This article by the Guardian – Children’s Books Reflect Harsh Reality – has some definitely interesting points to it. It’s been written in response to an article “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Challenging the Mythology of Home” published in the Journal of Children’s Literature which suggests that instead of coming home to a loving, secure environment – albeit one that’s been temporarily disrupted by evil step-parents, witches or smugglers, that children instead have homes which have problems of abuse, children taking on the parental role, and so on. Parents are either “ineffective, amoral or confusing” or at best “loving but traumatised” – in any case, incapable of looking after their children.
It’s nothing new; I heard Philip Pullman at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2002 suggest that children’s books have to get parents out of the way or nothing interesting will happen. His theory then was that parents are too protective; the Famous Five can go to battle smugglers on the island because George’s mum is out and Uncle Quentin is always in his study not paying attention. Likewise, Alice can go down the rabbit hole because she’s being looked after by her sister, who doesn’t really want to be babysitting and isn’t watching her properly.
But, children’s literature does often have that dark side to it and a lot of the time it is to do with the nature of home and who is responsible for looking after whom. I do agree with Francesca Simon, author of Horrid Henry and also quoted in the Guardian article:
“In these more protective times, a parent would get social services called on them if they let their child roam about, like Tom Sawyer’s did, or the children in Swallows and Amazons. “The challenge in children’s books is to get the parents out of the way,” she added. “This method is just a variation on a theme. It’s not a plot issue; it’s a technical issue.”
She’s absolutely right – parents in both instances would be suspect, and this tendency towards difficult home lives is another way for children to have an ‘adventure’ of one kind or another and then ‘come home’ to a repaired life which they feel more grateful for, having experienced the alternative. In some cases, that remains constant – the children who escape the monsters, animal or man, feel grateful for the protection of their parents, and is there some further agenda ensuring that children respect their elders hidden in those narratives?
Then again, the other world often functions as an escape which remains far more attractive. Who other than Dorothy would choose black and white Kansas above technicolor Oz, even with its attendant dangers (although I don’t know how far the film follows the book)? For Harry Potter, the fantasy world becomes his reality, the permanent escape from the home in which he is an abused orphan and there is the final interpretation: that children’s fantasy escapes, however temporary, prepare them to start looking after themselves, whether in the adult world in which they eventually find themselves or in the abusive home they must endure until they are old enough to leave.