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.