Parental Role in Children's Books - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 24 Old 04-21-2011, 09:09 PM - Thread Starter
 
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Even as an adult I've enjoyed picking up children's books at time, I love the element of fantasy and wonder about the world that you don't get in adult books.  However, I've noticed something rather disturbing in many of my favorite books that I hope to read with my daughter some day:  the parental role is very, very minimal (or non-existent) in many books!  Apparently, I'm not crazy either, this has actually been documented: http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc4884/.

 

I can understand in part why this happens.  It's exciting to read about kids going off on these crazy adventures and you always need to add a bit of danger into it too.  Sure, you get parental figures in other roles but many times the parents are dead, or taken hostage or just flat out negligent.  Even in picture books for kids that are really young you'll often see solo kid adventures (think the Cat in the Hat of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie) or with just one parent (The Gruffalo's Child, Llama Llama).  In older books I can think of a number of them that have weak/absentee parental roles:

Harry Potter

The Lightning Thief

Eragon

The City of Amber

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Secret Garden

A Series of Unfortunate Events

The Wizard of Oz

A Wrinkle in Time

Matilda

Neverending Story

The Dark Materials Trilogy

 

I'm sure there are more but my brain's short-circuiting at the moment. redface.gif There's obviously nothing wrong with showing non-traditional families (I myself come from a patchwork family) so I get that purpose but I've also realized I can only think of two books that DD has that show both a mom and dad in them in prominent roles (Fancy Nancy and It's the Best Day Ever, Dad!) and those are two of her favorites.  In the other books she'll sometimes get really freaked out when the parent(s) are missing (she's always had a lot of separation anxiety so she finds these situations stressful) and I can explain to her that other types of families exist until I'm blue in the face but she'll still ask and get very upset about it.  I've eventually resorted to telling her that the mom/dad is at work. redface.gif

 

I'm sure once she gets older and gets more exposure to other types of families that will work itself out but it does concern me that there are so few good books even for the older crowd with a strong parental presence (I can think of Laura Ingalls Wilder off the time of my head and that's it).  So I'm wondering what other parents think about this (regardless of your family composition)?  Do your kids ever wonder why the parents in the books aren't more attentive or why they are always absent? Do you think this has any affect on kids at all?

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#2 of 24 Old 04-21-2011, 09:18 PM
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I'm OK with the lack of parents in most kid's books. When parents are depicted, they are often gender stereotyped, and so are reinforcing a cultural message that I am not trying to feed my kids.
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#3 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 01:19 AM
 
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no my dd has never noticed. in fact at 2 i had a really hard time finding books for her coz she wanted adventure/mystery stories and they were hard to find. in fact at that age she did not like any 'family' or people book. there were many books about friendships, about other kids... but she never liked those and always wanted to stop me.

 

i would say till she could read independently - at bedtime i'd read to her 40% of the time and tell stories the rest (i am so exhausted by the time she was in bed that i'd fall asleep in the middle of a book). most of the stories were actually about me or her dad and the rest of the family. 

 

however i will say i had noticed (in fact i think i even heard about this from an interview with Daniel Handler the author of Unfortunate Events and why he chose no parents) in the same way i have noticed the death theme in many of Mother goose (which dd hadnt noticed either).


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#4 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 05:39 AM
 
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I'm ok with it because I think it's often necessary for story development. If there were parents present, the parents would take care of much of the conflict and there would be a much less interesting story. And my 9-year-old has never mentioned it.
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#5 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 06:06 AM
 
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Every single book you mentioned is a fantasy/sci fi book (I count Roald Dahl as "fantasy"--even though some of his stories are set in a "real-ish" world, they are over-the-top fantastical). One of the huge things that elementary and middle school kids are dealing with is learning about their own independence and imagining how and if they can handle adult roles. Fantasy books give kids a safe space to explore those issues. The parents are so often taken out of the picture precisely because this opens up a space for the kids to be in charge and make the decisions.

 

That kind of parental absenteeism is much less prevalent in more realistic children's fiction, which, in fact, often deals head-on with parent/child relationships. Think Beverly Cleary's Ramona series and stuff like that.  

