Government can be tricky to teach. It fascinates me and my boys, but I’ve known plenty of people of all ages who find learning about how it works to be boring.
It’s not boring. It’s awesome.
If you’re looking for a fun and engaging way to teach government to your littles, look no further than the closest good Dystopian novel.
Teaching Government with Dystopian Lit
Comparing your current government with the leaders in Dystopia can provide a stark contrast, but it can also give clues to why things work. In some cases, you might even be able to show your kids how current government could lead to the Dystopia in your chosen novel.
Yeah, that’s when it gets kinda scary.
There are several ways you can compare what you’re learning about U.S. government with the government in your novel of choice:
- Grab a copy of the U.S. Constitution so you can refer to it as you read, especially the first 10 Amendments, which guarantee our rights as citizens. In Dystopia, those rights are usually the first to be attacked, albeit in insidious ways that people barely notice before they’re caught in the trap. Compare our current rights with the rights of the characters in the novel.
- Download my free printable that lists the branches of the government. As you read the fiction, make a list of the branches of the fictional government on the next page. Discuss the differences as you learn about how the U.S. branches work and why they’re important.
- Create a Venn Diagram of the two governments and list the similarities and differences between the rights and protections they provide.
Great Dystopian governments to compare with your own
There are plenty of great Dystopian novels you can read with your kids to get an idea of how government should not work. Here is a list of my favorites. Some of them are YA novels, and some of them aren’t, but they are all governed by creepers who would make good contrasts with our current government.
I would recommend this for older teens because there is some pretty adult content, but I suggest it because the Dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale is a result of a sudden and complete change in the American government. And it is truly frightening to contemplate how realistically it could all come about.
This is the story of Offred (Of-fred), who used to have a normal life with a husband and daughter and money of her own. Until a totalitarian theocracy overthrows the U.S. government, subjugates all women, and turns their lives into a living hell of existing solely for the purpose of serving men. The chilling thing about this story is that, of course, the protagonist’s name isn’t really Offred. It was changed when she was assigned to be the baby-maker for Commander Fred and his wife. Because his wife is there to serve him in other capacities, Offred is the brood mare. Even scarier is the way the new government took power from women with a single swipe. Offred goes to the store one day to buy something and her money card has been wiped clean. She has no cash because people don’t use cash anymore. It is her first clue that life is about to go terribly wrong. I shudder when I think of it. How many of us rely on our debit cards daily and therefore would be powerless if the government decided to shut them down and take our money? Oh, the genius of Margaret Atwood. It’s terrifying how quickly the government cuts women off from all independence and then sends them to camp to be indoctrinated. It provides a powerful look at how careful we must be to keep the government in check and keep control of our independence.
In this novel, “firemen” who work for the government burn books in the name of public happiness. Any book not approved by the government is against the law. The firemen raid houses and burn the books… and sometimes the house…, and sometimes the perpetrators along with everything else. Guy Montag is thrown into shock and confusion when a woman chooses to burn with her books rather than live without them. At the same time, he meets a teenage girl named Clarisse whose views about the world make him question the ways of his government even further. So one night during a raid, he steals a book. And the fit hits the shan. The intriguing part of the plot is the way Bradbury shows–through Montag’s wife and her friends–that with the condemnation of books and ensuing reliance on technology and media, people have quit thinking for themselves. They have no opinions, because they have nothing, really, to opine about.
Don’t give up your books. Don’t stop thinking. Don’t stop asking questions. Don’t rely on television for your information because it doesn’t truly give you any.
This is perhaps my favorite YA Dystopia of all time, and another grim look at a future version of the United States. In Collins’ truly terrifying world, kids are enlisted from the 12 colonies left in the U.S. to participate in a yearly murder fest. They go to an arena, 12 males and 12 females, and they basically fight to the death. Only one person can win. Katniss Everdeen ends up as part of the Games when her little sister gets picked to participate. Without forethought, Katniss volunteers to take her place. And turns this awful, Dystopian, totalitarian world on its head.
