Getting rid of the parents
The fundamental problem of children’s literature
Ultimately, children’s literature, if it exists at all, is literature which is written to make sense to, and appeal to children — though possibly with a wary eye to the adults who may be vetting it. Analytically, the most obvious point of reference for adult authors writing is to write about children themselves. This is something certainly borne out by a survey of the market (or the corpus, if we want to be academic). A very high proportion of children’s books being published today are about children, and even greater proportion of the most successful books are: Harry Potter, Lemony Snickett, Tracy Beaker, and so on.
Looking back at what we might call the ‘canon’, we see, going from the present to the past, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tom’s Midnight Garden, the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the Narnia books, the Box of Delights, Le Petit Prince, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Five Children and It, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — landmark books where children are the main characters. Set against that, we have Watership Down, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows and Pinocchio, but Pinocchio is a doll that wishes to become a child, the rabbits in Watership Down are ingenues in a wider world, and Bilbo Baggins is physically always the smallest and least experienced person. I do not wish to push this point too hard, since it could be argued that even 007 in ‘You only live twice’, is the ingenue in a strange land, by which one could make ones way to the entertaining, but entirely unproductive claim, that all literature is about representations of children.
I am not offering this list as a definitive, in the tradition of FR Leavis: it is merely a list of books which spring into my mind, supplemented by someone else’s list from Wikipedia, which will no doubt have changed by the time anyone reads this. However, I should perhaps explain why neither Winnie the Pooh nor the Tale of Peter Rabbit are included. Children’s literature, I feel, should be about the books that children choose to read, rather than the books which are read to them. Perhaps I am being unfair to Peter Rabbit. It is also, I think, primarily about ‘books’, as defined by the point in children’s lives when they see the books they read as being essentially the same kind of thing that they see adults reading. This might be a difficult point to prove, but, thankfully, public libraries and publishers have made their own arbitrary judgements about these things, and both print and display books in such a way as to make it clear that these are picture books, but those are reading books.
I digress. For the time being, suffice it for me to make the claim that books about children are one of the fundamental categories of children’s literature.
With that in mind, there is immediately a fundamental problem to that fundamental category. One of the most basic requirements of any kind of fiction is that interesting things happen which are plausible within the context of the world in which they are set. This is naturally a relatively easy problem to solve in an entirely made up world. From the moment that we hear “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…” we know that we are in entirely different world, where all kinds of interesting things may happen. Sadly, there is a dreary back catalogue of authors who thought they could write tours-de-force of imagination like Tolkien or Kenneth Grahame, but produced something rather less significant than Noddy in Toyland: worlds which are neither interesting, nor believable.
For a story about children, the immediate problem is: what about the parents? Children are of course allowed to play, but children’s novels are not about children playing at interesting things happening, but about them actually happening. So one is left with the question: what kind of parents would allow a child to travel in danger right across Europe (The Lost Prince), tackle criminal gangs (any Famous Five story), fight pirates (Treasure Island), coast down the river on a raft (Huckleberry Finn), or take up with any random collection of strangers which happens to come along (Moonfleet)? Note that these examples are from books set firmly in the ‘natural’ world, without any hint of supernatural activity. Real parents would put a stop to such things straight away, and, if they didn’t, social services would be round in an instant to do what the parents wouldn’t.
The first problem, then, for the children’s author who chooses to write about children, is to get the parents out of the way, or otherwise neutralise them. Key approaches with a long pedigree include:?
Being a child character is a distressing activity. In the UK, there are approximately 3500 adoptions a year, with about four times as many looked after by local authorities. However, a substantial proportion of these have at least one living parent. In children’s literature, one only needs to look at the sad plight of Harry Potter, John Trenchard, Kim, Kay Harker, Prince Caspian, Tom Sawyer, Anne of Green Gables, and the Baudelaires. This, of course, is a tradition that dates back long before: Cinderella, Dick Whittington and many other folk figures are orphans.
A variation on this is the absent parent or guardian, which is the premise of the Railway Children. As with 2) below, it offers the prospect, however forlorn, of a return to normal life at the end of the story.
Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Carrie’s War, and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all begin with a journey where children are separated from their parents for a period much longer than a holiday, but with the prospect of some return. To some extent, these are books of their time, written by authors who experienced the Second World War either as adults or children. The idea was powerfully resonant for my parents, themselves evacuees, and for their generation.
