Why Are Children’s Books So Tough on Parents?

Cover for Ballet ShoesIn which I take a break from my usual reviews and do a little musing.

This week I read Noel Streatfeild’s classic book Ballet Shoes for the first time, and that made me think about something I have often wondered. Why do the children in classic children’s books seldom have parents? Or if they have parents, why aren’t they there?

In Ballet Shoes, three little girls, Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, are adopted by Great Uncle Matthew. Then he goes off on a trip and doesn’t come back for a long time, leaving them with his great niece Sylvia, only sixteen, and the servants. To support themselves, the girls turn to dance and theatre.

Cover for The Invention of Hugo CabretBut the Fossil girls aren’t the only orphans in children’s classics. Anne Shirley is an orphan, although admittedly Marilla and Matthew are a lot more present than many parents in children’s books. The parents of Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden and Rose of Eight Cousins die, and they go to live in the house of uncles they’ve never met. Mary’s uncle is a recluse and Rose’s uncle is away at sea. Hugo Cabret is left with his uncle, too, but his uncle disappears, and he lives alone in a clock tower. Pippi Longstocking’s father is lost at sea. David Copperfield is a posthumous child whose mother dies, leaving him to the mercies of a despotic stepfather. Poor little Oliver Twist never knew either of his parents. Pollyanna goes to live with her aunt, and Heidi with her grandfather. David Balfour is not only an orphan, but his kidnapping is arranged by his own uncle! Karana’s father is killed and then she misses the boat to wait for her brother. No one ever tells us what happened to Dorothy’s parents. She lives with her aunt and uncle but flies off from them in a tornado. And there’s the most famous orphan of all, Harry Potter, who at first lives in a cubbyhole under the stairs at his uncle’s house and later discards his relatives altogether. Somehow, none of these guardians seem to be as present as actual parents would be, we assume.

Cover for KidnappedThen we have children who may as well be orphans. Wendy, John, and Michael Darling literally fly out the window with a sprite, so eager are they for adventure. Huckleberry Finn is a boy who would just as soon leave his father behind, and does. Although Marmee is home part of the time, she has to go off and nurse Mr. March for a good portion of the book, leaving Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy home alone. The boy in The Reluctant Dragon has a mother who wants him to come home, but he spends all his time hanging out with saints and dragons. Sara Crewe’s father leaves her at school and then disappears. Jim Hawkins runs off to sea to find treasure, leaving his mother behind to watch the tavern. Max from Where the Wild Things Are sails away to an island full of monsters. Cedric Errol’s mother gives her up to his grandfather so that he can have a better life. Meg Murray and her brother Charles Wallace travel off into time, although admittedly they are trying to rescue their father.

Cover for Harry PotterOf course, you’re probably thinking about other books where parents are present, the Little House books, for example. But think how many of your favorite books were about children who are alone or being taken care of by other relatives, strangers, or no one at all. Why is that?

One obvious thought is you can’t go fighting pirates when you’re being reminded to brush your teeth and put on your pajamas. As a budding author of 12, I was fully aware of how parents would stifle my creativity. My girlfriend and I spent each day writing under the tree in her back yard. After thinking about the problem for about five minutes, I ruthlessly killed off my main character’s parents.

Cover for Where the Wild Things AreBut maybe there is something to consider about the types of books we love as children. Maybe the books we love best are the ones where children learn to develop and take care of themselves. And of course, all good children’s books must have pathos. A lonely child appeals to our sympathies, even if she is a brat at first, like Mary Lennox. Danger is heightened without the protection of a parent, as we find with Jim on the Hispaniola or Oliver Twist in the clutches of Bill Sykes or Harry in the clutches of, well, everything. The children must find ways to survive using their wits.

Maybe it’s not so much that as children we don’t want parents in our books, but that those books are the ones we find more memorable. We can imagine how we would feel if our parents were gone and we had to go live with a scary uncle or a grumpy grandfather or Marilla Cuthbert, who seems very intimidating to a child. We can admire how resourceful the characters become when they have to fend for themselves. How great it is that Mary learns how to garden, make friends, and help heal her cousin Colin. How resourceful Huck is in protecting Jim. How cheerful Sara is even when she’s banished to the attic of her school and treated as a housemaid. How cleverly the boy helps work out the problems between St. George and the lazy, poetic dragon. How ingenious Hugo is at finding ways to support himself. How Pippi can do anything she wants, at any time!

