WRITING Politics in Your Writing

When you’re writing, are you aware of the politics of what you are putting down? Julie Sullivan considers politics in writing for children.

No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
George Orwell in Why I Write

The women are drinking after the men have left. This probably didn't seem political at the time
We seem to be living in turbulent times, although maybe all times feel that way. Politics affects everything in your life, whether you want it to or not. People who live under dictatorships know this, but people who live a freer life often don’t think about it.

Do you? When you’re writing, are you aware of the politics of what you are putting down? If you’re like most of us, probably not. Maybe you even write partly to escape from today’s realities and immerse yourself in a better world, or at least a more exciting one. 
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison?
J.R.R. Tolkien in 'On Fairy Stories' 

You can’t escape putting politics into your book, though. The things your book accepts as givens, the things your characters struggle against, even the ideas in their heads are all influenced—and even determined—by the age and place we live in and the attitudes we think of as normal. 

It’s easier to see the politics when you look at books from other countries or times. The unconscious assumptions of their authors are visible to us because we don't share them. No one today misses the hidden messages in Little Black SamboKim or Babar.  
Tiger Lily

Tiger Lily, in Peter Pan, speaks in grunts. The original Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were little black men. In The Treasure Seekers, E. Nesbit has a Mr Rosenbaum, who impulsively and kindly is going to give the poverty-stricken but proud children a sovereign—but after stroking it a bit, he puts it back in his pocket and gives them fifteen shillings with interest instead. The Narnia books end with Susan not going to the equivalent of heaven because she likes lipstick and nylons and parties.

Wendy is sewing for the Lost Boys. She keeps house and gets captured.
It’s doubtful that these authors actually wanted to send messages that strike us as so unpleasant. More likely, they didn't really notice the message they were sending. 
It's only recently that circuses have vanished from children's books.

Ram Dass and Sara Crewe in A Little Princess

What hierarchies are there in your book?
Including ones you might take for granted?
Will keeping animals be considered a political decision some day?

What does their environment teach your characters? And how much of it is actually yours?

Beating children was normal when this was written

What possibilities are open to each character? 

Water Babies (1862) was about a London chimneysweep who becomes a water-baby in a river. 'The book was ...a mainstay of British children's literature for many decades, but eventually fell out of favour in part due to its prejudices (common at the time) against Irish, Jews, Americans, and the poor.' Water Babies, however, also drew sympathy to the plight of child chimneysweeps, who were forced up narrow hot chimneys naked to sweep, and rarely lived past their twenties.
These are all political questions. 

It’s harder for us to see the politics in contemporary books, especially the ostensibly unpolitical ones. Maybe you think your story, too, is innocently apolitical. But a generation or two from now, the chances are it won’t look neutral any more. 

Is your story saying what you want it to say?
They've dug a hole and someone is down there. And that's a real axe.

I don’t think you can ever dig too deeply for meaning.


Julie Sullivan would love to make a short visit to the future to see what they think of us there.



  1. A great article, June! I remember reading a book by a beloved author and being shocked when she referred to Asian people (me) as the "yellow-skinned peril". Everything is political, which is why people who resist change derisively use the phrase "political correctness" . It is hard to guess what values we have today will be considered untenable in the future. The dated values of old books tells us so much about the societies they describe – and how far we've come.

  2. Great article - thank you! It is amazing how much I miss as I am totally indoctrinated, particularly when it comes to gender bias. My editor just picked up the grandmother in my latest book referring to her grand-daughter as, 'just a girl.' I was mortified I had written that. Just a girl... Sally saves the day! It is so important we check and double check what messages we are sending out to our impressionable readers.


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