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#6 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 07:09 AM
 
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I don't find it disturbing. Most the books you list are for older kids/teens, and several of them of coming of age stories.

 

She's 2. At that age, my kids like Sandra Boyton's Barnyard Dance.

 

As far as The Little House series, my DDs hated it because of the gender roles and the fact that the parents don't practice gentle discipline. They liked most of the books on your list, but we weren't reading His Dark Materials as bedtime reading when they were 2!  I read that series out loud to them when they were about 9 and 11, and they loved it and really dug into the themes.

 

As kids get older, showing what regular life is like in books is pretty pointless and boring. They know, they live it.

 

Both my kids are officially gifted, and both were reading on college level before leaving elementary school. But at 2, they liked silly books with animals.

 

Other books they liked when they were little were "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" "How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World," etc. There are so many wonderful simple books, there's no reason to rush to the big kid stuff.


but everything has pros and cons  shrug.gif

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#7 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 08:36 AM
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mamazee View Post

I'm ok with it because I think it's often necessary for story development. If there were parents present, the parents would take care of much of the conflict and there would be a much less interesting story. And my 9-year-old has never mentioned it.


I agree with this. Novels that feature children who face adversity without the help of parents or adult authority figures present a forum for children to explore the themes of conflict, loss, independent decision making, etc. in a safe and (typically) age-appropriate manner.

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by NYCVeg View Post

Every single book you mentioned is a fantasy/sci fi book (I count Roald Dahl as "fantasy"--even though some of his stories are set in a "real-ish" world, they are over-the-top fantastical). One of the huge things that elementary and middle school kids are dealing with is learning about their own independence and imagining how and if they can handle adult roles. Fantasy books give kids a safe space to explore those issues. The parents are so often taken out of the picture precisely because this opens up a space for the kids to be in charge and make the decisions.

 

That kind of parental absenteeism is much less prevalent in more realistic children's fiction, which, in fact, often deals head-on with parent/child relationships. Think Beverly Cleary's Ramona series and stuff like that.  


This, too. There are a lot of books for elementary-aged kids that feature children interacting with their parent(s) and other family members. Judy Blume is another author of family-centered children's fiction who comes to mind.


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#8 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 08:37 AM
 
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My kids are 5 and 8.  I just asked them how they feel about books where the parents aren't around much, and they said they feel fine about them.  The 8 year old said it can help make the book more exciting.  She also pointed out that when parents or other adults are there, they're often mean - ordering kids around and punishing them.  When my kids were little, they never cared about absent parents in books like The Cat in the Hat.  I remember when I was a kid, I particularly liked books about kids on their own without parents, like Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

 

The absent parent theme is just fine with me.  If it has any effect on kids, it's to encourage them to imagine themselves in similar situations and to see those kids managing on their own as an ideal to live up to.  Most kids aren't going to want to run away from home and live in a hollowed-out tree or a museum, but maybe reading about kids who do those things will make them want to at least spend some time riding their bikes around the neighborhood or playing in the woods without their parents along.

 

(For older kids, Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series is one with a strong, loving parental presence.)

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#9 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 09:04 AM - Thread Starter
 
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Originally Posted by Linda on the move View Post

I don't find it disturbing. Most the books you list are for older kids/teens, and several of them of coming of age stories.

 

She's 2. At that age, my kids like Sandra Boyton's Barnyard Dance.

 

As far as The Little House series, my DDs hated it because of the gender roles and the fact that the parents don't practice gentle discipline. They liked most of the books on your list, but we weren't reading His Dark Materials as bedtime reading when they were 2!  I read that series out loud to them when they were about 9 and 11, and they loved it and really dug into the themes.

 

As kids get older, showing what regular life is like in books is pretty pointless and boring. They know, they live it.

 

Both my kids are officially gifted, and both were reading on college level before leaving elementary school. But at 2, they liked silly books with animals.

 

Other books they liked when they were little were "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" "How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World," etc. There are so many wonderful simple books, there's no reason to rush to the big kid stuff.



