertently becomes attached.

This was in a past life and the book wasn’t in English. Where is the UK YA asking similar questions about why young males brought up in the UK might become radicalised? Alan Gibbons, Benjamin Zephaniah, Melvin Burgess and Sita Brahmachari stand out for me as authors who wouldn’t shy away from such themes. They also stand out for me as quite ”˜diverse’ writers in the fairly non-diverse world of UK teen fiction. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Trust young readers
So what’s to do? Here’s the rub: I don’t really know. I’m not suggesting an exercise in didacticism, or a new line of agitprop for young people. If I had a magic lamp and three wishes, perhaps I’d ask for more dark realism – underpinned by a real belief in young people’s ability, as readers, to cope with moral relativism – like Melvin Burgess’s Junk. More books that powerfully reflect the experience of the groups so maligned by UKIP and its ilk in this election – like The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan – and never forget that ‘migrants’ are human beings. And more writers like Sita Brahmachari, who sees that young people face economic realities that can be among the most crushing in society today.

(In passing, I wonder if YA would be more, not less radical if it were purely aimed at young people? Is it possible that the crossover readership holds it back instead of pushing it forward by preferring to read about characters unencumbered by the economic and other ‘grown-up’ matters that concern the rest of us and therefore ‘purer vessels’ for a story of love, loss or whatever? And where’s the experimentation with unreliable narrators and anti-heroes that might let us experience something of lives and viewpoints we don’t quite understand?)

Please, sir, I want some more
My wish-list above demonstrates why it would be naive to think we can snap our fingers and create literature to fill a perceived gap of any nature. Writers like Sita, Sarah Crossan or Melvin are defined not by their content but by their skill, and they’re not writing to order. So perhaps, instead, I’ll ask for broader definition of the young people we publish for. Where are the Polish kids, or the young carers, or the homeless in our young people’s literature? Where are the cries about what the erosion of social justice has meant for so many children and young people? We live in an age of new Oliver Twists and Charlie Buckets and we’re not talking about it. I’d say we’re stuck in the past, only the past did it better.

Oh, and can we have votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, too, please? Post haste.

Immediately after writing the above, I of course thought of books I’d left out ”“ Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat for one. If you think of many ”“ or indeed any ”“ others, please do let us know.

Mairi is the MD of Barrington Stoke and our accessibility editor. On the blog she writes on books, literacy, dyslexia and the publishing industry in general.

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