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.