Linda, I was definitely not talking about reading his Dark Materials right now!!! biglaugh.gifWe're pretty good with the Cat in the Hat level and that will stress her out enough with the lack of parents in the book so I can't imagine reading anything heavier!  I was actually just asking more because I was curious.  I enjoy reading children's literature and had just downloaded the preview for the next Rick Riordan book and that's why I was thinking about this topic (add to that DD getting really stressed out about the parental roles in her books).  So it made me curios if other kids noticed this too and if they felt affected at all about it? 

 

There's some great points that have been made so far, keep them coming! I have to admit, I also prefer fantasy/sci-fi books so I guess maybe that's why this happens more often.  I think the point that a number of these books are coming of age books and having a strong parental influence might get in the way is a good one.  It's too bad there wasn't some way to have loving parents involved too but I get the point (and this is probably my own personal bias more than anything).

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#10 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 09:39 AM
 
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I suspect that your DD's concern over the lack of parents is just a phase.

 

My kids feel sorry for characters like Harry Potter who lack loving parents. One has commented on the number of main characters who lack siblings as well as parents. (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Lyra in "his dark materials" come to mind.)  They still like the books!  It adds to the drama and makes them more exciting, intense but in a good way.

 

(come to think of it, Percy finds out he has a mutant half sibling part way through the series)

 

A *regular* family like our would make dull reading. "Daddy got up and went off to work, and then mommy made a healthy breakfast for the children. The children walked to school together. Then everybody came home and talked about what interesting things had happened that day." Geeze, who'd read that? What actually makes a lovely life makes dull reading.

 

Parents sacrificing their lives for their children and then the children needing to fight off the forces are evil on their own is much more exciting. fencing.gif

 

Although my kids love having us around, I think they dream of what they could do without us, how truly brave and brilliant they could be if only we weren't here reminding them to floss and hang up their towels.


but everything has pros and cons  shrug.gif

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#11 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 11:45 AM
 
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Long before your daughter is ready for any of the books on that list, OP, you'll have read her all the wonderful Ramona books. There's plenty of parents in those ones, warts and all!

I agree with pps that fantasy books tend to have minimal parental involvement and that is absolutely fine.
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#12 of 24 Old 04-22-2011, 04:04 PM
 
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If you're looking for more age-appropriate books with stronger parental roles, you might try:

What Happens on Wednesdays (a really lovely book--one of my absolute favorites)

almost anything by Kevin Henkes--esp. Owen, Wemberly Worried, Chrysanthemum, the Lilly books, etc.

Make Way for Ducklings

Piglet and Mama/Piglet and Papa

Lola Loves Stories

Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka (this is a Swedish series about three sisters--all very gentle stories; there's also one with three brothers called Snipp, Snapp, Snurr)

The Different Dragon (it's a two-mom family)

And Tango Makes Three (a two-dad family)

any of the Berenstain bears books

Amanda Pig series

The Family Book, Todd Parr

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#13 of 24 Old 04-23-2011, 09:56 AM
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Linda on the move View Post

I suspect that your DD's concern over the lack of parents is just a phase.

 

My kids feel sorry for characters like Harry Potter who lack loving parents. One has commented on the number of main characters who lack siblings as well as parents. (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Lyra in "his dark materials" come to mind.)  They still like the books!  It adds to the drama and makes them more exciting, intense but in a good way.

 

(come to think of it, Percy finds out he has a mutant half sibling part way through the series)

 

A *regular* family like our would make dull reading. "Daddy got up and went off to work, and then mommy made a healthy breakfast for the children. The children walked to school together. Then everybody came home and talked about what interesting things had happened that day." Geeze, who'd read that? What actually makes a lovely life makes dull reading.

 

Parents sacrificing their lives for their children and then the children needing to fight off the forces are evil on their own is much more exciting. fencing.gif

 

Although my kids love having us around, I think they dream of what they could do without us, how truly brave and brilliant they could be if only we weren't here reminding them to floss and hang up their towels.


All this.

 

I can't really give you any insight on the lack of parents issue. I never remember noticing it when I was younger. I read things like the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift - parents were present, and family life was "normal", but the parents were definitely not around for the action! Then, I moved on to SF and fantasy, but I didn't read the kids/teens books in those genres, as there weren't many. When I did read a book involving younger protagonists, the parents weren't around. I never even thought about it.

