How to get rid of the parents? It’s the notorious problem in children’s literature. A satisfying plot requires a main character to solve her own problems. If your main character is a kid, you have to get rid of the parents (and all other helpful adults) so they won’t swoop in and save the day (and steal the mc’s glory).
Fantasy literature has its own tropes involving parents. Mom and Dad aren’t just dead, they were murdered by the villain for some nefarious reason. Or they’re not dead but missing, caught in some magical trap that our child hero must solve. Or our main character believes himself an orphan until he finds out he’s the long lost prince.
Our list could stretch on, but my real concern is this: How is a young reader affected by reading a story in which all of the adults are missing, incompetent, or antagonistic? It’s a question that’s been brought up before, but the answer still eludes me.
Take for example the fun and charming Flora Segunda. The eponymous Flora is a young girl whose mother is too busy to stick around much, whose father is a miserable drunk, and whose heroes include a thieving pirate. It’s no wonder she so naively trusts her family’s magically banished butler when he asks for Flora to restore him to power. Poor Flora has no one to steer her straight (The butler is somewhat villainous). It makes sense for the plot, but it presents a rather skewed view of adults.
Other fantasy novels are no different. The adults are busy, crazy, stupid, mean, or–the highest crime in a child’s eyes–they simply don’t take the young hero seriously. The film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events plays this last situation to a hilarious extreme. Jim Carrey makes a speech at the end of the movie in which he berates all the other adults for not listening to the young protagonists when they complained of the villain’s many outlandishly wicked schemes.
Ways exist to get around the lack of sympathetic adults: our hero might have fond memories of her kind parents, or her caring grandfather might be in the same sad situation she’s in with no power to change things. A powerful wizard may only offer enough help and guidance to allow our hero to develop her own problem-solving skills (although this wizard is bound to bite the dust in time for our hero to maneuver her most difficult quest). Still, the message here is that even the nice adults don’t have power to help when you need them.
The nice thing is, young readers have real adults to help them and care for them. And those who don’t can take courage from similarly disadvantaged literary heroes. But how do you think children are affected by reading about powerless, ruthless adults? How can these extremes be tempered in novels–or should they?
Parker Peevyhouse is probably not a long lost princess