Kindly fictional parents? How did that happen?

Two books for teens I’ve read recently share one striking thing: the protagonists’ parents are so kind.

It used to be almost a tradition in children’s literature to get rid of the parents before the action started. How could anyone have an adventure with mum or dad – or more likely Mother and Father – hovering on the sidelines? They might be the voice of caution, putting a stop to any risky behaviour, halting the plot and all its possibilities in its tracks. Or the voice of reason, shooting holes in the mad theories and suppositions that lead to wonderful wild-goose-chasing. Or they are just the family policemen whose job it is to say dull things like ‘Wash your hands’, or ‘Time for bed’, or simply ‘No, you can’t.’

So it was best if parents were out of the way, physically distant, emotionally indifferent, or actually dead. Child heroes were packed off to boarding school, sent to stay with irresponsible uncles and daffy grannies, or into the care of strangers who were just plain bad. They had no one to turn to for help or guidance, but no one to look too closely at what they were up to, either. And in the past children were given a great deal more freedom (or neglected) in ways which seem unimaginable now. They dashed off on their bikes, went sailing, swimming, and exploring without any supervision. They made up their own picnics and ate them alone, without cutting themselves or choking or food-poisoning incidents, for heaven’s sake! They didn’t even seem to experience a sugar-rush. Further back, poor children were sent up chimneys and out begging. E Nesbit as a child of ten travelled alone from school in Kent to Brittany, where her mother and sister were living because it was cheaper there. We might feel scandalised, but of course in fiction this gives the action plenty of room and sets the protagonists a series of problems. Let the fun, or the danger, or both, begin!

When I was writing my first children’s book it turned out to contain a lot of classic elements. It was almost a given to get rid of the heroine’s parents in the opening scenes, but so that she wasn’t emotionally battered by this I made them rather selfish and unpleasant characters. The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth is set in the late Victorian era when fathers were often distant figures and, if they wished, mothers could hand childcare entirely over to the servants. And colonial India, where Clemency was born, was full of risks to life and health; that’s why so many children were sent “home” to England as soon as they were old enough to go. This set-up leaves Clemency awash in a strange world with very few clues as to her place in it, and great scope for (mis)adventures.

In children’s books with more modern settings the role of parents is often to thwart the children, to fail to listen, to be absent in more ordinary ways (at work, estranged through divorce, preoccupied with their own problems, ill). It’s so in Skellig, in A Monster Calls. The children have to work out their own dramas.

Is that why I was so struck when I read Wonder by R J Palacio, and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green? The parents here have patience, humour, understanding, tact, sensitivity, selflessness. In their actions they are loving. At times they are more like friends than parents to their offspring. They are shown as happily married and supportive of their spouses. If they get angry or anxious about things they tend to keep it to themselves. (Are they too perfect?) The children think fondly of them – if sometimes with a tinge of exasperation. Is this because both books are about children struggling with serious health problems? 16-year-old Hazel has cancer, and 10-year-old Auggie has a severe facial disfigurement – enough challenges to tackle without difficult parents thrown into the mix. Both are just trying above all to be normal.

Parenting styles have changed hugely over the generations, though we still seem able to find new ways in which to hurt and neglect. Of course this is reflected in contemporary fiction. But it was interesting to read two books in the space of a few weeks in which the parents are drawn as such kindly creatures.

wonder by r j pallacio children's book fault

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5 thoughts on “Kindly fictional parents? How did that happen?

  1. I’m sure many parents are kind but it will be a rare child that doesn’t at some stage imagine or fantasise about their parents not being their true progenitors. In a twist to this scenario our eldest child even had a make-believe role she played of being ‘Susan’, a little girl who came to visit so that we would treat her nicely as a guest and not tell her off.

    The old fairytale trope of the ill-favoured orphan dies hard. Just thinking of recent reviews I’ve posted these include John in Moonfleet, Tom in The Water-Babies, Clemency (of course!), Lucy and Charlotte in Count Karlstein, Gluck in The King of the Golden River and Owen Hughes in The Whispering Mountain. If they aren’t true orphans there’s some mystery about their parentage or true identity, as with Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity(not a YA novel, I admit) or Lyra in His Dark Materials.

    If the parents are living and kindly then anxiety or conflict of some kind as a trigger for action or forwarding the plot is essential, it seems to me, if the novel is not to stall or stagnate. But I’m struggling to find examples of kind parents. In Five on a Treasure Island the parents are either dozy or bad-tempered and in Marco’s Pendulum the young protagonists are simply misunderstood by their parents or disbelieved. In The Curious Incident of the Dog… Christopher’s parents are simply dysfunctional.

    This is a fascinating subject you’ve raised: I’m going to have to do some desultory research!

    • I absolutely love books with a ‘mystery about …parentage or true idenitity’. This was a staple of 19th century fiction, when of course a revelation about parentage could lead to a sudden rise, or plunge, in social standing and connections. A very desultory bit of research (aka racking my brain for 2 seconds) came up with The Woman In White, No-Name and Oliver Twist, of course. As for kind parents, I think they are becoming commoner in new fiction, just as parents are trying not to be authoritarian or distant – and sometimes going too far in the opposite direction – and this is reflected in books with contemporary settings. But if you write fiction set in a past era you have free rein to make them whatever helps the plot! I’ve come up with another example of kindly parents – Bonnie Green’s aristocratic mum and dad in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are lovely, but they also manage to take themselves out of the picture almost immediately. Lady Green is too unwell to spend winter in the Chase, but doesn’t think to take Bonnie with her, instead leaving her to the cruel ministrations of an unknown and untried ‘cousin’, the evil Miss Slycarp. So we have a rather thoughtless attitude plus geographical distance – perfect for mayhem to ensue!

  2. I suppose the midway point between the kindly parents on the one hand and the deceased ones on the other is one where the kindly parents mistakenly entrust their offspring to adults in loco parentis — the equivalent of the wicked stepmother in fairytales or Aladdin’s ‘uncle’ in The Arabian Nights.

    This certainly seems the case in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a kind of Hansel and Gretel scenario writ large. (A sudden lightbulb moment, this: must remember it when I get my finger out and review Wolves!)

    By the way, Desultory Research are my middle names…

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