I know I’ve blathered about this before, but there is some really amazing children’s literature out there. I can’t wait until the boys are old enough for chapter books, which will be about the right age to dive into loads of new worlds and characters that will feel like old friends. Once I even sat down to try and write a YA book (okay — more than once), and I stumbled upon a paradigm of children’s literature that I’m not sure how to get past.
Think back to your favorite children’s stories, then ask yourself — where are the main character’s parents? I guarantee that in 99% of the examples, the parents will be deceased or otherwise absent. Cases in point:
- Harry Potter: Parents dead.
- Neville Longbottom (The other chosen one, if you will): Parents languishing in a mental health ward.
- Cinderella: Parents dead.
- Max: Parents sleeping as Max goes to where the wild things are.
- Matilda: Parents ignore her almost completely.
- Dorothy Gale: Parents dead, living with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry.
- Katniss Everdeen: Father dead, mother incapable of taking care of her children.
- Bella Swan: Mother living far away, relationship with father amiable but distant, leaving Bella vulnerable to romances with vampires and werewolves.
I seriously tried to think of beloved children’s book or series where the parents were present and participatory, and I came up with one: The Little House on the Prairie books. But those books are often about the Ingalls family as a whole, and not necessarily Laura’s tales.
So this is the big question. Can an underage main character have a novel-worthy adventure AND loving parents in his or her life? In the majority of cases, the answer is no. Loving parents would stop a kid from their major plot points before things got too dangerous–a good mother would NOT let their daughter date a vampire. In some cases, the mere presence of parents would halt the storyline in its tracks. This is certainly true of Harry Potter. And can you imagine if Darth Vader had raised Luke and Leia himself? And if she had a stronger mother, Katniss would not have had to learn to hunt with Gale. She may have still had to compete in the Hunger Games, but she wouldn’t have had the skills to win. A reader could claim that the lack of good parenting is what set the story in motion.
Can a teenaged protagonist have novel-worthy adventures if the parents are around? Am I missing an important book or series that has involved parents and a cool storyline? The absence of parents allows the character to move freely around the story’s universe, striving to achieve more than their parents did. Or they strive to become someone that his or her parents can be proud of. Or both. Most often this scenario dooms the character to some kind of missing-parent angst. It’s a good plot driver, but does this have to be the recipe for all strong children’s stories?
I think the thing is that a lot of stories for kids use really classic paradigms because children like to hear about kids being the hero and going off and having adventures – learning lessons and such. So when you get the hero or the individuation paradigm into children’s literature – you end up with a lot of dead or absent parents 🙂