Children’s picture books frequently feature wonderful relationships between little kids and their parents, or grandparents. Moms are heroes, Dad’s idolized and a day with Grandma is the ultimate fun. Then you get to chapter books. Early chapter books have less and less of a presence of parents at all, which is sort of understandable since there’s limited word space and content. These books are usually topic heavy and formulaic as well. Still, by the time one reaches the intermediate and YA novels. parents are either absent (physically or emotionally) or the enemy. I love to read and I love to read to my children. I look forward to the day I can share some of my childhood favorites with them, but at the same time those favorites don’t always pass the test of being viewed through the lens of my adulthood.
I started ruminating on this topic while reflecting on “new” author Eva Ibbotson’s novels and how they remind me a little bit of the feel of Noel Streatfield. Ms. Ibbotson’s books have recently been republished. I missed them the first time around in the mid-eighties, which is a shame, since I would have been the perfect age for them. Her books are a wonderful combination of sweet romance and that sort of spunky princess character provided by many Disney movies. They are a nice fit for young teens who are not ready for adult romance novels, or sexually explicit content, but who also crave something more mature or romantic than intermediate books offer.
I began to think about the books that I DID enjoy at that age. There were no Barnes and Noble booksellers with huge YA selections. Waldenbooks was as big as it got, and they were in the shopping mall over thirty minutes away. Being car-less and living in a small town I mostly relied on K-Mart or the library. As a middle schooler I had a long lasting love of Trixie Belden, but little interest in Nancy Drew. Sweet Valley High held my attention for approximately a year and a half around eight grade. I discovered Robin McKinley around that same time, but she only had the three published novels then and a book of short stories. Jean Slaughter Doty’s books also were great favorites of mine as were Sally Watson and Noel Streatfield. All of those were probably for younger readers than I, but I loved the stories. I still do. Eventually I discovered Anne McCaffrey (probably while trying to find more McKinley novels) and from then on out it was genre all the way through to my mid-twenties when I picked up a second job working as an assistant to the children’s librarian one of the public libraries and rediscovered the joy of reading Children’s and YA literature.
So many of those books have absentee parents or orphaned children. Now that I’m a mom that sort of bothers me. Now, I never noticed this phenomena as a child or teenager. Plucky orphans making the best of it by performing in the theatre? Seven teenagers of various age running wild through the town and country solving mysteries and making friends? The TV addict who wins the heart of her new school’s star basketball player and resident hottie? I loved them all. There was barely a parent or guardian to be seen anywhere, although I do recall a sister in the book about the boob tube junkie. I know there were adults used as veritable MacGuffins in some of the mystery series, else how do our intrepid teens make the trip to the ranch out west, or to England to see the crown jewels and foil foul happening in the wax museum? Still, not one of the books I read then had any kind of parent figure that I saw in my own life, or that of my friends.
I understand that part of what makes reading fun is the escape from reality, the sense of empowerment a young reader gets from empathizing with a character who is able to problem solve on their own, or do things that the reader wishes they could do. It’s just so darned unrealistic. Peaches, a recent read of mine, was pretty enjoyable in that “YA chick lit feel good sort of way.” However the adults in it were all idiots or caricatures. Ann Brashares parents in the Traveling Pants series from the same sub-genre are more well rounded. They are actually engaged in the lives of their teenagers which is pleasant to see. This is such a rarity though, that it is one of the standout features of her series. I’ll want to read those books with my own daughter some day and discuss how the different women interact. Much more common, however are the books where the teenagers are more mature, or capable than the adults. Such disparate books as Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Foul and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight feature teen and preteen protagonist who make decisions for the betterment of their parents lives. It makes me wonder if that’s just how teenagers SEE adults; as caricatures or peripheral necessities to cough up gas money and groceries or even worse as victims of a strange middle age senility.
Intermediate readers have the same problem. The younger characters often still love their parents, but the protagonists usually know better than the adults. It’s a sort of insidious thing to encounter, as I think kids, pre-teens and teenagers rather naturally go through times when they think they know better than their parents. Reading these sort of books encourages a certain amount of back talk, acting out and rebelliousness. I’m reminded of Snape’s description of Harry as a boy who can’t follow rules that are there for his own safety. It’s so true! By addressing the trope within the novel itself Rowling somehow makes it work while saying that it’s not okay.
In fact, digressing to more Potter talk – one almost can’t converse on this genre any more without doing so (ignore the elephant in the quidditch robes!) – Rowling’s parents are awesome. Though she embraces the orphan making good storyline that I loved as a child, Harry’s parents are still an important part of the story. Although James and Lily Potter are dead, their love for their son and each other is palpably real throughout the series. The Weasley’s are the most in-touch, focused parents I’ve seen in a book in a long time. Scenes of Mrs. Weasley worrying about her family are exactly how I’d feel as a mother, and of course there’s her moment in the arena in the last book as well. Not only do the Weasley family have active parents, they also have sibling rivalry financial problems and tempers which add to the realism. The students of Hogwarts have parents who stay abreast of the news in their world, are concerned about the kids and communicate with them on a regular basis. The Dursley’s are comically deluded but they do love their son. Even Narcissa Malfoy is willing to lie to Voldemort for the sake of her boy. It fascinates me that the best parents to hit the market are in a fantasy series.
As a parent I’d like to see more of this sort of thing. I’m curious how much of the non-parent thing is the story-tellers and how much is the audience. Is it laziness on the part of an author to have a single parent household where death or divorce has created part of the drama for the story? Is it parents in refrigerators?* Or does it have more to do with that insane self absorption that comes from being thirteen (or any other “teen.”) Are they catering to the audience? Maybe Rowling’s broken more ground than just length of novels. Hopeful other authors and editors will realize that parents don’t have to be the bad guys to bring the readers in. In the meantime I guess I can rest assured that, while I may notice the lack of parents in the novels, my kids will remain oblivious.
*This refers to a comic phenomena called Women in Refrigerators that refers to the practice of killing or maiming a hero’s female love interest in order to give him angst, or inspiration. I’m trying to be funny in referring to the parents this way, but the more I think about it the more it bothers me as I mentally rack up a tally of books with dead parents. It’s not just for Disney, folks!