Look­ing for the par­ents in chil­dren’s lit

Why are so many or­phans the main char­ac­ters in pop­u­lar kids’ sto­ries?


Bambi’s mom. Cin­derella’s par­ents. Kat­niss’s par­ents. The Boxcar Chil­dren’s par­ents. Snow White’s mom. Peter Parker’s par­ents . . . I could keep go­ing but you get the idea. When my daugh­ter was born, I found my­self ask­ing late-night ques­tions: What could I give her to re­mem­ber me by if some­thing hap­pened? How could I pre­pare my spouse to ad­vo­cate for her as she grew up? How could I love her enough now that it might last her a life­time?

Then I ac­tu­ally fell ill and landed in the hos­pi­tal. It fi­nally hit me that I’d been men­tally writ­ing my­self out of my daugh­ter’s story for a long time.

That didn’t make sense. I wasn’t go­ing any­where. I knew part of my feel­ings were anx­i­ety, part were sleep de­pri­va­tion, but I be­gan to won­der if another source of my fear was all those sto­ries we were read­ing to­gether as a fam­ily: The ones with the brave young boy or girl, alone; the plucky or­phan(s); the tragic but fierce princess who would sur­vive against all odds (ie: step­sis­ters); the faun who sur­vived the fire when its mom didn’t.

I’d been look­ing to my child­hood favourites and hop­ing to find my­self there, only to re­al­ize that in many, the par­ents were miss­ing, or long dead.

There’s a rea­son for this — adult sto­ries are so all-en­com­pass­ing, and adults so pow­er­ful in chil­dren’s lives, that re­mov­ing the par­ents gives chil­dren their own space to be strong. Other times, it al­lows a sec­ondary char­ac­ter to act in loco par­en­tis — of­ten with magic cloaks and pump­kins that trans­form into car­riages. And it’s an im­por­tant mes­sage to kids ev­ery­where that what they’re born into isn’t what they’re stuck with.

But there are other forces at work in literature, from fairy tales and fic­tion to comics, that are driv­ing this process. The per­ceived need for drama and, of­ten, trauma, to help mo­ti­vate the main char­ac­ter, or shape or mark them in some way.

When this is done with a girl­friend at the start of a su­per­hero movie, it’s called fridg­ing, af­ter a par­tic­u­lar event in a Green Lan­tern comic (the term was de­tailed by Gail Si­mone in the web­site Women in Re­frig­er­a­tors in 1999). In those sto­ries, the fridged char­ac­ter never gets a life of their own, they ex­ist only as a trau­matic touch­stone that pro­pels the main char­ac­ter to ac­tion against evil.

But it hap­pens too with par­ents. (It’s tough to be a par­ent of su­per­heroes in the DC Comics Uni­verse. See: Spiderman, Bat­man, Su­per­man.) They’re buried be­fore the story be­gins or, in the case of some sto­ries, ren­dered too dense, greedy or de­pressed to put their own shoes on or con­nect in any way with their kids. Fairy tales do that as well: Cin­derella’s fa­ther is so dis­traught that he makes bad de­ci­sions. So too in pop­u­lar fic­tion: Kat­niss’s mom in The Hunger Games is so in­ca­pac­i­tated with loss that her chil­dren nearly starve to death.

Lately my daugh­ter, who is also a reader, has no­ticed it too. She asked me once why a par­tic­u­lar book had all the adults on one side and all the kids on the other. Why things were so black and white. I was pretty in­ter­ested in hear­ing what she thought, so I asked her to fig­ure it out. She’s been writ­ing her own sto­ries and study­ing story struc­ture in school, and she came up with some rea­sons pretty quickly. “Con­flict, right? It makes for easy con­flict. And plot. Plot means drama. Par­ents make for lots of drama.”

I started to worry that maybe I was see­ing all the wrong things — try­ing to see my­self in sto­ries that ob­vi­ously weren’t meant for me, not any longer. But she kept speak­ing, bless her.

“But it’s not al­ways true, right? We get along some­times and some­times we don’t. And there are other adults who I get along fine with, too — who lis­ten to me, and think about what I’ve said. But that’s harder to write, isn’t it?”

She was right. Com­plex­ity is some­times harder to write. And some­times it’s nec­es­sary to write a trau­matic parental re­la­tion­ship be­cause those hap­pen. It’s the sheer num­ber of miss­ing par­ents — in my case, moms — that was get­ting to me, be­cause the Gone Mom is as preva­lent a trope as the Fridged Girl­friend.

I started look­ing for sto­ries with com­plex, if not strong, re­la­tion­ships across mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions in fam­i­lies, and I found a num­ber of them, of­ten in sec­ondary char­ac­ters, and not al­ways for the bet­ter, as those present par­ents are ad­vo­cat­ing for and pro­tect­ing their kids in an un­fair bal­ance against the story’s pro­tag­o­nist (as with Cin­derella).

And then a science-fic­tion re­viewer named Ai­dan Mo­her made a list of kick-ass moms and re­minded me that Harry Pot­ter’s own Mrs. Weasley is among those moms: present, ac­tive and liv­ing her own story while par­ent­ing her kids. So, too, the par­ents in the Kevin Henke’s chil­dren’s book Chrysan­the­mum (Mul­berry, 2008). And the di­vorc­ing par­ents in Lau­rel Sny­der’s Big­ger Than a Bread­box (Year­ling, 2012). And the par­ents in Steven Gould’s EXO (Tor, 2014). They’re present. The kids still get to work out stuff on their own, and they have a full arc, but it is po­ten­tially a more com­plex one be­cause more char­ac­ters are in­volved.

Hayao Miyazaki movies fea­ture par­ents in many dif­fer­ent as­pects — Kiki’s De­liv­ery Ser­vice has par­ents let­ting their witch daugh­ter make her first solo broom­stick flight; Spir­ited Away has par­ents turned into pigs; Howl’s Mov­ing Castle has a young woman and an old woman con­flated, lov­ing and par­ent­ing at the same time.

I get it. Things hap­pen. Of­ten, in fic­tion, bad things. But there are sto­ries out there where par­ents are per­haps not per­fect, but present, and that’s im­por­tant too.

It’s tough to be a par­ent of su­per­heroes in the DC Comics Uni­verse. See: Spiderman, Bat­man, Su­per­man

Kat­niss’s mom in The Hunger Games is so in­ca­pac­i­tated by the loss of her hus­band that her chil­dren nearly starve to death.

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