The stoutest rule I know in writing for children is that the protagonist has to solve the problem him or herself. For this reason, the parents and other adults are often deleted from the equation–mysteriously called out of the country, or temperamentally oblivious, or some other factor that effectively neutralizes them so that they cannot solve the story problem. I think this is why orphan books have been popular for at least a hundred years.
But what about books where a parent or caretaker is the problem?
Sitting around talking with a few of my writer friends the other day, I was a little surprised to realize that we pretty much all despised our mothers. And we didn’t go there, but we probably could have told horror stories about our fathers, as well. And for the most part, we had good reasons for our anger. Our parents were neglectful and abusive in several cases–dare I say, traumatizing.
Now, it’s possible that my group of friends is skewed, or that the subgroup of humans that call themselves “writers” is skewed, but either way I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of bad parents out there. Even the parents who are mostly good, who are really trying to do the best that they can, often mess up royally.
If part of our job as writers for young folk is to give them a sense of perspective that they haven’t lived long enough to gain from experience, and family life is a huge aspect of their existence that they might need perspective in, then don’t we owe them books that honestly show the good, the bad, and the ugly?
I haven’t done an extensive study–I have a habit of just saying things I think, and I’d love to be schooled about this–but it seems to me that there are disproportionately few books where the central problem, or at least the central emotional problem, is the caretaker.
What do you all think?
The books that I can think of that show bad parents or caretakerss really messing up are:
- What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman (The boyfriend is violent.)
- Nobody’s Family is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh (The father is controlling and rigid and the mother lacks the spine to stand up to him.)
- The Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey (The caretaker is incredibly complex–clueless about raising a child which makes him physically neglectful. But he’s also emotionally neglectful. And so obsessed with his work which is so clearly inappropriate and harmful for a child to view that his insistence that the Main Character help in his researches really does constitute emotional abuse.)
- The Dollmage by Martine Leavitt (The caretaker is emotionally abusive.)
These are the books I can think of where the bad or inadequate caretaker is the story problem, or one of the big story problems, at least. Others? (I haven’t read the Lemony Snicket books, but they might be?) And it’s certainly not one of the major problems in the books, but I do appreciate how the mother in The Hunger Games trilogy is depressed and emotionally unresponsive. Also, I think I remember there being considerable family dysfunction in Sonya Hartnett’s Thursday’s Child.
What other books can you all think of where the parental dysfunction is the main story problem? Are there any books where one of the parents is sexually abusive? Any others with domestic violence? Really complex and emotionally abusive mothers? Really depressed and therefore neglectful mothers?
I know this is depressing. Really, I don’t think all books need to be depressing. But I think kids deserve an accurate representation of the world in their books, and I think kids who are living or have lived with abusive and neglectful caretakers themselves (most children who ever enter the foster care system, for instance) deserve to have narratives that can help them say, “oh, what this person says about me isn’t necessarily true.” Or “just because this person doesn’t love me and should, doesn’t mean that I am inherently unloveable.”
I think a lot of us who write for children care deeply for them because we are parents ourselves, or grandparents, or teachers. I wonder if that makes us go a little too easy on the adults in many of the books we write?
Next Weeks Topic: Why do kids need love stories?