Fictional parents. Fictional kids. Never the two shall meet.
At least, as a compulsive reader of kids’ books, it often seems this way.
I’d love to see stats, compiled by someone else, of course, breaking down this pattern with decades of book data. What percentage of child protagonists are orphans? What percentage are latchkey kids? How many live with relatives who just happen to be blind and deaf? (Kidding…sort of.)
With no research other than reading widely, I’d say those categories account for a big majority of titles. If I had to slap a number on it, I’d say upwards of 85 percent in middle grade (generally written for ages eight and up).
The benefits of this strategy are obvious. Kids read to explore, to push boundaries, to learn about the world and themselves. That happens easier when there are no fictional parents ruining the adventure. Avoid that stranger. Don’t wave that sword around. Be home in half an hour.
It’s also obvious how this trend in fiction mirrors and speaks to reality. Broken homes are everywhere. Kids grow up with parent-shaped vacuums. Many of us feel this personally.
In addition, and more significant for authors, it’s a heckuva lot harder to write a story with an intact family. Parents are complicated creatures. They can be tough to write. Consider the complexity of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. Invite parents into your story and you have to define the relationships. Craft motivations. Create dynamics. It’s hard work.
With all that said, here are three reasons we need more kidlit parents.
Healthy families are formative.
Sometimes a vision for what’s possible is as good or better than an acknowledgment of what’s gone. Fictional parents show a trajectory readers may not have considered. I didn’t have that…I wish I did…maybe I could do that…maybe better is possible.
Good kidlit parents in are rare.
When it comes to fiction, the rule of thumb seems to be, All the good parents are dead. Or they’re about to be. Soon. Artistic integrity calls authors to pursue the mysterious, the magical, the elusive: The silver stag, the forgotten fortress, the relatively likable parents racing through the woods after their kids. What’s so rarely captured ought to be pursued with more energy.
Wise parents give their kids room for adventure.
Kids need space for quests and battles. That’s why they read. But what if these things aren’t excluded by good parenting? Our imaginations have become warped by helicopter parents and kids who are treated like fashion accessories.
In a world ruled by the good, the true and the beautiful, parents would let their kids go fight a dragon while Dad and Mom had a long-overdue date.
In an already-but-not-yet world, good parents still give their children room for adventure—climbs, challenges and explorations with real risks and real rewards.
There’s nothing wrong with the orphans and latchkey kids who crowd our bookshelves. But kids’ books need more parents with genuine roles. Rounded characters. People of interest. With lifespans of more than five seconds.