 

My kids are very familiar with Harry Potter, and have never really thought about his parents not being around, except that they feel sorry for him having to cope with the Dursleys.

 

I suspect your dd will outgrow her concerns about this. And, if she doesn't, you could probably even bring the conversation around to some of the points in this thread. ("DD, I know you're bothered that X's parents are both dead, but remember it's a story. What do you think would have  happened if X's dad had been there when that older kid started to chase him down the alley? Do you think X would have followed that guy through the portal if he'd had his mom to talk it over with?") Just point out that it's really a plot and character development device. Some kids are just much more sensitive to certain themes than other kids are (I'll never forget my nephew suddenly jumping off the couch and running home in tears, because we were watching Labyrinth, and he was terrified that something would happen to the baby. DS1 had watched it three times, and never batted any eyelash.)

 


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#14 of 24 Old 04-23-2011, 10:08 AM
 
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My dd has never even noticed or cared about that and I have never thought about it.  I think that part of it may be that the kids are who the stories are about not the adults.  Reading about strong kid characters who save the day seems like an empowering thing for a kid to be able to do.  My dd loves to read about kids having adventures and she often identifies with some of their struggles.  I actually did try to get my dd into Little House on the Prairie but she was horrified by the racism in it.  She won't even watch the old shows on dvd and she loves watching anything she can watch normally.  She was older when I tried so you may have more success since your dd is so little.  By the time I decided to get the books and dvds from the library she had learned a lot about human rights at school and would not tolerate any hint of injustice towards another person. 

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#15 of 24 Old 04-23-2011, 01:18 PM
 
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I think fiction is a great place to work out these kinds of issues because you're just enough removed from it that you can think the big topics without it being so near to you. That ability will come as your child gets older.

 

My kids are pretty sensitive. When they were 2 and 3, there were a lot of books that we simply didn't read because they were too scary or freaked my kids out (Dd still won't read Where the Wild Things Are). Dd (who is 6) will bring the Boxcar Children mysteries  down to the living room to read when it hits the climax because it's 'scary'. The high point of the stories concerns her, but the dead parents and a doting, but largely absent grandfather don't.

 

Dd's current favorite series of books is called Main Street by Ann Martin --it's the story of 2 girls who go to live with their grandmother after their parents died. She's read them once and is starting over again. Ds has read a lot of books with absent parents and it's never bothered him. This is despite the fact that he started to worry about when I would die when he was 3. It was a topic that concerned him for a good while. He's now reading a dystopian series that bothers me (and where the young boy is sent off to live without his parents) and he's fine with it.

 

 


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#16 of 24 Old 04-24-2011, 06:16 AM
 
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OT -but young kids shows have a lack of parents that drives me a little bonkers...Dora, Max and Ruby, etc.  

 

Books or tv, my young kids did not seem to mind - I did, though, lol.

 

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#17 of 24 Old 04-24-2011, 12:52 PM
 
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While I don't have a problem with books that don't feature parents, I always liked family stories when I was a kid.  Some I can think of:

 

the Ramona books-and almost all books by Beverly Cleary

B is for Betsy-and the other Betsy books

Betsy/Tacy books

most of the books by Lois Lenski

most of the Tasha Tudor books

the Arthur series

 

I always think of Wrinkle in Time as a family book, although I guess the kids aren't with their parents much of the time.  M. L'Engle's books about the Austin family are very family centered. Lois Lowery's Anastasia series also has a lot of family stuff, and of course if you  want a dystopian family angle you could go with The Giver.  I realize this list is really white/female, which reflects the available books when I was a kid, but I'm sure there is other interesting stuff out there.

 


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#18 of 24 Old 04-24-2011, 02:48 PM
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On the other hand, the parents don't actually need to be absent or negligent for the kids to have independent adventures (depending on age, of course, but the adventures also do depend on age, and some things can happen sort of in an an un-real world, perhaps kids' imagination).

