All art is political – even children’s books. Especially children’s books.
Fairy tales cover everything from social satire (The Emperor’s New Clothes) to the politics of adolescence (Little Red Riding Hood). The Gruffalo explores our mistrust of the other. Burglar Bill evinces sympathy for the criminal underclass. And as readers get older, the parallels become even more direct: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials mounts an angry critique of the Catholic church; Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books remorselessly lampoon class hierarchies; while my own FloodWorld trilogy explores inequality, exploitation and of course climate change in the guise of a fast-paced action adventure.
Like Pullman, Reeve and countless other authors before us, I’ve never felt the need to tone any of these themes down simply because the stories are aimed at younger readers. In fact, the opposite might be true: issues like climate change, inequality and oppression are part of the world around us, they’re not going away any time soon, however much we’d like them to. It’s our duty (and our privilege) as authors to bring them out into the light and get kids thinking about them – not as horrors to be feared, but as problems to be faced, understood and, if possible, overcome.
In FloodWorld, my young heroes Kara and Joe have grown up in the waterlogged slums of future London, doing whatever they can to get by – working dangerous and illegal jobs, existing on the margins of society. They’re exploited by those with more power, forced to fend for themselves in a tough, unfair society. But they’re not downtrodden: they’re brave, resourceful and persistent, they refuse to let the world beat them. And ultimately, through their struggles and their activism they’re able to help bring about a better world not just for themselves, but for everyone around them.
And of course there’s plenty of action and intrigue to move the story forward. For me, this is absolutely key: the story can never be allowed to let up, sweeping the characters and the reader along so rapidly that the serious stuff never starts feeling like a chore. So while my post-climate-change future may be tough and unforgiving, it’s always exciting too – there’s peril around every corner, this is a world that readers will hopefully want to keep exploring.
There are some who’d argue that taking this kind of blockbuster approach to serious issues serves to undermine the gravity of the problem – that I run the risk of making this tide-ravaged future seem like a prospect to be excited about, rather than one to be dreaded. And it’s definitely something I’ve thought about, it’s not a question to be taken lightly. But my response would be: what’s the alternative? To write a dry, doom-laden treatise on the perils of ecological disaster and widespread inequality that no child would ever want to read? Or to write a goofy, empty-headed adventure story with no deeper intention than blowing stuff up? For me, it’s about striking a balance, telling a rip-roaring story without ever letting the issues slip out of sight. I’m sure I haven’t always been successful – but that’s for the reader to decide.
Of course, I’m defining politics in quite loose terms here – social politics, climate politics, class politics. When it comes to governmental politics – the sort of thing the average young reader might recognise as ‘politics’, with grey-faced men and women in formal dress arguing about tax policy, we’re in slightly different territory. Personally, I probably wouldn’t attempt to write a children’s book about the day-to-day goings on in Westminster or the behind-the-scenes machinations at the East Byfleet by-election. But that doesn’t for a moment mean that another author couldn’t write either of those stories, and make them entertaining, approachable and fun.
There’s nothing inherent about politics that kids can’t get to grips with, provided they’re offered relatable characters in intriguing situations, and kept entertained. With any luck, they’ll gain a wider, more empathetic perspective on the world they live in, and a deeper understanding of the issues facing it.
FloodWorld and its sequel DustRoad are available now from Nosy Crow Books. The third and final book in the trilogy is set to follow later in 2021.
Tom Huddleston is a writer, musician and film journalist best known for his FLOODWORLD series of futuristic, climate-themed adventure stories. He currently lives in London. Tom is the author of several books for children including instalments in the STAR WARS: ADVENTURES IN WILD SPACE and WARHAMMER ADVENTURES series. Published in 2019 by Nosy Crow Books, his novel FLOODWORLD combines thrilling action with themes of ecological disaster and social inequality, and was followed in 2020 by a powerful sequel, DUSTROAD.