The Jennings stories are probably the archetypal boarding school stories, although Rudyard Kipling was writing boarding school stories long before. A boarding school offers just enough freedom for the kind of small adventures that Jennings gets up to, although the slightly arms length life of Richmal Crompton’s Just William shows that, when the adventures are limited in scope, there is not really a problem. A broader educational scope creates a better environment for adventure: Hogwarts, the most famous boarding school of them all, is a natural spring board, but its predecessor, the Island of Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea, provides an even better pivotal moment.
Parents and guardians who are mad, bad, or simply dangerous to know
Tracy Beaker is in care because of domestic violence at home. The Baudelaires go through a series of guardians who are either evil, incompetent, or simply mad. Charlie goes off to the chocolate factory with his slightly deranged grandfather. Philip Pullman’s Lyra has the ultimate in unfit parents: touched with genius, but clearly mad, bad and dangerous. Squire Trelawney in Treasure Island and Stefan Loristan in the Lost Prince are well meaning guardians or parents who, by accident or design, allow their charges into extremes of danger.
If the adventures are not too extreme, arms-length parents, such as those of Just William or the Bastables, can provide the necessary latitude for adventure. E Nesbit frequently used large families where the children look after each other, and where the older children actively work to avoid adults finding out what going on. Arms-length parenting is the rather shaky premise for Enid Blyton’s perennially popular Famous Five series.
James and the Giant Peach has probably the most (deliberately) preposterous premise of any story ever written: James is already an orphan (see 1), but has fallen into the hands of aunts. Fortunately, a man gives him a magic potion. Unfortunately, he drops it and it bursts. Fortunately, the spilled potion causes the growth of a giant peach which subsequently kills the aunts, and forms a suitable platform on which to float to America. Supernatural intervention is often linked with orphan stories, as with Harry Potter, Kay Harker and Cinderella. Where the story is set in the natural world, outrageous coincidence, such as with Lemony Snickett, can play the role of the supernatural.
The other world
A variant on Supernatural Intervention, which is important in its own right, is the journey to another world. This provides a very complete solution, since the author can overcome the problem of adults asking children “do your parents know where you are?” Alice’s adventures take her into two worlds where nothing she can do or be is surprising. Peter Pan takes the Darlings to Neverland where, among humans, there are only children and pirates. Initially in Narnia there are no humans at all, and so Mr Tumnus’s surprise is not that Lucy is a child, but a ‘daughter of Eve’. The other world does not necessarily need to be a supernatural world. In Masefield’s Jim Davis, the other world is quite simply the New World of America, where the rules of life are somewhat relaxed. Oliver Twist, though not, to my mind a true children’s novel, is set in the demi-monde of the criminal underworld.
Historical worlds and worlds of disorder
By setting the entire novel in history, an author may (with varying degrees of realism), free the children from parental controls. Orphan stories are easier to set in the Victorian age, where vast numbers of orphans were present in British society. Writing into a time or place of civil unrest, such as in the Lost Prince or in Kim gives the opportunity for the child to have genuine advantages — in both cases, being inconspicuous and unsuspected.
What about author’s who choose not to use any of these solutions — who, in fact, choose not to solve the problem at all? Stan Barstow’s Joby, Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, and others represent a school of British naturalistic children’s fiction which is hugely popular with school teachers, but rather less so with children. As it happens, A Kestrel for a Knave does include the absent father, but it is not used to solve the problem of children’s literature, but to underline it. It could be argued that the parent-problem is only an issue when literature is escapist, but this is to fall into the trap (which also seems to have made a major come back in schools) of imagining that imaginative literature is somehow less valid than naturalistic literature, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This is to suggest that there is a ‘purpose’ to literature, either in the mould of Leavis (serving the purposes of life, whatever they are) or of Ruskin, in his criticism of the so-called ‘pathetic fallacy’. But imputing a purpose to literature is effectively saying that everyone writes with the same purpose, while, intuitively, authors know that they do not even write with the same purpose on different days of the week.
I think if put to it, I would argue that the greatest children’s literature of the 20th century was a quadrivium of fantasy books: The Box of Delights, The Hobbit, the first six Narnia books, and A Wizard of Earthsea. Some people would put Tom’s Midnight Garden at the head of the pack, and probably many would want to make a case for the Wind in the Willows. People who really dislike CS Lewis (you know who you are) would almost certainly want to change the time frame a little and include Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, though if we were to do that, it would be very hard not to include the Harry Potter books. All of these books are escapist fantasy: talking animals, wizards, travel through time, travel from world to world.
