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Democracy is not a fairy-tale

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 12 June 2020

A new publication about Jacinda Ardern is hardly remarkable these days. The Prime Minister’s global celebrity status has created a small avalanche of books and magazine covers.

However, a book about Jacinda Ardern targeted at 5-10-year-olds is a different story. Penguin Books has just released: Taking the lead – How Jacinda Ardern wowed the world. Written by children’s author David Hill, it is illustrated by Phoebe Morris.

It needs pointing out this is a commercial publication, not a party-political pamphlet. From what we know, neither the Prime Minister nor her party had anything to do with it. It would thus be unfair to criticise them for the book.

However, that does not make Taking the lead any less cringeworthy.

Glorifying current political leaders in children’s books feels odd. It is something one would suspect in absolute monarchies or dictatorships, and there are historical examples from both.

Democracies are different. They allow anyone to become Prime Minister, and they allow the public to also remove them from office once they have had enough of them. Democracy is the form of government made for flawed humans to elect and remove one of their own.

It is that feature of democracies which make children’s books about sitting prime ministers awkward. Young children need stories of good and evil; they cannot fathom grey areas yet.

I read Taking the lead with our 7-year-old son. He related to it because it was like other fairy-tales he knows.

The protagonist stands for everything good. Jacinda always does what she promises. She is kind, caring and determined. She overcomes any obstacle and is rewarded for her kindness.

Our son did not understand everything. He did not know the International Union of Socialist Youth. But he liked the picture of Jacinda going fishing with her partner Clarke Gayford and their late cat Paddles (to whose memory the book is dedicated).

Other characters were notable by their absence. No Winston Peters, Clare Curran or Iain Lees-Galloway were there to spoil the story.

I asked our son what he thought of the Prime Minister. He said he liked her because she was always doing everything right. When I told him about the 100,000 houses she promised but did not get built, that confused him a little.

In its veneration of Jacinda Ardern, Taking the lead goes so far as to become boring – even for children.

Asked if he would like to read it again, our son’s response was clear: he’d prefer another Captain Underpants story.

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