Politics, Anything But Boring: Interview with Author Ronald Reis

RReisAuthor 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.

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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.

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 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.”

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 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.

Aerial of the U.S. Capitol under restoration. The United States Capitol is the meeting place of the United States Congress, the legislature of the Federal government of the United States. Located in Washington, D.C., it sits atop Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall.

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?

Henry_ford_1919My 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.

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The US Congress for Kids: 225 Years of Lawmaking History

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US Congress for Kids: Over 200 Years of Lawmaking, Deal-Breaking, and Compromising

•    Targeted Audience:  Upper Elementary, Middle School (Ages 10 and Up)
•    Genre: Non-Fiction US History
•    Author: Ronald Reis
•    Publisher: Chicago Review Press
•    Publication Date: November 1, 2014
•    Binding: Paperback
•    Dimensions: 12 X 8
•    Printing: Black & White
•    Length: 144 Pages
•    Retail: $16.95
•    ISBN: 978-1613749777

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Be sure to enter for a chance to win our HUGE Thanksgiving Giveaway 2014. Ends November 17, 2014!

 

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Image of slave ship Credit: The Library of Congress

A Fascinating Front Row Seat in the Legislative Branch of the US Government

One of the most engaging of all the titles in the outstanding Chicago Review Press For Kids Series, US Congress for Kids provides readers with an overview of the US Legislative process, from the very first meeting of Congress in 1789 to laws created in 2014. On what typically is a rather confusing and dry subject, author Ronald Reis breaks everything down so that it is both completely comprehensible and at the same time fascinating.  In fact, the explanation of how the US Congress is organized and what its functions are, is the best written summary on the subject I’ve ever read, bar none. I’m sure there are as many adults who could benefit from reading this (as I did) as there are children. Photographs and historic drawings add to the learning experience.

A Lesson in History and Politics Minus the Rote Memorization

Fascinating quips about historical events that took place in the early days of Congress are presented, including many that revolved around the issue of slavery such as the “Crime Against Kansas” speech and William Slade’s Violation of the Gag Order in 1837. In addition to the inner workings of congress, there’s information on: Impeachment; Amendments to the Constitution such as Direct Election of Senators and the Women’s Right to Vote; laws on Immigration and American Citizenship; Congressional investigations such as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusations about government officials being members of the communist party; Civil Rights and Jim Crow Laws; and Campaigning for office. Throughout the book are offset boxes featuring key figures in Congress from Aaron Burr to Elizabeth Warren and other important and intriguing individuals in US lawmaking history.

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Image of Congress Credit: The Library of Congress

 21 Activities

You’ll love the activities in US Congress for Kids. They are original and interactive, actually encouraging readers to get involved in the political process. Among them are: finding their local US Representative and writing him or her a letter; writing their own one-minute speech; tracking a bill thorough congress; learning how to register to vote; and launching a petition action. There are some artistic activities too, like making a congressional medal of honor and a capitol dome from toothpicks and gumdrops.

What This Book Teaches

Readers get such a comprehensive and objective view of how the US Judicial System operates. They discover that despite all the political controversies that have arisen throughout history, our Congress works for our greater good. Learning about constitutional rights and how they are protected by law opens the door to understanding the importance of securing the freedoms upon which our great nation was based. There’s a tremendous amount of  important educational information in  US Congress for Kids, but the book is written in such a way that readers will not be overwhelmed by it. They will discover many new vocabulary words, and in the back of the book are an important Glossary of political terms and a list of Websites to Explore relating to the topic.

Aerial of the U.S. Capitol under restoration. The United States Capitol is the meeting place of the United States Congress, the legislature of the Federal government of the United States. Located in Washington, D.C., it sits atop Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall.

Image Credit: The Library of Congress

Why You Should Buy This Book

When I was in middle school, high school and even college, books and classes available to me on the US Government were so tedious and uninteresting, I was turned off by the subject completely. US Congress for Kids takes the bore out of history and politics and makes it a real page turner. It is apparent that a tremendous amount of work went into researching and writing this book, and that must be commended. Ronald Reis has a way of writing that is so engaging, the reader gets excited about the subject at hand. I read and reviewed Reis’ Christopher Columbus for Kids last year, and it too was a book I could not put down.

US Congress for Kids facilitates independent thinking and inspires readers to fight for all that is just. Understanding the basics of the way our government works from an early age empowers children to look forward to voting and taking action to do what they can to protect the freedoms set forth by the US Constitution. We need future politicians who will protect our rights!

About the Author

RReisRonald A. Reis is the author of numerous nonfiction books for kids and young adults, including Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids, with 21 Activities. His biography of Buffalo Bill Cody won the 2011 Spur Award for the best juvenile nonfiction biography about the west, from the Western Writers of America. He lives in Calabasas, California.

Further Learning

  1. Learn more about the three branches of government on Kids.Gov.
  2. Visit the Kid’s Wesbite for The Library of Congress.
  3. Watch live sessions of the House of Representatives online.
  4. Explore the National Museum of History’s Division of Political History.

Read my review of Christopher Columbus for Kids also by Ronald Reis and my interview with Ronald Reis. Check out other excellent titles in the Chicago Review Press for Kids Series.

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