And, of course, loneliness is a huge theme in most of these books (maybe Pippi excepted), and all children know what it is to feel lonely.

Related Posts

The Secret Garden

Anne of Green Gables

The Invention of Hugo Cabret


24 thoughts on “Why Are Children’s Books So Tough on Parents?

  1. Carolyn O February 8, 2016 / 12:23 pm

    I think about this issue quite a bit (and wrote a short story in response to it, actually). From a historical standpoint, I think we see a lot of dead-mother books (and movies–like the whole Disney oeuvre, pretty much) because of the high rates of maternal mortality that prevailed into the twentieth century; mothers died in childbirth at an absolutely appalling rate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (which happens to be my area of specialization).

    From a storytelling standpoint, you hit it right on the nose: parents usually protect children, so it’s much easier to send them off on adventures when the parents are dead.

    And you’re absolutely right about the loneliness.

    • whatmeread February 8, 2016 / 12:26 pm

      I did think about the dead mother issue, or more generally about mortality, but I was trying to keep things on the storytelling level. I think the point about what we remember most is valid. At least to me, the ones that made me more emotional were the ones I remembered and loved from childhood.

      • Carolyn O February 8, 2016 / 6:42 pm

        Sure! It’s still out for review at a bunch of places, but I’ll email a copy to you 🙂

      • whatmeread February 9, 2016 / 7:23 am

        I’d love to read it. I hope it gets published!

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings February 8, 2016 / 2:12 pm

    My oldest just asked me this weekend why there are so many children without parents in the books she’s reading. My answer was remarkably similar to what you point out: the stories wouldn’t be half as fun to read if a parent would always remind the kids to brush their teeth. She also agreed that the stories wouldn’t be as entertaining if there were a mother or father to solve all the problems. When I was a child, I invented stories in which I was an orphan, and I know my kids are doing the same. I think it’s part of growing up and imagining/learning how to function without a constant protector.

    • whatmeread February 8, 2016 / 2:13 pm

      Hah! Well, I guess a lot of people think about this!

  3. Emily J. February 8, 2016 / 2:53 pm

    I think you have explained it well. Children don’t want to read about their parents and they can’t be creative with them about. Parents get in the way of children having adventures. We are reading Hugo Cabret right now, and your post also reminded me of Island of the Blue Dolphins and My Side of the Mountain. Great post!

    • whatmeread February 8, 2016 / 2:57 pm

      Thanks! My Side of the Mountain was one I never read. I love Hugo Cabret! I love how you can work it like a bunch of movie cards.

  4. Cecilia February 8, 2016 / 3:13 pm

    What an interesting point, and I think you are absolutely right; my son loves stories in which the children get to be heroes, are the ones who outsmart adults, etc. Children feel so little power in their lives but stories are where they can be whatever and whoever they want to be (or live vicariously so through fictional characters). I hadn’t thought much of this before but can now appreciate even more how important stories are to a child’s developing mind and identity!

    • whatmeread February 8, 2016 / 3:15 pm

      That’s point about power is a good one. Thanks!

  5. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review February 8, 2016 / 5:10 pm

    This is a great question! I think that fiction in general is about the journey of becoming who we really are, finding our individuality in relationship to the world. Symbolically, that’s often represented as leaving or losing our parents. We have to free ourselves from the past in order to develop something new for the future. But there are the practical aspects as well…I think many storytellers may have come to the point you did where you realized you had to kill off the parents in your story in order for anything interesting to happen.

    • whatmeread February 9, 2016 / 7:22 am

      Well, I was 12. I think there are probably other ways to do it.

      • Lory @ Emerald City Book Review February 9, 2016 / 3:20 pm

        True, and yet so many adult writers have taken the same route (if not quite so violently). I don’t think it’s just due to immaturity.

