The Bad Parents of Kid Lit: A Taxonomy
by Marne Litfin
Because I’m both a millennial and a square bear, I spent most of the ‘90s reading. I fantasized about riding a ladder around Belle’s library from “Beauty and the Beast.”I entertained an extended poly daydream in which my English teacher adopted me and our school’s librarian stopped by our book-filled bungalow to press copies of her most beloved childhood favorites into my hands, with a sweet, “Hey, half pint, I’ve been waiting my whole life to bring you this copy of ‘Bridge to Terabithia.’” One of the best days of my pre-adult life was a single-digit birthday when my grandmother took me to the children’s section of a Barnes & Noble and just let it fucking ride. “Okay Marne,” she said, “pick 10.”
Back then, I clung to any story in which a young girl triumphed over a set of terrible parents. I wanted smart, snappy, tomboyish heroes, uninterested in the offerings of typical girlhood, and I wanted them intravenously. I still feel a minor ache for the fact that eponymous hero of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” and Lyra, the main character of Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass,” are not real and I can never meet them. Part of me still expects to run into them at a Long Island diner when I'm visiting my family during the holidays.
Matilda and Lyra comforted the parts of my childhood I had the most trouble with and the least language for. They were brave and fun. They had plans. They were unfeminine and it was okay. Not fitting in with their families was foundational to who they were. And they loved what I loved: knowledge, adventures, friends, light vandalism. Matilda, with the help of a little telepathy, vanquishes her enemies — her principal, her brother, and her parents — skips five grades, and ends up living happily ever after with her beloved teacher, Miss Honey (and three generations of lesbians longingly sighed). In the “His Dark Materials” trilogy (of which “The Golden Compass” is the first book), Lyra saves infinite universes, rips a hole in the fabric of the underworld, and kills God. Her parents — the glacial asshole Lord Asriel and the sadistic Mrs. Coulter — go down with Him into the Abyss. As an adult, I can understand why girl heroes were so important to me as a child. Those characters not only saved the day — they moved on with their lives afterwards. Neither was too messed up by their childhoods to fully bask in a rich epilogue.
But it’s gotten harder to find myself in their stories. Unlike them, I grew up. I’m 34 now — their parents’ age. And the older I get, the more I notice the parents in children’s stories. Many are monsters, or at the least, objectively horrible. Sometimes the bad parents are like background noise, barely acknowledged and completely indistinct. Other times their bad behavior served as the story’s central conflict. In retrospect, it seems conspicuous how many of my beloved children’s books featured less-than-ideal guardians. “Difficult relationships with parents will always be a part of children's literature,” says Val Howlett, children’s book author and senior marketing and publicity manager at Running Press Kids. “Some of the most beloved books of the past 10 years feature a complicated or downright abusive parent,” she says, like Celia in “One Crazy Summer” or Mam in “The War that Saved My Life.” Conflict with a parent is one of the biggest wounds you can give a child character because it affects them so profoundly. It creates instant sympathy from the reader, and gives a reader a reason to want the child protagonist to succeed,” Howlett adds.
Bad parents, of course, preceded modern kid’s literature. The Grimms’ 1812 “Fairy Tales” — and the even older folk tales pilfered and sanitized by the Brothers Grimm — are loaded with child abuse and suffering. Take, for example, the “The Girl Without Hands,” in which a girl’s father maims her in a bid to save her from the devil; the pre-Grimm versions involve a father who cuts off his daughter’s hands after she refuses to fuck him.
There are scholars who study folklore, fairy tales, and children’s literature; I am not one of them. I am just a queer, childless 30-something-year-old homebound in a pandemic, trying to figure out who hurt me and how I arrived at this moment. While researching for this essay, I read about a professor who, in a study of 300 random children’s books, found that more than 10 percent of mother and father characters were portrayed as incompetent, from those who slept through their child’s adventure to those who fed their child spaghetti with shoelaces.
