You’re On Your Own, Kid

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?

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse is probably not a long lost princess

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “You’re On Your Own, Kid

  1. AWESOME QUESTION, Parker.

    A college film crit class gave me a tip I use as a writer. Remember the movie “Dead Poets Society?” How is it that only the Robin Williams character was a good teacher and a decent human being, and all the other adults in the whole film were horrific? That doesn’t happen in real life, which we as writers try to reflect, even as we write sff. I try to include sympathetic and realistic adults — or at least fully rounded ones, even if they are murderous villains. It’s hard to say whether or not kids start to feel uneasy about adults, but on the other hand, not believing them to be all-powerful and/or all good is probably a Very Good Thing (ooh, my cynicism is showing).

    The Lemony Snickett books, many of Joan Aiken’s books, the Enola Holmes mysteries, and just about everything Disney — all have absent or ridiculous adults – but here’s another thing that keeps me from dismissing all ruthless adults in fiction — I was a shy, anxiety-prone kid, but still liked stories that had that level of “Oh, crap, no one’s reliable, and it’s all up to me,” to them, because they gave me hope. They made me to believe that maybe at some point in my REAL LIFE, I could take charge and do what needed doing, avoid the ruthless adults (and they did exist), and save the day, even if I was terrified like the characters were.

  2. Great topic, Parker!
    We all grew up with it. In James and the Giant Peach, the parents are dead very soon to the start. I never really thought about this as a kid, but there it was.
    The stories that bother me are the ones like Tanita said where the parents are just clueless idiots.
    I am amused that as I write, I always need to figure out what to do with those blasted parents :)

  3. The overwhelming popularity of novels about young people up against powerful, ruthless adults, with only nominal or incompetent help from other adults, suggests that lots of children like to read such stories. Seeing other children tackling big problems on their own may be the whole point of reading such fiction, in fact.

    I dislike stories that bend logic in order to fit that mold, however. One common pitfall is creating far-fetched reasons for why children can’t ask for adult help. That’s why it can be so much easier to work with orphans.

    Another problem is creating adult villains whose characters lack internal logic. For example, The Sisters Grimm starts with a social worker who obviously doesn’t like children, producing an antagonist for the girls to overcome. But it just doesn’t make sense for that character to have gone into child welfare, does it?

  4. To take it from another angle – in television shows with youthful casts, there is usually a compelling parental storyline, too – like The OC which was doing great until they threatened the parents’ marriage which served as the anchor for the show amidst the kid’s chaos.

  5. Diane Main

    I think I’d prefer it if parents and other adults are shown realistically as humans who have their own stuff to deal with and who are doing the best they can with the hands they’ve been dealt. Especially as young readers enter their pre-teen and teen years, it would be useful for them to see adults portrayed as competent yet naturally flawed, since they’re hurtling toward adulthood themselves. It’s a tragic mistake that sets these young folks up for failure in early adulthood if fiction only portrays adults as all-knowing and having it all together. Yet to portray them in a light that detracts from their respectability is also irresponsible. I think authors need to do their best to reflect ALL the reality out there and deliberately have a few bad apples, one or two clear role models, and a bunch of just regular people who are struggling with their own stuff.

  6. Ooh, a topic close to my heart. I think the real issue is one that applies not only here but to other elements of fiction as well, and that is, where is the appropriate “medium” between stories that kids want to read as escapism or fantasy-fulfillment and realistic portrayals of life? Whether it’s breaking the laws of physics, characters who know/do/talk WAY older or wiser than their stated age — or adult norms. I totally get the value, on many fronts, of stories for young readers in which they play the key role. (As well as the other “unrealistic” extremes I mentioned.) I go ballistic, though, when hearing the message that this means that there can’t be a single adult in the story who does anything meaningful or helpful or “good.” It’s not realistic, it harmfully reinforces the natural kid/teen tendency to think adults are idiots (we don’t really need that much help, and I don’t believe there are too many people over 16 who would possibly make the mistake of thinking adults were all powerful no matter what was in books), it discourages kids from getting adult help with any REAL issues in their lives, it gives them no literary role model for when they qualify for adults, and it harmfully reinforces the tendency, in at least some kids, to believe they are all-powerful and can handle anything they get into, which none of us can.

    We are in a cultural mode that values escapism above almost everything else. I about died when I saw a preview the other day for a movie in which there’s all kinds of violent action all controlled by video gamers. Our increasing cultural tendency to think that it’s okay to life your life through a computer screen really, really concerns me. Online stuff has its place, but it is NOT a replacement for “real” life in any way, just as even realistic books aren’t. And the less experience any of us has with “real” life or stories about it, the less we’ll be able to function in it.
    /soapbox.
    Great topic, Parker. I would love to go to a professional seminar that discussed this issue more generally and how to respond to it. Or read a dissertation. Or something.

    • One last thought… I guess it boils down to whether you believe the classical notion that literature’s role is to “educate and entertain” — or just to entertain. I’m among the former, but I’m starting to believe there aren’t many with me these days.

  7. As a YA author, I’ve grappled with “the parent trap,” as you might want to call it. What do we do with those nosy, well-intentioned “people-of-age” to keep them out?
    Well, it’s not like I really have to TRY to keep them out because when I write YA, I write from my characters’ POV and I really believe there’s this universality of parents and teens just not “getting” each other. And it’s alienating. It’s scary. It’s that “I’m-on-my-own” here feeling. And that’s why I’m SOOO glad I’m not an adolescent anymore.
    Certainly there are over-the-top ways to deal with parents/adults. (The Disney-death thing, for instance). But I feel that even though parents are often portrayed as “not there” in YA lit, it’s because they’re “not there” from the POV of the character and the world he/she inhabits. Truthfully, I can’t imagine having gone to my mom with a big problem when I was 14 because I would’ve been embarrassed. Mortified. And I felt like we lived in different worlds.
    As for novels that have parents that are over-worked, “not available”, alcoholics, abusive etc … unfortunately, that’s a reality for more kids than we’d like to imagine. And those novels probably make those kids feel like they’re not alone.
    Anyway, it’s a great issue to grapple with. I think the best way to deal with the over-18s is, as one of your comments already states, to create real, flawed characters of all ages — on all levels. Characters that we can relate to, even if they can vote and have to pay taxes. They’re part of teens’ worlds, too.
    Great topic!

  8. Your question about how children are affected by ineffectual or ruthless adult characters in books is an interesting one. However, I think they are such a cliche in books, movies, and TV directed toward kids that most young people learn to ignore them.

  9. Pingback: Thursday Links « Bib-Laura-graphy

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