  6. Naomi February 8, 2016 / 8:10 pm

    I love this post, Kay. I think that everyone else has already said anything I was going to say, but I just wanted to chime in with a couple more examples. 🙂
    I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins (I think Emily mentioned that one) where the girl lives alone on an Island for years, having to fend completely for herself. My son and I just finished a series by Gordon Korman in which the two siblings are fugitives of the law, and are trying to prove their parents’ innocence while trying not to get caught. This is a good example of the power issue that Cecilia mentioned – that the children are capable of doing something that their parents’ lawyers couldn’t even do. Gordon Korman’s famous Bruno and Boots of course get into all kinds of trouble when they away from their parents at boarding school. And, Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider stars a lonely homeless boy who lives (I think) on the streets of New York City.

    • whatmeread February 9, 2016 / 7:24 am

      Yes, my reference to Karana was to Island of the Blue Dolphins. Maybe I should have mentioned the name. Thanks for the other examples! Probably a lot of people are aware of more recent books than I would be.

      • Naomi February 9, 2016 / 11:07 am

        I can never remember her name. Even when I was young and read it several times, I didn’t seem to notice her name. Funny.

      • whatmeread February 9, 2016 / 11:08 am

        I had to look it up, so apparently you’re not the only one with that problem.

      • Naomi February 9, 2016 / 11:21 am

        Oh, good. 🙂

  7. writereads February 9, 2016 / 10:51 am

    I’m going to apologize right now for the length of my comment. I actually did my MA (many, many years ago) on children’s portal fantasy and the representations of adulthood in the kids’ fantasy of different cultures, so I get all excited to talk about stuff like this :). I don’t say this to say I know more than other people about the subject, just to say that I get all giddy to talk about it :).

    Of course, I think the lack of parental influence has a lot to do with, as everyone here mentioned – giving children the power and authority to step outside the parental box is important in creating child heroes. Also, orphans have somehow come to equal “neat” in English lit :).

    Plus, as both you and Carolyn mentioned, there is a certain age when not only does it become important to tell children about death and loneliness, but when some kids are…is “fascinated” the word I’m looking for? …with sadness. When I worked in kids’ books, I had loads of girls in the 10-12 age range who would come in saying “I like books that make me cry.” And we nicknamed the Middle Fiction section the “Death and Dying” section because there were so many books on pet, mother, father, friend death.

    But I digress, I just wanted to put 2 little extra cents in on why adults in general (unless they are hermit, childless, creative types) are often missing from children’s books. Children’s literature really came into being in English during the Industrialist age, when much of the literary establishment was protesting the non-magicalness (I know, not a word) of adult life. Peter Pan is a completely anti-industrialist book. Much of the kids’ lit was about enjoying the magical quality of childhood because as soon as you grew up, you were just going to be sent to a factory to work in smoke until you died. Adults represented people who were trapped in dark routine of unhealthy work environments, where there was no room for imagination. I think one of the many reasons we see so few of adults is that this tradition continued from the Industrialist age.

    However, if you read a lot of classic French kids lit (like Jules Verne), you start noticing that the adults are often going off on adventures with the kids. In classic French lit, rather than being the people who can no longer see the magic of the world, adults are sometimes the ones who introduce the children to the magic of the world, though admittedly the French are far less into the fairies and nymphs magic stories than the English (also an odd point since fairy tales themselves became popular in French courtisan life).

    Anywho, in my years of research, I just thought it was interesting to see how differently two western European cultures represented adulthood in their children’s lit.
    Thank you for posting such a thought provoking post! -Tania

    • whatmeread February 9, 2016 / 10:55 am

      I STILL like books that make me cry. Thanks for that insight into French children’s literature. I haven’t read much of it except the occasional Verne, I admit.

      • writereads February 9, 2016 / 11:01 am

        Yeah, we kinda never leave that phase do we? 🙂 I will still re-read Rilla of Ingleside (the last of the Anne books) just to weep buckets over Walter, and the dog at the train station. -Tania

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