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.
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?
M. Molly Backes
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