Author Ronald Reis has the rare talent of taking politics – what would normally be considered a boring subject to children – and turning into a fascinating read. His latest non-fiction book, US Congress for Kids is full of factual stories that read more like a compelling novel than a tedious textbook. His philosophy is that if kids can learn riveting details about what goes on behind the scenes in Congress, they’ll want to stay on top of what’s going on in our government and understand the importance of making their own voices heard. What I like best about Ron’s books is that they are just as beneficial for adults to read as they are for kids. US Congress for Kids is one of those great non-fiction books you simply just can’t put down, once you start reading it. And when you’re finished, you’ll be a whole lot more knowledgeable about how our laws are made.
Most books on the subject of politics and history for kids used in schools are quite dull, but US Congress for Kids, is anything but. How did you manage to keep what is normally learned by rote memorization, so fascinating?
To the extent that I was, possibly, able to do that, I try to remember it is all about people, all about their stories. You do not need to “manufacture” drama; there is plenty of that in an institution as diverse as the US Congress. I tried to look for stories that are engaging and exciting, yet illustrate a broader issue.
Your description of how Congress is structured and what they do is the best explanation on the subject I’ve ever read. Did you find it challenging to write about that for a child audience, and do you think most American adults understand how Congress is structured?
A recent survey pointed out that nearly two-thirds of adult Americans (64 percent, to be exact) cannot even name the three branches of government (Executive Legislative and Judicial), let alone understand much about the US Congress. The turnout in the recent mid-term election was the lowest it has been since 1942.
It is always challenging to write for a younger audience because you know you have a limited amount of space to devote to a subject. That forces the writer to be concise and direct—to get to the point. With longer works, a writer can tend to go on and on, often losing the reader.
Watch this Politically-Challenged: Texas Tech Edition Video
What else do you think teachers can do to make the subjects of politics and history more interesting in school?
We often associate hands-on learning with technical subjects, though, of course, there is plenty of hands-on activity in the arts and sciences. We need more in the social sciences as well, especially at the Middle Grade level. Students need to learn about politics and history by doing politics and history. I hope that the activities I have furnished in the US Congress for Kids will help teachers provide that kind of learning.
Image of Congress from the Library of Congress
In the very beginning of the book, you discuss the beating of Representative Preston Brooks by Senator Charles Sumner over a slavery speech. Since that time have there been any other physical altercations between members of Congress?
Actually, soon after the 1856 incident you mentioned, on February 5, 1858, Congressman Laurence Keitt became engaged in a brawl on the House floor involving approximately 50 representatives. It ended only when a missed punch from one representative upended the hairpiece of another Congressman. When the latter accidentally replaced his wig on backwards, both sides erupted in spontaneous laughter, deflating the confrontation.
It is doubtful that the American people would tolerate their elected officials trading punches today. However, cussing out one another, from time to time, still occurs.
“It is doubtful that the American people would tolerate their elected officials trading punches today. However, cussing out one another, from time to time, still occurs.”
Image of Ronald Reis courtesy of the author
That story is hilarious! I would have loved to see that actually. Today, a majority of Americans see their Congress as dysfunctional, unwilling or incapable of “doing the nation’s” business. Have there been other times in US history where Americans felt the same way, and do you believe the Congress of today is indeed dysfunctional?
Unfortunately, America is becoming a divided nation. Conservatives in the Republican Party are becoming more conservative, moving to the right, and liberals in the Democratic Party are becoming more liberal, while moving father to the left. The same can be said of the Congress. Since Congress is a representative institution, it reflects the polarization going on in the country as a whole. There is little incentive to compromise on the issues, since both parties have retreated to their corners, so to speak.
A recent syndicated newspaper article written by Ronald Brownstein, entitled: “No Prosperity, no Peace,” makes it clear that it is all about economics. The median family income is lower today than it was in 2000. Americans are frustrated and angry; they feel exposed and vulnerable. According to Brownstein, ‘Economic stagnation means a continuation of gridlocked and zero-sum politics.’ Congress is us.
“Americans often say that divided government is what they want to keep the parties in check. Yet, under such circumstances, it is difficult for one party or the other to take responsibility, to be accountable.”
Can you give us an example of a President who has accomplished a great deal with a Congress that had a majority that was not his political party?
There wouldn’t be many, for sure. And, unfortunately, the future portends divided government. From 1896 to 1968, a 72-year period, the country provided one political party (Democrat or Republican) with unified control of the federal government—the White House, House, and Senate—in 58 of those years, 80 percent of the time. From 1968 to 2014 (a 46 year period) only 12 of those years (26 percent) saw unified control. Americans often say that divided government is what they want to keep the parties in check. Yet, under such circumstances, it is difficult for one party or the other to take responsibility, to be accountable.
“To impeach is to accuse, but it is not to convict. Hence the confusion, I believe.”
Why do you suppose the term, “impeached” is so widely misunderstood and exactly what does it mean?
My Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition) defines impeach as “to bring an accusation against,” in other words, to accuse, or indict. But that same dictionary also goes on to say, “to remove from office, especially for misconduct.” Impeach does not do the latter. To impeach is to accuse, but it is not to convict. Hence the confusion, I believe.
For our purposes, only the US House of Representatives can impeach someone. If they do, then the Senate sits in judgment of that person, as in a court of law. If two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the person is removed from office. There is no appeal.
Image of Capitol Hill from Library of Congress
I love the fact that the activities in the book get kids involved in taking action in politics and get their voices heard. What would you say to a child (or adult) who thinks their vote will never count so there’s no reason to go to the polls?
For some time now we have heard, particularly for disenchanted voters and third party activists, that there is little, if any, differences between the two major political parties—the Democrats and the Republicans. I think the last few decades have shown view to be false. Today, Democrats and Republicans are far apart on the major issues. Which party wins an election counts. Furthermore, if we just look at how close some of our elections have been in the last few years, starting with the presidential election of 2000, we can see that everyone’s vote is critical.
I know all too well about that 2000 election mess firsthand, as I live in Broward County, FL. What advice do you have for others who wish to write a book about US history or politics for kids and keep it interesting and comprehensible?
Story! Story! Story! The book should tell the story of our history and political institutions. It is not always easy to do this, but I think, with lots of effort, we can get close.
“…a biography is not about a person’s life, but about a person’s story; a biography is not about what a person did, but who a person was.”
What writing project is next for you?
My next book for the Chicago Review Press will be a biography of Henry Ford, to be published in the fall of 2015. In writing that book, I tried to remember that a biography is not about a person’s life, but about a person’s story; a biography is not about what a person did, but who a person was. I hope I have done that. In addition, the 21 activities for the Ford book will be most exciting, I believe, with all kinds of hands-on exercises for Middle Grade readers.
Portrait of Henry Ford (1919) from the Library of Congress
Ron, I feel a whole lot smarter since I’ve read US Congress for kids. I have so much respect for the important work you to – educating children in innovative and intriguing ways. I’m looking forward to reading your book about Henry Ford.
Readers, I highly recommend you get a copy of US Congress for Kids and while you’re at it, get Ron’s Christopher Columbus book too. Also, visit Ronald Reis’ website here.