I’m not talking about the downright horrible ones here. Forget the likes of Matilda's parents, and forget too the guardians and step-parents who’ve always had a rough ride in children’s fiction. I’m talking about the bumblers, nitwits and not-quite-good-enough parents that populate the pages we love so much.
Take Mr. Penderwick in the Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. He is unquestionably a good man, raising his four daughters alone, but he’s also guilty of a kind of benign neglect. The four girls largely do as they please, under the (mostly) watchful eye of eldest sister, Rosalind.
She’s the one who takes up the maternal role and curates the moods of everyone else in the house, including her dad: ‘Her father was talking in Latin about plants, which meant he was happy.’ I love how this book throws conventional plotting wisdom out the window. It’s hard to know where to drop your pins for inciting incident and plot point one and so on, but does it matter? Not a bit, because the characters are so finely drawn, as are the relationships between each sister. Almost nothing needs to happen to keep you interested.
Mr. Penderwick reminds me too of another scatty single dad, Mr. Mortmain, from one of my all time favourites, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Once a writer of brilliance, he has gone to seed, leaving the family in abject if somewhat grandiose poverty in their crumbling castle. One by one, he has sold off his and his daughters’ possessions, until they’re living on nothing but the generosity of their neighbours.
This is another book where you don’t need anything to happen to keep you interested, and when stuff does start to happen, you can’t put it down. I Capture the Castle also has one of the best senses of place of any book I’ve ever read, so good that the Mortmains’ uncertain idyll sits in my memory as a place I once visited – but I guess that’s a whole other blog.
The benignly neglectful parent works brilliantly in these, and many other stories because it hands agency to the child protagonist. If no one’s watching them, then they can do as they wish, or are forced to do what they must. And that’s the whole point. Most children – thankfully – lack the circumstances to become the driving force in their own story. But give them one, or a couple of flawed parents and you have the perfect habitat for a vibrant protagonist.
If Julian, Dick and Anne’s parents had taken a greater role in their children’s lives, how could the Famous Five have thwarted all those smugglers and other ne’er-do-wells. If Joe, Beth and Frannies’ parents had been a little more hands-on, it’s unlikely they would have got anywhere near The Faraway Tree, let alone the forest in which stands.
I particularly like Clay’s parents in the Bad Magic series by Pseudonymous Bosch. Well, I don’t like them at all, but I love how the writer packs them with enough flaws to make them infuriating to the unhappy Clay. Both are psychologists, and neither can be in the other’s company without fighting, which is why – in their regular family meetings – one always attends remotely.
When he is wrongly accused of defacing a wall in school, a family meeting is called, at which Clay protests that he hasn’t done anything wrong.
‘It’s very disappointing that you don’t feel you can confide in us,’ said his father.
‘Are you afraid we will withhold love from you if you tell us the truth?’ asked his mother.
Clay felt his face reddening…he hated when they analyzed his emotions.
It’s his parents’ clumsy parenting that results in Clay’s departure to Earth Ranch, the camp for troubled kids where the plot really catches fire.
In The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud, the surviving parent, Tim, like Mr. Penderwick, is essentially a good guy, doing his best to raise his five children alone. His problem is that he believes his oldest daughter Peaches is everything she appears to be: sweet, loving and kind. The whole plot hinges on the fact the he could never in a million years imagine her to be the crazed sociopath that she actually is.
This forces the protagonist – his son Indigo – and the antagonist to share a house. So this makes plotting that much easier. Hero and Nemesis are continually together, so sparks naturally fly. The key point here is that you don’t need dead or horrible parents to prod the child hero to action. Give them just enough flaws to force the issue...