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How books for teens are doing politics in 2019

Books like The Girl King, Unpresidented, and Wicked King are thinking hard about power and ambition.

Book covers for The Girl King, Unpresidented, and Wicked King
From left: The Girl King by Mimi Yu, Unpresidented by Martha Brockenbrough, and Wicked King by Holly Black.
Bloomsbury; Feiwel and Friends; Little, Brown
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Books for children have always been interested in politics. There is story after story about ruthless political manipulators and power struggles, stories in which politics generate plot and become a means of thinking about morality.

There’s an entire volume of the Narnia books built around the question of whether Susan should make a political marriage. In the ’90s, some of the most popular series for children were Megan Whalen Turner’s Queens Thief books, about the consolidation of power between three countries in the face of an invading imperial threat. The biggest YA franchise of the past decade was The Hunger Games, with its explicitly political dystopian framework.

So when I say that in 2019 so far, there are a lot of political kids’ books out there, I’m not suggesting they’re part of some new trend. But I will say that the politics of books for children seem to have acquired additional urgency over the past couple of years. This winter, some of the biggest new books have featured ruthless girls clambering for power while corrupt adults break everything apart through their venality and greed.

Here’s how three recent releases — two fiction and one nonfiction — have incorporated that theme.

The Girl King by Mimi Yu

Mimi Yu’s YA debut is a careful examination of how men try to use women to amass power for themselves — and of two different modes of femininity that are forced into opposing each other.

Lu, the eldest daughter of the Hu emperor, is so obviously regal — brilliant at image-making, informed on policy, and good with a sword to boot — that people call her “the girl king,” and she’s long assumed that her father will eventually override the tradition against a female emperor and name her his heir.

Minyi, Lu’s younger sister, is a more traditional princess, longing for a peaceful life in which she might fall in love with a good man and bear his children and support her family — but she also has a long-ignored rebellious side, and a sneaky hidden power that those around her have chosen to overlook.

When their father dies, the two sisters find themselves caught up in a bloody struggle for the throne. It’s in their reluctant rivalry that Yu shines most: Lu and Minyi approach the problem of being a girl in the world from opposite angles, but they still genuinely care for each other. It’s only the grasping avarice of the men around them that forces them into opposition.

The Girl King has a sprawling and occasionally confused mythology, the plotting can be clumsy, and while Lu’s half of the narrative is written lovingly, Minyi’s sometimes lacks breathing room. But as a portrait of power and the way it’s constrained by gender, it is riveting.

Wicked King by Holly Black

This YA sequel to last year’s Cruel Prince features one of the most appealingly ruthless heroines I’ve ever come across. Jude is a human teenager who grew up in the Faerie Court, which leaves her with a number of disadvantages: She’s a mortal among immortals, she can be glamoured or enchanted but cannot do magic herself, and — perhaps most painfully for a teenage girl — she doesn’t have the magical fairy charisma that her peers at the court do. But her humanity also leaves her with a major advantage: Fairies can’t lie, but Jude can. So Cruel Prince saw Jude successfully lie, cheat, and betray her way to enormous power in the Faerie Court, and in Wicked King, she’s scrabbling frantically to maintain it.

Much of the tension here comes from the fraught relationship between Jude and Cardan, the fairy whom she put on the throne and who is under her control: They’re fundamentally at odds, but there’s an unsettling thread of romantic attraction between them. When Cardan tells Jude, “Kiss me until I am sick of it,” it’s both swooningly romantic and (intentionally) a little bit creepy.

What’s most compelling about the book is its understanding of how someone apparently powerless, like Jude, can turn her weaknesses against her enemies. Jude’s preferred methods of warfare — poison, spycraft, gossip, lies — are traditionally considered dishonorable. But, Wicked King seems to ask, isn’t that just because powerful people are the ones who make the rules?

Wicked King is pleasingly unapologetic in its portrait of unsatisfied ambition. Jude strives for enough power to keep herself safe, always, and while the amount of power she thinks she’ll need keeps trending steadily upward, she always remains sympathetic, mostly because she is so clearly outmatched in terms of hard power by those around her. And as Jude points out, “The point of a fight is not to have a good fight, it’s to win.”

Unpresidented by Martha Brockenbrough

Martha Brockenbrough’s biography of Trump for teenagers is readable, quick-paced, and comprehensive, but what’s most interesting about it is what it lacks. In Brockenbrough’s telling, Trump emerges as a figure who could easily be the villain in a book like The Girl King or Wicked King: petty, childish, and needlessly cruel, grasping for power with both hands.

It’s not a new or nuanced or hugely insightful portrait of the president, but it’s thoroughly grounded in the book’s extant reporting. And unlike its fictional counterparts, Unpresidented offers no in-text opposition who seems capable of taking down Trump.

That’s because Unpresidented is counting on its readership to do the job. The book is dedicated “to the Parkland generation: you know what to do,” and the implication is that if there is no plucky, ambitious, and frighteningly capable teenage girl within the book who can stand against Trump — well, then it will be up to one of the kids reading the book to play that part.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to The Girl King as a middle-grade title. It is actually YA.