INSPIRATION Judgement Call

K. M. Lockwood looks at the question of justice in children’s books. 
What difference could it make to your work?

Children love justice. Ask anyone who works or lives with children, or who has a reasonably good memory, and I think they’ll recall ‘It’s not fair!’ as a frequent outcry. The taking of turns on the tallest slide, equal shares of green or purple grapes, a longer go on the trampoline – of these disputes are mighty protests made.

From Five Minutes’ Peace written and illustrated by Jill Murphy:

In came Laura. “Can I read you a page from my reading book?” she asked.

“No, Laura,” said Mrs Large. “Go on, all of you, off downstairs.”

“You let Lester play his tune,” said, Laura. “I heard. You like him better than me. It’s not fair.”

“Oh, don’t be silly Laura,” said Mrs Large. “Go on then. Just one page.”

So Laura read. She read four and half pages of “Little Red Riding Hood”.

Almost as soon as a child realises there are other children, the urge to see fair play (note the noun there) begins. It might be about them getting their fair share, but often a more equitable point of view develops. When laws are understood, often children love to see them applied equally. This can lead to a lot of hot debate, and much explaining by adults! Picture books are invaluable here for developing empathy.

When children grow to include chapter books in their reading, questions of fairness in other places, cultures and times, comes up. Non-fiction has a powerful role to play, and narrative can bring these concerns to life. This path into civics (or citizenship) often continues into adolescence and beyond.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

In MG fiction, I’d suggest that the taste for detective fiction and other mystery-solving forms is part of this need for justice. This is not a phase; think how popular Blytonesque adventures, where wrongdoers are brought to justice by children, have been for decades. The same goes for comic book superhero adventures, and much further back, fairy tales.

Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine;
but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used – not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.
Elizabeth Gaskell (English novelist 29th September 1810 – 12th November 1886)

As a lover of fairytale, folklore and fantasy, it’s notable how the results of that justice have changed over the centuries. Endings to traditional stories have been changed and softened to reflect contemporary approaches: no modern re-telling of Snow White would have the stepmother dancing in red-hot shoes till she dies of exhaustion! Older versions have a strong flavour of retribution.

image c/o Max Pixel

But readers do still love a bit of comeuppance for the baddies – especially if it involves humour. Inept, vain rulers often come in for some mockery. Think of The Emperor’s New Clothes. How interesting that it took author Hans Christian Andersen to give a child the starring role in his retelling of the traditional folktale – and that the child saw through all the pretence and artifice. Agency is a powerful force, no matter what your size or age.

Image: Public Domain

Keen readers of teen or YA books are likely to be engaged with questions of social justice, whether they read realistic contemporary works or SFF. The signboard above going the rounds on social media a while ago pays humorous tribute to generations brought up with Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and the Chaos Walking trilogy.

The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is a duty of the living to do so for them.
Lois McMaster Bujold (born November 2, 1949 US SFF writer)

Photo by Lorie Shaull

The young people affected by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are articulate, brave and possessed of their own agency. They have caused boycotts, marches, walk-outs and changes in attitude to the NRA. This is not the place to propose what should be done in another country, but I do feel the influence of stories about justice and change is clear. Journalists here and here reflect on this too.

You know how we say we want the real world to be more like Harry Potter? We meant the teleportation and magic stuff. Not the plot of The Order Of The Phoenix where the Ministry of Magic refused to do anything about a deadly threat so the teenagers have to rise up and fight back

Kyle Smith‏ @Kyle_WSmith Feb 23 (used with permission)

Since matters of justice are central to children’s lives, they are necessarily integral to children’s books. This is not to espouse any one standpoint, but to recognise the importance of the concept.

How might this affect your work?


• How do they deal with unfairness – resignation, debate, violence, revenge?
• Do they intercede on behalf of others, or is it all about them? (Useful for antagonists, too.)
• How do they set about getting justice – alone, in a group, with a careful plan, in an outburst?


• What are the rules in this setting?
• Are they the same for everyone?
• What happens if you break them?
• Who ensures justice is done?
• How is forgiveness seen – as valuable or weak?


• Does injustice affect your protagonist – directly or indirectly? Are they accused of a theft they didn’t do or have a friend taken away by law enforcers, for example?
• Does the pursuit of fairness cause complications in some way? Say, is it hard to share out the cakes at their birthday party equally? Or are they tempted to cheat at a race?
• In an unfair society, could this be an obstacle to their wants or needs?

Featured image: Lady Justice is blind to color, class or power by Don Sniegowski, Flickr 

K. M. Lockwood writes and edits in The Garret. Once downstairs, she runs a tiny writer-friendly B&B or wanders off looking for sea-glass on the Sussex coast.
Twitter: @lockwoodwriter

1 comment:

  1. Great feature! I think best books are the ones that expose the ambiguity of justice – like To Kill a Mockingbird. Justice is being served but whose justice?


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