A few examples:

Ronia the Robber's daughter by Astrid Lindgren. Fantasy, of course. And Ronia and Birk have fantastic adventures, and are let loose in the dangerous forest, but their parents are certainly fairly AP (just with a touch of the Continuum Concept - AP'd littlies, when the children get older, they get to roam, but the parents are still there for them).

Lotta on trouble-maker street, same author. Now Lotta is much younger, and so her adventures can only happen as she tags along with her older siblings, visiting the old lady next door, or when she sneaks out. And it all takes place very close to her home and parents, in a fairly safe little world.


(All through Astrid Lindgren's world, children are allowed to roam much more than we would allow kids to do today. But her stories - with one exception, set in 1970s Stockholm - are set prior to 1970, and all in a fairly safe world: The small town or village, with few, if any ,cars, and where everyone knows everyone. Where children play in the street, or all over the countryside. )

I prefer this a lot to some themes, found in other books, where parents just don't notice what the kids do, kids go off on adventures, and then get punished when the parents find out. Can't think of any titles right now, but will come back to it
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#19 of 24 Old 03-11-2012, 07:49 AM
 
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#20 of 24 Old 03-11-2012, 11:41 AM
 
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Originally Posted by mamazee View Post

I'm ok with it because I think it's often necessary for story development. If there were parents present, the parents would take care of much of the conflict and there would be a much less interesting story. And my 9-year-old has never mentioned it.


I think that is true, but I think it also makes for an easy tool to make a story or a TV show.

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#21 of 24 Old 03-11-2012, 11:50 AM
 
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I don't mind the absent parent theme to a certain extent, especially in a fantasy book.  I think if it is a well crafted book..fine.  If it is just a lazy hook for a TV show...not so much.

 

It bugs me more in TV shows....I think one of the reasons the show iCARLY bugs me.  It bugs me less if it is a cartoon type show, where you might not see the parents but you assume they are there, as opposed to a real life type show.  My kids are too old for Max and Ruby...but I have seen it a few times and so have they. I had mixed feelings...mostly liked it, but you'd think there would be times where the parents would intervene

 

There was a show on a few years ago...maybe on Disney channel, where it was a blended family and the parents seemed sort of checked out of the situation and the girl on the show had to deal with the challenges of having a stepbrother who was almost her same age and was a total jerk, with almost no intervention from the parents.  I hated that show. 

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#22 of 24 Old 03-11-2012, 11:54 AM
 
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I prefer this a lot to some themes, found in other books, where parents just don't notice what the kids do, kids go off on adventures, and then get punished when the parents find out. Can't think of any titles right now, but will come back to it


I've seen this more in TV...where the parents seem sort of detached until there is consequences.

 

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#23 of 24 Old 03-11-2012, 02:08 PM
 
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Absentee/deceased parents have been a key part of stories for time out of mind.  Greek myth is filled with heroes who had been banished by their fathers.  Orphans, nephews and nieces, cousin, stepdaughters, these make up the bulk of adventure literature since before the stories were written down.  With adversity comes redemption.  Joseph Campbell would have seen it as the great human myth.  He loved Star Wars-- Luke never knowing his father, raised by his Aunt and Uncle who are then killed, freeing him free to embark on a risky adventure (which was greatly symbolic to Campbell).  I'm curious what he would have said about Harry Potter and His Dark Materials.

 

All that said, some stories do really get to me.  While I find Pippi Longstocking fun and amusing (you get to see her through the eyes of the children next door) I really can't stand Matilda for the same reasons mentioned in this thread.  For Roald Dahl's stories, I much prefer Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, surrounded by a loving family.  (Though-- guess what?  in the movie version his father was long gone.)  In the place of awful family, Charlie is surrounded by an entire society of awful people--adults and children both.  


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#24 of 24 Old 03-11-2012, 07:29 PM
 
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Not only did I LOVE books about orphans and other parentless adventuring types as a kid, my sister and I lived in a total parentless fantasy-land.  We were intense about our pretend play and almost always chose either "orphanage" or "boarding school" or "summer camp" themes.  I think in some way there was a pathos that we found appealing.  I feel like as a kids we often feel alienated from adults, and crave attention from our parents that they probably can't give us. To me, the parentless child stories fill up this void. 

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