It’s hard to say how revealing that number is since it’s hard to compare with real life statistics. In 2016, the federal government estimated about 1 percent of children were victims of abuse or neglect. But the bad behavior of children’s books may not fit the definition of abuse. The study’s author also didn’t explain why the parents behaved so poorly. Is their bad parenting a literary device, an unconscious Freudian representation, or something else entirely?
To make sense of the nonsensical presence of bad parents in children’s literature, I took a look at the books I loved most and mapped out some of their most notorious guardians. This is not a scientific or even representative endeavor—these are the books from my childhood. And I’ve also kept my definition of “bad” parenting wide open. “Good”and “bad” parenting is subjective, culturally-specific (I am white and Jewish and my childhood bookshelf reflect that), and subject to the whims and idiosyncrasies of the judge (also me, hi). Where do you come down, for example, on the mother in “Eloise” leaving her daughter in the care of her “mostly companion,” Nanny? Is she better or worse than the mother in “The Cat in the Hat,” who goes out for the afternoon and leaves a goldfish in charge? Where’s the line between neglect and properly vetting the babysitter?
I settled on a scatterplot matrix. On one axis, I measured compassion: How much does the guardian care for their young one? On the other, I took stock of competence: How good are they at caring for them? I was not entirely sure what my question was, but I wanted answers. Some patterns emerged.
The I-Don’t-Have-Time-For-Thats: Four of my favorite titles feature competent adults with middling levels of compassion. They’re adequate providers who supply all the basics of childcare but struggle with empathy. In “Harriet the Spy,” Harriet’s parents are too busy with their fancy heterosexual adult parties and cocktails to spend time with her. They don’t notice their daughter until she starts acting out at school, by which time she’s truly fucked. Harriet spends her afternoons running around New York unsupervised and spying on people, but the book’s author, unrepetant queer Louise Fitzhugh, makes it clear that the spy work isn’t the problem. The parents’ unforgivable sin is that they don’t get their daughter, and they don’t try. They never really figure her out; Harriet just learns to be a better liar (a useful lesson for baby gays everywhere).
Another of my favorites at that age was “The Farewell Kid,” by wildly underappreciated YA author Barbara Wersba, about a teenager in New York City named Heidi Rosenbloom who fights with her Upper East Side mother about everything. It’s the same kind of screaming match I heard in my house the summer before my sister went to college, the kind between a parent and a teen on the cusp of adulthood that preempts a soon-approaching move out. When I was younger, I thought the mom in “The Farewell” was a real Ice Tits for disapproving of Heidi’s plan to skip college, move into a basement-level abandoned hair salon, and open up a dog rescue. Heidi rescues two dogs and falls in love with a rich boy by the end of the book and I thought God, Mom, what was all the fuss about???
Then there’s Miss Clavel in “Madeline,” who provides excellent care for 12 little girls in two straight lines but doesn’t love them like a parent. Closest to true neutral for me are the parents in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” The mother does her best to manage three boys who won’t stop fighting. She takes them to the dentist. She takes them out to get new sneakers. Alexander hates the dentist and the (ugly, boring white) new sneakers. He gets in trouble for a fight he didn’t start. His mother’s advice is that some days are garbage. His father is a typical, if disappointing, overworked dad who only appears in the book to request that his wife please never, ever bring their sons to his office again. Basic needs: check. Compassion: eh.
In these books, there’s a lot of distance between parenthood and childhood. It’s what gives the central conflicts their oomph. The distance is literal in Madeline — Miss Clavel’s bedroom is like a mile away from the little girls (hence the book’s excess of running through hallways). But the parents in the other three books live in separate universes from their children, to a degree that their orbits barely overlap. I remember that feeling, one so lonely I didn’t have language for it at nine. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what my parents did all day, though I’m sure I didn’t; I just knew it didn’t matter. They could have been at work, they could have been at home, they could have been hovering over my desk at school; I felt separate from my family even when I was standing next to them. One time in a supermarket parking lot, I watched my mother chat with my older sister and my father help my little brother with something, and I remember thinking there’s no place for me here. It makes sense to me I loved so many books whose protagonists felt the same.
The Villains: There’s only one cluster on the chart, and it’s at bottom left: very low competence, very low compassion. The Wormoods of “Matilda,” The Dursleys of the “Harry Potter” series, Aunts Sponge and Spiker in “James and the Giant Peach,” Mary Lennox’s doomed-to-cholera parents in “The Secret Garden,” and the aforementioned good-for-nothings of “The Golden Compass.” They’re all cartoonishly bad. Make-you-sleep-in-the-cupboard-under-the-stairs bad. Scream-at-you-while-sipping-lemonade-as-you-perform-hard-labor bad.
In each of these books, guardian/parental evil cleaves the bond between the main character and the world they’re born into. Their badness is functional: it gives the child a reason to go off on an adventure without looking back. Matilda, Harry, James, Mary, and Lyra have nothing tying them to where they come from — no love, no family, no home. Why stay where there’s nothing for you? James can climb in the peach, Harry can board the Hogwarts express, Matilda can superglue her father’s hat to his head and run into the gentle, mothering arms of Ms. Honey. The message in these books is so clear: you deserve a family that loves you, and sometimes that means going out and creating a new one.
What I find striking now is that these characters move on at all. James moves into Central Park, where he lives in the stone of the giant peach and spends the rest of his days telling stories to children. Lyra becomes a renowned scholar. Harry Potter marries his best friend’s little sister and gets a job as a wizard cop. None of them spends, like I did, years in therapy, trying to figure out what happened and why it happened and whether it was all their selfish fault all along… What is their secret? What do all these characters understand that I do not? The promise that a protagonist can, and will, be satisfied with the results of their great adventures and stop longing for what they left behind, almost makes the Villains’ existence worth it.
The Heartbreakers: Why do we hurt the people we love? I don’t know. My exes don’t know. Country music doesn’t know. And I’m not satisfied that children’s literature knows, either. Six of my 17 books featured compassionate parents who run low on competence. These are parents who clearly love their children but engage in behaviors that range from questionable to abusive. I struggled to plot these in relation to one another, since there’s no overarching justification for their behaviors. And I found myself asking which is worse, living together as a family but occasionally beating your child (like Pa in “Little House in the Big Woods”) or being a sea captain who leaves his daughter to live alone in a villa with a monkey and a horse for company (a la “Pippi Longstocking”)? And what about the unseen mother in “Eloise,” busy doing her own thing? Eloise is living it up at The Plaza and has a fine, human nanny; how can any critique of her mother’s choices be anything but thinly-veiled, misogynistic concern trolling? (I was, however, enraged by Mr. Mallard, the father duck who expresses a sudden wanderlust and flies off on vacation just as his eight ducklings hatch in “Make Way for Ducklings.”)
On the other hand, criticizing this category quickly feels petty. I can only take time out of my day to be mad at picture-book ducks because I do not have children and I have been at home in my house in this pandemic for over a year. And it takes a lot to be mad at the mom in “The Cat in the Hat” for leaving her kids at home with a goldfish. The spankings of the “Little House” books rightly pale in comparison to the bigger picture of settler colonialism. It technically makes sense that the father in “Charlotte’s Web,” John Arable, sells his daughter Fern’s best friend, because her best friend is Wilbur the Pig, and pigs need space and cost a lot of money to feed, but I still don’t like it.
But I felt like I was losing my mind when I reread “Stuart Little” as an adult. If you aren’t familiar, Eleanor Little (a human) gives birth to Stuart, who turns out to look a lot like a mouse (hold your questions, please). Unfortunately, the family pet, Snowbell, is a cat. At no point do any of the adults in the room ponder getting rid of the pet cat or making the house a little more mouse-accessible. Instead, despite the fact that they really do love their little mouse boy, Stuart gets locked in the refrigerator.
This is where it gets personal. I am not a mouse, but I grew up in a house with two cats. It turns out I’m allergic — though I didn’t figure it out until I moved out for college and I suddenly didn’t have asthma and chronic bronchitis anymore. How does a parent miss that? How can parents, fictional and literal alike — with love in their hearts —make such obviously bad choices? There’s no easy way to describe why the parents in these books act the way they do. Their actions sometimes serve the stories, sometimes not. Sometimes the children learn from their parents’ actions, but other times they don’t. Sometimes they serve as inciting incidents, but not always. If anything, I wonder if these books were important to me because they were proof that even if you are grown up, there is no amount of love that can keep you from making mistakes.
I stood back and looked at my scatterplot and thought, “Yes, excellent, I’ve captured my entire childhood in perfect detail! What amazing recall I have.” Then one of my partners took a look at my beautiful chart and asked if there weren’t any books I might have forgotten. “So,” she asked, “These were all of your favorite books? You didn’t leave any off?” I responded I might have left off a few that didn’t feature parents. “But any others that did?” she pressed. “What about the ‘American Girl’ books, didn’t you love those? And ‘The Babysitter’s Club’ books? Weren’t you into those, too?”
Well, damn. She’s right. I left them out. But for a reason! The parents of these overlooked books have something in common with the single dot in the highly compassionate, highly competent quadrant of my matrix. There, alone in the boring kingdom of infuriatingly perfect parenthood reign Mama and Papa Bear from “The Berenstain Bears.” These two are whole-wheat ASMR for the under-10s. They’re good providers and gentle disciplinarians. They’re never too busy to care. They’re never off getting drunk on date night. They seem to genuinely enjoy raising their kids, even when Brother and Sister Bear lie, get “the gimmies” or the “grouchies,” eat too much junk food, watch too much TV, forget their manners, wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares, and collapse into heaving sobs on their birthdays (I see you, Sister Bear). Their parental perfection renders these stories lifeless. Mindless, even. It’s no surprise to me that after decades of peacefully, boringly loving each other, the Berenstain Bears became born-again Evangelicals. What else was left to do?
Sometimes if I go to bed with cramps or a stomach ache, I’ll dream that I’m pregnant. The dreams used to be nightmares; I’d give birth to a baby that would start out normal size, but would then shrink and shrink until it could fit on my fingernail and I’d drop it in my bed and lose it in the sheets. But for the past couple of years, my pregnancy dreams have been joyful. They’re just images of a future me taking care of an infant. When I wake up and realize I’ve been dreaming, I feel a little empty. Sometimes dream-parent-Marne shouts “It’s real! It’s real!” just before I wake up. I think it might be the closest I ever get to becoming a parent.
Even if I stopped bleeding money on Master’s degrees and avocado toast, and even if I figured out how to physically make a baby (why does semen cost ANY money?), I’m worried that I won’t be a very good parent. As demonstrated by my matrix, there are so many ways to be bad at it. You don’t have to be a villain in order to be a bad parent. And, honestly, I think it might be easier if you are—at least you and your kids know where you stand. It’s a lot harder to understand why compassionate parents who love their kids fuck up, sometimes severely. What my scatterplot shows is that most of the shitty parents in my favorite storybooks aren’t evil. They’re fine characters who’ve had a bad day, or made a wrong choice, or made a right choice that their child couldn’t understand. You can provide your kid with everything but be bone tired. You can be sweet and kind, but unavailable, you can just be, God forbid, busy. Any of that can be enough to send your kids off adrift into the world, searching for what they can’t get from you.
I think that’s why Matilda and Lyra have been on my mind so much this year. They offer this reassurance that it’s very hard to completely, 1,000 percent wreck your kid. Their stories remind me that even with cartoonishly villainous parents — the baddest of the bad — Lyra and Matilda found a way out. They saved themselves. They are not defined by an earlier generation’s mistakes. Their lives are rich, and magical, and, for a new generation of readers, still unfolding.
Graphics by Mariana Pelaez.
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