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April 17, 2011

Universal Kids Lit Question: What to do with parents?

Anyone who has ever written in children's entertainment, whether hundreds of years ago or today's most successful brand, must always deal with the same question: what do I do with the characters parents to make way for the story?

Sure, you occasionally have exceptions like Danny The Champion Of The World, which is all about the main character's father. But for the most part, writers resort to the same solutions, and they all have their own characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.
Orphans
"Look, no parental supervision!"
By far the most popular solution to this problem is orphanage--the main character's parents have been lost and the character is forced to confront the challenges of the story on his own. Roald Dahl did this a lot. 

Take for example,  James and The Giant Peach, whose main character's parents are killed in a rhinoceros accident. 

If the orphan hero/heroine of the story does not leave the normal world like in Peach, the orphanage often plays a role in the story too. Such is the case with BFG

Grandma is sick!



The orphan often has a protective figure, like an aunt--which leads the writer back to the same problem, only with the protector now. In the case of The Witches, Dahl gives the grandmother pneumonia, which gives his character the freedom to go get turned into a mouse, etc.







lightning bolt: translation: Rowling removed
my parents but won't let me or my
readers forget them.


And of course today's most famous orphan is Harry Potter,whose lightning bolt scar is a constant reminder of Harry's parents and the night they were permanently removed from his story.









Absence

Sometimes a story is so bazaar it doesn't even need to answer the question of parents. In my favorite animated series of all time, Adventure Time With Finn and Jake, the world of the story suggests that Finn is the last human in the world. Some episodes suggest he was adopted by Jake's dog family, but it's never answered directly.




Leaving Them Behind
When an author sets his story in an imaginary world, removed from the normal, he or she often decides to simply leave the parental figures in the real world. This is exactly what happens in Where the Wild Things are.

The problem here is, what to do when the character returns? 


4/18/11: Update: Check out http://sommerleigh.com/archives/540 on 'the epidemic of absentee parents in YA' and http://forums.nathanbransford.com/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=1686&start=30

2 comments:

Harold Underdown said...

This is very interesting, but I was hoping to see some statistics, instead of a selection of well-known examples, from different time periods. Take a sample of 200 MG novel published in a given time period, as recent as possible, and analyze how they handle the parent problem....

Philip Isles said...

Lol, you are so funny Mr. Underdown. I'd love some statistics and raw data, and analysis, and chocolate too! Now if only someone would pay me to do it so I could leave my REAL job! They would also have to finish my manuscript :)

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