Kids killing each other for entertainment just so the government can prove who is in control? Somebody better do something, is all I can say. Talk about complacence. There is so much depth in these novels that got chucked out for the movies. I would like to put the people who made the films in their own Hunger Games. How can you leave the heart out of a story and still call it good? Ugh! Do Not judge this story based on the films. Read the books. They are truly brilliant.
This is the book (and series) that rival The Hunger Games for my very favorite YA Dystopia. The government here is a tyrant who calls herself Mother, but the really interesting thing is that she pretty much enlists the Entire Citizenship into the government.
Noah lives in an underground society where he works hard every day at the factory, putting together components for a machine that he doesn’t even understand, all to please Mother. Mother leads the society of ARK and promises that one day soon, it will be safe for them all to move to the surface again. But they have to be patient. Earth has been involved in a devastating war, the air is poisoned and nothing will grow there. And the enemy might still be about. In fact, the enemy has spent decades trying to infiltrate ARK and poison the minds of Mother’s children. Anyone could be a spy. So everyone is on alert, ready to turn against his neighbor at the slightest provocation. Mother rewards her loyal workers, but will not tolerate doubt about her mission.
I can’t tell you anything else, really, without ruining the story, but the hierarchy in this series is brilliantly thought-out and depicted, and it would provide a great foil for learning more about how government should work.
Uglies is about Tally, a girl approaching her 16th birthday whose best friend, a boy named Peris, has already gotten an operation and moved to New Pretty Town. New Pretty Town. Meaning a town for new pretties where no one has any responsibilities or worries. Because at 16, everyone in society gets an operation that turns them beautiful. New bone structure, new skin, new… everything. And Tally can’t wait to get her operation and join Peris. But then she meets Shay, a girl her age who is everything Tally is not. Shay is happy with her status as an Ugly, doesn’t want the operation–in fact, she intends to run away before her birthday to join a rebellion.
On the day of Tally’s operation, she is enlisted by the government to track Shay down and lead the government to the rebellion headquarters. If she doesn’t, the government will never let her become a Pretty. What follows is Tally’s awakening to government control, how Pretties are kept complacent through their lack of responsibility, and how our differences are what make us beautiful, even without operations. Definitely a good summer read for a young girl who loves adventure and maybe needs to be reminded that ugly is as ugly does.
Uglies depicts another complex government that is waaay too involved in the daily lives of its people.
This one is genius, too, my friends.
Aria lives in Reverie, a domed city which protects its citizens from Aether storms caused by catastrophic changes to Earth. When a night of fun turns into a tragedy, Aria is banished from her home to the wastelands, where she will surely die. In fact, if not for an Outsider named Perry, she most certainly would have died when an Aether storm popped up. Perry is one of the people left on earth who don’t live in a dome, an Outsider, considered to be a cannibal or worse, but Aria has to rely on him to survive.
What follows is a beautiful love story and a fascinating toppling of yet another totalitarian government. The coolest part is how Perry and Aria both have these assumptions about the other based on where they lived. As they get to know each other, they realize what we should all know. People are people, no matter where they’re from, and we all have things in common and we all have the same joys and worries and fears. And we’re all worthy. And bad guys can be found just about anywhere. Good stuff.
Another of my favorite Dystopian story lines is that of Delirium by Lauren Oliver. This totalitarian government teaches that love is a disease, and there is a mandatory surgical cure performed on people when they turn 18. Lena, the protagonist, has been just as brainwashed as everyone else by the government and believes wholeheartedly that love is a disease. In terrible fear of catching it before her operation, she anticipates the cure with glee. Until she meets Alex. Alex lives outside society, has never been cured, and is part of a resistance that is not fooled by the government’s mind-control. Of course Lena falls in love with him. And it changes everything.
My only complaint about this series is that it has one of those mid-story changes where Lena becomes involved in a love triangle. And I’m sorry, but if you fall in love so hard it literally changes your whole world, I just don’t think you’re going to fall that hard again any time soon. I hate love triangles. Writers, give us some credit.
If you’re struggling to get your kids interested in government lessons, grab one of these fantastic books and incorporate it into your lessons. I bet your kiddos get really interested in the way things work today pretty quickly.
Don’t forget your free printables!
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