August 8, 2009


-REVIEW ESSAY: The Books That Rock the Cradle: Libertarian themes in children's fiction (Stuart Anderson, January 2006, Reason)

Margaret Peterson Haddix's series of books deals with the frightening effects of population control, describing a future where the government hunts down children born beyond the two-child-per-family limit. Using eugenics and population control as literary devices to warn against modern society's encroachment on the individual is not new. They're not often deployed, however, in novels for the young.

The first installment, Among the Hidden (1998), won an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults award. It's the story of Luke, a 12-year-old boy who must hide to avoid detection as a "third child," while his two older siblings live a normal life. Haddix establishes the story's tone on the second page, relating Luke's thoughts: "At twelve he knew better, but sometimes still pictured the Government as a very big, mean, fat person, two or three times as tall as an ordinary man, who went around yelling at people, 'Not allowed!' and 'Stop that!' " In Haddix's world, children and adults fear the government, rather than view it as a solution to their problems.

The fear is for good reason. Among the Hidden introduces early on the dreaded Population Police, who monitor phones and computers, and possess unlimited authority for search and seizure. The children they apprehend are executed. This frightening context is tempered by the down-to-earth portrayals of Luke and his neighbor Jen, another third child. While Luke knows little of the outside world except that he is forbidden to participate in it, Jen is worldly to the point of recklessness, engaging in online chats and nascent activism with other third children. She teaches Luke to question authority and derides the government at every turn. Luke learns that Jen is more than mere bluster when she asks him to attend a protest rally she has planned with other third children in front of "the President's House." Part of Luke wants to go, but he's too worried that a public demonstration would be fraught with peril.

Parents should note that this book is hardly a Disney film with cute kids easily besting the grownups. After days go by without hearing from Jen, a worried Luke comes upon Jen's father. He relates to Luke what happened at the rally: "They shot her. They shot all of them. All forty kids at the rally, gunned down right in front of the President's house. The blood flowed into his rosebushes. But they had the sidewalks scrubbed before the tourists came."

The aftermath of the protest means Luke can no longer hide in safety with his parents, and must instead go to a school formed by dissident adults to protect the identities of third children. The seven-part series--Haddix has just completed the final two--follows Luke and other kids as they cope with betrayal and the fear of government authorities, moving from battling to stay alive to sowing the seeds of rebellion.

Haddix says the idea for Among the Hidden came after discussing with her husband whether to have a third child themselves. She started thinking about the one-child policy in China and its impact on individuals and families. As research, she read Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb, in which Ehrlich stated: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Haddix notes that she read the book already years past the deadline for that dire prediction, so it was easy to take Ehrlich's warnings with a grain of salt.

Buttercup recommended this series and we give it a hearty thumbs up

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 8, 2009 9:45 AM
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