I’m so excited to be hosting this stop on the blog tour for the brilliant second novel by Lucy Strange, Our Castle by the Sea. In a thrilling adventure set in wartime Britain, Lucy brings to life unforgettable characters against the backdrop of World War 2 and the mysterious Daughters of Stone. You can read my full review here. I am delighted to welcome Lucy to the blog today with a fantastic guest post reflecting on how parents are made absent in children’s literature. Welcome to the blog Lucy!
The Significant Absence of Parents in Children’s Literature by Lucy Strange
In order for children in fiction to be brave and free and have endlessly exciting escapades, it is often necessary to get their parents out of the way. In my new book, Our Castle by the Sea, the absence of Petra’s parents is at the very heart of her story. Growing up in a lighthouse with her mother, father and big sister Mags, twelve-year-old Petra has never had to face anything more frightening than the storms that sweep across the Channel and Pa’s stories about sea-monsters. But it is 1939 and the Second World War has just begun. As the local community turns against Petra’s family, accusing Mutti of spying for the enemy, and Pa and Mags become caught up in dark secrets of their own, Petra is suddenly plunged into a new lonely world in which no one can be trusted.
From the tragic to the surreal, from locking them up to bumping them off, children’s writers have found a wealth of different ways to remove the parents from the larger part of their narratives so that the protagonists can pursue their adventures unencumbered by bedtimes, naughty steps and reminders to brush their teeth.
1. Orphaned The classic choice. Being orphaned not only removes the parental safety net for a young protagonist but it also creates sympathy for their plight from the very first page. Notable orphans in children’s literature include Harry Potter, Sophie in The BFG, the Baudelaire siblings in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Anne (of Green Gables), Bod in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (and the inspiration for his character, Mowgli), and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, to name but a few. A particularly strange and surreal favourite here has to be James (of Giant Peach fame), whose parents are killed by an escaped rhinoceros.
2. Holidays! Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were forever heading off for the entire summer armed only with their wits, a box of matches and a bulging picnic hamper. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have caught quite so many thieves and kidnappers if they’d been cooped up with Mother and Father in a Center Parcs chalet. I loved these stories when I was young – probably largely because of the extraordinary feelings of freedom and adventure they evoked.
3. Boarding school This situation offers a protagonist a degree of structure and safety along with some independence, and plenty of opportunities for rule-breaking (pranks on teachers, midnight feasts and battling three-headed monsters in secret dungeons). Malory Towers was always a favourite of mine, along with Delderton Hall in Eva Ibbotson’s beautiful book The Dragonfly Pool, Deepdean in Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series, and of course we can’t forget our beloved Hogwarts. I would argue that Louis Sachar’s brilliant book Holes also fits into this category – though Stanley is sent to a juvenile disciplinary facility rather than a boarding school, the setting works in a worryingly similar way . . .
4. Dreams From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz, dreams allow our young heroes and heroines to escape from reality (and their families) into a strange new world in which just about anything could happen. Magical portals such as wardrobes, Faraway Trees, Wishing Chairs and Phantom Tollbooths offer the same opportunities for adventures into other, more surreal and dangerous realms.
5. The Great Outdoors Oh, for the old-fashioned freedoms of a childhood spent sailing across lakes, getting lost in the woods and falling into quarries… The books of Arthur Ransome spring to mind, but also E Nesbit’s lovely classics involving bands of intrepid siblings who spend their days roaming around the countryside, such as The Railway Children or Five Children and It.
6. Evacuees With the Second World War as a backdrop, a child being sent away to live with complete strangers provides the starting point for many powerful and extraordinary stories, such as Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, and The Magic Bed Knob by Mary Norton (adapted into the musical film Bedknobs and Broomsticks). More recently, Emma Carroll’s wonderful Letters from the Lighthouse follows the story of young Second World War evacuees who set about untangling a rather wonderful mystery surrounding the lighthouse to which they are billeted (you can’t beat a lighthouse story, folks!).
7. Dotty Old Aunts Who Can be Hoodwinked Some children’s authors choose to pack off their young heroes to stay with helpfully neglectful relatives whose lack of supervision allows them to get up to all sorts of high jinks. Tom, of Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, is staying with his aunt and uncle while quarantined with potential measles, and Minty in Helen Cresswell’s fabulous Moondial lives with her aunt while her mother is in hospital following a car accident. Perhaps aunts are actually the secret to time travel, as both these protagonists end up discovering magical portals into the past . . .
8. Invisible Parents In the Mary Poppins books by P L Travers, the parents, though present, are not really fulfilling the role of parents, so that there is room for a magical nanny to step into the breach. Roald Dahl’s Matilda also has two perfectly healthy parents, but they are so grotesquely unlikeable that we are delighted when at last they abandon our fabulous heroine, leaving her to be adopted by the heavenly Miss Honey. Sick and pre-occupied parents also fit within this category, such as those in Eloise Williams’ thrilling new ghost story Seaglass.
9. A Mission There are some things that a youngster must do alone, like fighting to the death in a gladiatorial reality show . . . The Hunger Games trilogy has been hugely successful, but lots of other children’s literature features a protagonist on an inspiring lone-quest, such as Tanya Landman’s immensely powerful Buffalo Soldier or Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s beautiful, lyrical myth, The Girl of Ink and Stars.
10. And finally… A World Without Parents! Padraig Kenny’s brilliant debut Tin, features a loveable cast of mechanicals who want nothing more than to be ‘proper’ children with real souls and families of their own. Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series features a post-apocalyptic world in which all adults have become infected with a horrible zombie-fying disease, so that the children are very much in charge of their own survival. For some young readers, an adult-free world may sound like paradise, but whether it ends up like Neverland or like Lord of the Flies depends, I imagine, on the nature of the children in question . . .
Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)
Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com and follow Lucy Strange on twitter @theLucyStrange. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the blog tour: