Deb Molly Loves Good Ol’ (Fictional) Mom & Dad

Literature – particularly children’s and young adult literature – is hard on parents. If you’re a parent in a YA book, you’re about a million more times likely to be killed in a mysterious and/or tragic accident than your real-world counterparts, and if you’re not killed right off the bat, you’re very likely to be neglectful, abusive, alcoholic, or actually evil. At best, you’re well-meaning but too oblivious to notice that your daughter’s undead boyfriend is breaking into your house every night to watch her sleep.

The Absent/Dead Parent Trope is an awfully convenient one in children’s literature, because it gives our young protagonists the freedom to set off on their own adventures, without any pesky grownups meddling in their business. But it’s so widespread that I’ve begun to feel rather sorry for – and protective of – good parents in literature.

For instance, Atticus Finch.

Okay, this one is so obvious it’s almost not worth mentioning. He’s tolerant in an intolerant society, wise and patient and bookish when all the other dads are off being drunken rednecks, an ace shot when the chips are down, and he helps Jem and Scout to be empathetic while loving them for exactly who they are. Plus, he looks like Gregory Peck.

(Also, did anyone else think that he and Miss Maudie totally had a thing going on? I mean, they had to, right? Otherwise, why weren’t all the single ladies of Maycomb throwing themselves at him??)

When the three of us came to the house, Atticus would sweep off his hat, wave gallantly to her and say, “Good evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening.”

I never heard Atticus say like a picture of what. He would tell her the courthouse news, and would say he hoped with all his heart she’d have a good day tomorrow. He would return his hat to his head, swing me to his shoulders in her very presence, and we would go home in the twilight. It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.

The only problem with Atticus is that he’s a little too perfect. He’s a fantasy, an ideal. I love Elaine and Kevin Oliver, parents of Ruby Oliver in E. Lockhart’s fabulous series, because they’re so hilariously real and imperfect.

Unlike so many parents in YA literature, Ruby Oliver’s parents are totally involved in her life and totally non-evil, though they are somewhat overprotective and generally kind of bonkers. They live on a houseboat where Ruby’s dad Kevin grows exotic plants and runs an obscure garden tip newsletter and seed catalogue from his home office. Ruby’s mother Elaine “is a performance artists (and part-time-at-home copy editor, to pay the bills), which means that she does these long monologues about herself and her life and her opinions about public policy and bug zappers.” She has a one-woman show called “Elaine Oliver: Feel the Noise!” which makes me laugh every time I think about it.

Ruby’s parents aren’t the focus of the books, and I wouldn’t even say they’re main characters, but they’re involved in Ruby’s life, and they’re imperfect, sometimes self-centered and argumentative, but they always love Ruby.

“He was a jerk, Roo. Don’t think any more about him.”

“He’s not a jerk,” said my father. “He’s Roo’s friend.”

“He’s not my friend,” I said.

“He used to be,” said my dad. “I’m sure he wouldn’t act that way without a reason. Poor kid must be having trouble.”

“Kevin, the kid is a bully. He used to boss Roo around in nursery school, and he’s grown up into a monster. Let her be angry.”

“I’m not angry,” I said.

“I think it’s important to come to a loving place when people are unkind,” my dad said. “I want Roo to see that people act badly out of pain. […] We don’t want Roo to be carrying around all this fury. We have to teach her forgiveness.”

“Hello, Dad. I’m still here,” I said.

“If I didn’t carry around fury,” said my mother, “I wouldn’t have a career. People pay to come see me have fury. It’s productive. It’s cathartic. Elaine Oliver! Feel the Noise!”

And speaking of hilarious and imperfect parents, no list of my favorite fictional parents could be complete without Calvin’s Parents. I grew up reading Calvin & Hobbes, and even when I was a kid I loved Calvin’s relationship with his dad – the way Calvin announces that his dad is up or down in the polls, the way he rubs his childhood freedom in his dad’s face every morning as Dad is getting ready for work. As an adult, I love the parents more than ever – I love the ongoing gag where Calvin asks a question, his dad doesn’t know the answer and makes something up, and then Calvin’s mom gets mad. Always hilarious!

I also have a soft spot for children bringing adults down to their level, which comes from my years teaching 7th and 8th grade. And despite their frequent frustration with Calvin and their occasional discussions about how they should have gotten a dog instead of having a child, in the end, Calvin’s parents are good, funny, loving parents who want to do right by their kid.

Who are your favorite fictional parents? 

46 thoughts on “Deb Molly Loves Good Ol’ (Fictional) Mom & Dad

  1. Love this! So true about YA parents — either dead, absent, or A-holes. *grin*

    My favorite fictional parents are Moms and Pops Belden, from the Trixie Belden mysteries. *pauses for wistful moment, reminiscing about the bliss of being an imaginary member of the Bobwhites of the Glen* Man, I loved those books when I was ten. Trixie’s parents were so loving, so wise, so perfect. Firm, but never harsh. IOW, totally, perfectly unreal. They’d never fly in fiction today.

    • Isn’t that funny, that perfect parents wouldn’t fly, but terrible parents are just par for the course? Wait, do I mean depressing? 🙂

  2. Yanno, all I can think of this week are Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert as my favourite parents, (even though they were brother and sister – not all Flowers in the Attic-y brother and sister, for those of you who haven’t yet read Anne of Green Gables) so my apologies, but I have to pick them for now. But they really were a great mixture of strict, yet loving and indulgent when needed. I’m sure I’ll think of other parents later, but I’ve still got Anne in my head.

    And by the way, I LOVED Calvin and Hobbes as a teenager. So snarky, but cute at the same time. I even had a cat named Hobbes. Great post, Molly!

    • Oh yes, Matthew and Marilla!! Matthew’s so sweet, but I love Marilla (especially as played by Colleen Dewhurst!) with her heart of gold buried under the kind of terrifying exterior. So great!

    • Right? He’s a good guy — and he’s RIGHT! her boyfriend is NOT ALIVE and NOT SAFE — and she’s awful to him. For an awesome father/daughter relationship, see Laura Goode’s SISTER MISCHIEF. Or JUNO. 🙂

    • Yay! They are timeless. I was trying to figure out a good reason to post Calvin’s snowmen and/or the whole of the Baby Raccoon story (so sad & sweet!). I also love it when the parents talk to Hobbes. 🙂

  3. Oh, I love Calvin and Hobbes. My dad does too – though I think he identifies more with Calvin than with his dad.

    I love Meg Murry’s parents in A Wrinkle in Time – so wise and brilliant (they’re scientists) and loving. And of COURSE, Atticus Finch. He’s wonderful.

    • Haha, my dad too. He’s in his mid-60s but he still thinks he’s Spaceman Spiff.

      And yes, the Murrays!! I still want to grow up to be Meg’s mom — is it too late to become a Nobel-prize-winning scientist AND a great beauty??

  4. MOLLY AND ARTHUR WEASLEY!!!!! They are the best. I just love them. The way Molly takes in Harry and seems all spacey but then goes totally badass on Bellatrix after she killed Fred. And how Arthur is that total kooky professor type, but actually so brave. Oh JK, I love you.

    • Ah, the Weasleys. They ARE the best, & I think Molly killing Bellatrix is a highlight of the entire series. (Obviously anyone named Molly is going to be awesome.)

      I have a dream that one day JK will write a prequel that takes place during the original Order of the Phoenix days….

  5. I always loved Nancy Drew’s dad. Totally supportive of his daughter’s wacky adventures, would drive her around when necessary, always had some thoughtful and well-intended advice about how she should be cautious and safe but also stand up for what’s right at the same time. And there was that one time he took her to Rio. That was an awesome thing for a dad to do. Rio!

  6. I think Katie’s right – the Murrays are pretty awesome.

    Gerald and Ellen O’Hara from Gone With the Wind are really interesting parents and echo the shift that happens when children go from caretaken to caretakers.

    But I do love Mrs. Carillon from The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). She’s hilarious.

    • I had to look The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) up — I’ve never even heard of it! But if it’s Raskin, I’m already sold — I love her!

      AND — here’s a weird connection — did you know that Ellen Raskin designed the original jacket cover for A Wrinkle in Time? (Worlds colliding!)

      • Oh, it’s so clever. It’s my favorite of hers. Lots of wordplay and puzzles, but not preachy like The Westing Game.

        I had no idea about the AWIT cover! So cool!

  7. Great list!! I haven’t thought about Calvin & Hobbes in years but you’re right, his parents are awesome.

    I wrote a blog entry about YA moms for Mother’s Day. My #1 pick is Marmee from Little Women. Old school, but always knows best.

  8. Definitely have to agree on Calvin’s parents. I’ve always had a soft spot for the father that just makes stuff up when he doesn’t know the answer. Then again, my father does the same thing, and it drives me CRAZY.

  9. Can you do better than Ma and Pa Ingalls? I’m not sure. Maybe not the coolest parents but Pa definitely rocked the prairie and that little house. (Of course, he will always be Michael Landon and he will always well up five minutes before the credits roll, and that might have something to do with all this…)

    Molly, someday you and my husband will meet and toast Calvin and Hobbs. He is a HUGE fan.

    • Erika, have you read Wendy McClure’s book THE WILDER LIFE? She has a LOT to say about Pa Ingalls! Also, if you don’t already, you should follow her on Twitter as @halfpintingalls — hilarious.

      I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who’s like “Eh, Calvin and Hobbes, I don’t see the appeal.” People either like C&H or LOVE it.

          • I mean, the fictional re-telling of the Ingalls’ life — in the books themselves — is much more delightful than the reality, in which Pa was sort of weird-looking and not a good farmer or businessman & most of his ideas were kind of doomed. And, being reality, it was all much less charming than fiction.

            But Wendy’s book is still great!

  10. YES!!! So, so with you on Calvin’s parents and Ruby Oliver’s parents. Elaine and Kevin are insane in the best way. I also love Rachel’s answer — Arthur and Molly Weasley make me laugh out loud. They’re completely bonkers in their own way (Arthur’s obsession with the fellytone; Molly coming up with chores to keep Harry, Hermione, and Ron apart so they can’t possibly plan to get Horcruxes), but always loving and have their kids’ best interests at heart. And hell yes, Molly kicking Bellatrix’s ass is epic. Doesn’t make up for J.K. killing off Fred or (sob) Sirius, but it’s awesome all the same.

    Jeez, I hope no one out there hasn’t read Potter — this comment is spoilerific.

    • Yay! Calvin’s parents and the Olivers all seem like people you’d like to have over to dinner — they’d all have strange, hilarious stories to share. The Weasleys & Atticus are the ones you want on your side when things go wrong — they’ll always have your back.

  11. I loved Billy Colman’s parents in “Where the Red Fern Grows”. I loved how they let him go out past his bedtime and how they still held him responsible for his chores at home.

    • Oh my gosh, I am still in therapy from that book. That book DESTROYED me!! I can’t believe you remember the protagonist’s name — all I remember is weeping hysterically first, when I read ahead on my own, second, when my teacher then read it to our class, and third, when our teacher forced us to watch the movie. Fifth grade was so traumatic!

        • Thank god no one put it in my hands in second grade; I would have been too depressed to learn cursive. Or math. I did, however, watch the cartoon version of Watership Down (on the recommendation of my vet, because I had a pet bunny — you know, just a lighthearted family flick about BUNNIES WHO KILL EACH OTHER) in second grade. The book is one of my favorites to this day, but certainly not a children’s story.

  12. Oh, SO MANY good parents listed here! Totally not YA, but I will always have a soft spot for Adam from East of Eden. He was so devastated by the loss of his evil wife and was a pretty terrible father for some time, but then he really did try.

  13. Must second the love for C&H, the Cuthberts, and the Weasleys.

    Meg Cabot consistently has good parents– supportive but also letting their kids run their own lives. She also has good siblings.

    Can you believe my second grade teacher read us Where the Red Fern Grows? UGH.

  14. I’ve just finished reading the Percy Jackson series, and that guy has a seriously awesome mom. She’s understanding and supportive while letting her son make his own decisions, and she makes blue food just for the heck of it. Percy’s life is constantly in danger, but she handles it as well as possible and never guilts him for not calling often enough. (Percy’s other parent, being a Greek god, is a little distant.)

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