A while ago, Shannon Hale put up an interesting post about the trend of absentee parents in children’s literature. Here’s the bit I find most telling:
A few years ago, I read a Horn Book article about the lack of mothers in fairy tales and books, and it mentioned, among others, Princess Academy. The article’s writer (I’m embarrassed I can’t remember who) challenged herself to change that and write a book where the protagonist’s mother was a present, strong character. She talked about her work and how she had to scrap it. In a story, it’s just impossible for a child/teen to have any adventures, to grow on his/her own with a mother present. The mother would take care of everything, the mother would carry the burden of worry.
I agree. It’s really hard for children or teenagers to have high-stake, high-risk adventures (of the sort that make good stories) with strong, involved parents present. As a child reader living in a safe, protected family home, I wanted to live vicariously through characters who had dangerous adventures. I didn’t want books about children whose parents picked them up on time, checked their homework, and protected them from the travails of life. I wanted to read books about children who ran away, crash-landed on deserted islands, defeated the Dark Lord, and solved the mystery (thought not necessarily all in the same book!).
Part of growing up is wanting to have adventures without any grownups around. My own children, for instance, have often made plans to run away (only for the day, they want to be back by nightfall). I don’t see this as an indictment of my parenting, but a natural desire to test themselves against the world. After all, isn’t that what I’m supposed to be preparing them for? My parenting is supposed to equip them with the knowledge, skills, and character to deal with the world. Occasionally, they just want to get out there sooner than I am ready to let them *grin*. Fiction provides a safe way for them to experience the danger and adventure they won’t get while Mom and Dad are around.
That said, my favorite absentee parents are those of the kids in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. After her four children beg to be allowed to take their boat and sail around and camp onhe islands for a few weeks, the mother telegraphs her naval officer husband for his input. The father’s response? A terse but awesome telegram:
BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN
A father who trusts his children to have adventures and take acceptable risks? How cool is that?
What are your thoughts on absentee parents in children’s fiction?