Bernie Sanders, King of YA Lit

How did his latest political manifesto become a young adult best-seller?

Bernie Sanders greets a young supporter at the Labor Day Parade on Sept. 7, 2015, in Milford, New Hampshire.

Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

As YA best-sellers go, the Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution is an unlikely contender. The author is a 76-year-old man. The cover illustration consists of his balding head. And teens are not known to be passionate about tax reform (the subject of Chapter 2) or health insurance wonkery (Chapter 4). Nonetheless, the book rode near the top of the New York Times best-seller list for Young Adult Hardcovers for weeks after its debut in late August, peaking (so far) at No. 2.

The Bernie Sanders Guide is based on Sanders’s previous best-seller, Our Revolution, which was published one week after the election of Donald Trump. Like many books written by politicians capitalizing on their season of national celebrity, Our Revolution was a policy manifesto embedded in a campaign narrative. Sanders used Our Revolution to tout victories, air grudges, and revisit the campaign’s inflection points (debates, media interviews, rallies) and what it felt like to experience them in the moment. He also expanded his stump speech into a dense report on his vision for a reinvigorated progressive agenda. The book’s attention was split between the past and the future.

The Bernie Sanders Guide, by contrast, is all future. Amazon classifies the new book as a “political biography,” but in fact it is no such thing. Our Revolution spent almost 50 pages on Sanders’ childhood and his early political career. The 200-plus-page Guide does not even mention the senator’s mother, his wife, or his children. His father, a Polish immigrant, gets one paragraph as a windup to the chapter on immigration reform. The 2016 campaign merits only a few glancing references. (He does note that he received more votes from “young people” than Trump and Hillary Clinton combined.) Instead of dilly-dallying over history, biography, and psychology, it plunges right into the policy weeds.

Sanders has described the Guide as an introduction to “what being a progressive is all about.” In eight brisk chapters, he surveys a host of outrages from Wall Street greed to climate change. In each one, he starts by laying out the problem with minimum fuss. “The tax code is helping the very rich get insanely richer, while the middle class is disappearing and the poor are getting poorer,” begins the chapter on tax reform. He swiftly deploys some statistics to back up the point and then plunges into a series of policy prescriptions: closing corporate tax loopholes, instituting a progressive estate tax, raising taxes on households making more than $250,000, and so on.

Sanders’ popularity with young people took many journalists and career Washingtonians by surprise in 2015 and 2016. But this book is a deft illustration of why his campaign was so energizing for young progressives. For one, he has a knack for framing policy positions as matters of urgent moral outrage. In a section on paid family leave and medical leave, he writes bluntly, “When it comes to supporting real family values, the United States lags behind every other major country on earth.” Sanders is cranky and impatient, and he makes a convincing case that the left could use more crankiness and impatience if it wants to start winning.

The most refreshing thing about the Bernie Sanders Guide is the most refreshing thing about Bernie Sanders the politician: a seemingly total lack of condescension. Sanders does not strain to convince his young readers that criminal justice reform will be immediately relevant in their own lives. He puts the chapter on tax reform before the chapter on the presumably more applicable chapter on affordable higher education. He doesn’t contort himself to prove that, say, the high cost of prescription drugs matters hugely to healthy teens and twentysomethings. He doesn’t try to use teenage slang or make pop culture references, and he doesn’t waste time flattering his fan base by revisiting the glory days of his youth-driven campaign. He treats young people not like a special interest group to be pandered to but like American citizens capable of maintaining a broad, benevolent interest in the welfare of the country as a whole.

The genre of political books for young people is in something of a heyday. Children have countless inspirational tomes to choose from, from Obama’s 2010 survey of “groundbreaking Americans” to a slew of biographies of female scientists, activists, and Supreme Court justices pitched as empowerment narratives for girls. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s 1990s lightning rod It Takes a Village was spun into a picture book published in September. And Penguin recently published The Little Book of Little Activists, a photo-heavy celebration of the tots of the Women’s March on Washington and other recent demonstrations. (Imagine how a similar book would be received if it featured the children who attend the March for Life and other conservative rallies.)

Sanders’ guidebook is not a children’s book, of course. It’s for teenagers and the slippery category of “young adults.” But there’s a similar tension in its mission: translating “boring” policy issues into material digestible for people who can’t even vote yet. In most cases, tailoring a book for young readers makes it less appealing to adults. Plenty of grown-ups are gobbling up YA novels these days, of course, though I have argued that YA’s version of literary fiction is generally thinner and dimmer than the adult stuff. And nonfiction generally suffers even more from young adult–ification. Such biographies and historical surveys can do admirable work as introductions to complex figures and themes, but almost by definition they present a simpler and less disturbing narrative than the “real” story.

Then again, isn’t that exactly what books written by working politicians already do? The Bernie Sanders Guide has convinced me that “campaign postmortem/manifesto” is the one genre that is markedly improved by being translated for the young. Our Revolution was more than 400 pages, but why? On the page, Sanders’s case—so electric on the campaign trail—was larded down with repetitive statistics and digressions. Many chapters read as if he had come up with three different introductions and decided to include them all. The campaign narrative, meanwhile, was better told in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles.

The trimmer, punchier Bernie Sanders Guide skips the leaden chronicle of diner conversations and C-SPAN coverage. It breaks up the data dump with helpful headings and labels and bullet points. It features snazzier charts and graphs, and the sidebars make it easier to figure out how to take action. It’s not a dumber version of Our Revolution; it’s a ruthless edit. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that it has been selling so well. Sure, it hasn’t been able to secure the No. 1 spot on the best-seller list so far, but its come-from-nowhere popularity means it should be taken seriously nonetheless.

Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution by Bernie Sanders. Henry Holt and Co.

Read all of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.