The same is true of the foundations of English children’s literature, written in the 19th century or at the very beginning of the 20th by authors who were part of that era: Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and the E Nesbit books: naturalism has no place in these books, although the authors were careful to create the illusion of naturalism whenever it suited them, as a means of underlining what they were really doing.
When I read the comments of people who favour naturalistic British children’s literature, I’m always left with the sense that they feel there is something intrinsically immoral in doing away with the parents for the sake of a successful story. I also have the impression that they feel that 1984, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies (although its solution to the parent problem is one of the most complete), The Pearl, The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are good for children, because children can correctly learn that life is wretched, and will then be free to carry on growing up in the existential courage that was so popular round about 1922. But if this is the purpose of children’s literature, it is clearly not one shared by the better children’s authors (better, in the sense of more exactly being able to sell large numbers of books, which, in a wretched world, would surely by the only measure worth having), nor by the book-buying, book-borrowing and even book-stealing child-public.
Again, I digress.
The view I am putting forward, about the fundamental need of authors to solve the parent-paradox, may (by this point hopefully does) seem an obvious one, but it is not necessarily the general consensus. For example, the prevalence of orphans in children’s literature has attracted the attention of Philip Nel, of Kansas State University, who explains it rather differently: “The literary orphan dramatizes the difficulty of being a child. That is, to be a child is to be subject to the forces of people more powerful than you are. Well, being an orphan makes the powerlessness of childhood that much more visible. At the same time, many literary orphans are resilient characters who, despite their relative lack of power, find the emotional resources to beat the odds and make their way in the world.” (Quoted in USA Today, 7/2/2003)
Perhaps. The plight of the Baudelaires is clearly directly linked to their status as orphans, and it is clearly their powerlessness that Count Olaf exploits in his bid to obtain their inheritance. On the other hand, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim has complete freedom to live the way he wishes because he is an orphan. Tom Sawyer is incompletely free because he still has an Aunt Polly, whereas Huckleberry Finn is able to function with complete freedom. Peter Pan is either a lost child, an abandoned child, or an orphan, subject to which of the many of JM Barrie’s versions of the book and the play one considers. But, again, his unparented status is the source of his freedom, not his vulnerability.
Philip Nel is particularly thinking of Harry Potter when he talks about orphans, but Potter is a special case, as he (to begin with) has the worst of both worlds: no parental love, but guardians who prevent him from having any fun whatsoever. Even so, Potter discovers himself later to have been protected and guided by forces more powerful than his parents, and certainly than the Dursleys. It is precisely his lack of emotional resources to cope with the absence of his parents that provide the counterpoint to what would otherwise be a tediously easy access to the delights of magical power.
Nonetheless, orphans do outweigh other plausible solutions to the parents paradox in English children’s literature. Though their function in solving the problem of plausible scenario has been, I think, now soundly demonstrated, they clearly have a resonance which goes beyond their function. In fact, orphans have the strongest, or at least the oldest, pedigree in English literature: at the very beginning of our earliest epic, Beowulf, we hear that the very first character, Scyld Scefing, “ærest wearð feasceaft funden” — was first found an orphan. King Arthur is brought up as an orphan. Our other literary heritage — Latin — begins with the myth of Romulus and Remus, also foundlings, although they are not technically orphans, but the offspring of the God Mars.
It is beyond the scope of this essay — and perhaps of any essay — to realistically unpick the resonances of orphans in world literature and folk-tales. Which came first, the notion of orphans as the offspring of gods, or the resonance of orphans as figures in stories? How could anyone possibly find out? — although, naturally, as with most unproveables, it is an excuse to spill a lot of ink.
It is one of the great temptations of literary criticism to identify a common feature in diverse works and thereby assume that it explains everything. Orphans are not the hidden meaning of literature: if this essay has demonstrated anything, it is that there are a range of solutions available to the children’s author. What I believe I have demonstrated is that, within the confines of making a story work, the author must either choose not to write about children at all, or must find some means of suppressing parental interference, or is restricted to (possibly, but not necessarily quite grim) naturalistic writing.
Perhaps the ultimate escapism that children look for in children’s books is a plausible escape from their parents. But only so long as they are in the book.