Books in Which Children Find Themselves

Dear Reader,

As a child and still now as an adult, I find that many of my favorite books are those in which children have a lot of free time and basically explore the world and find out things on their own. I suppose these are what you would call coming of age books. Somehow I associate that designation with teenagers and in many of the books I am thinking of the children are younger so I don’t know if it is technically appropriate. Sometimes there is just one child and sometimes there is a group, often of siblings.

We are currently reading Five Children and It by E. Nesbitt. It is not clear to me in this book yet why the parents never seem to be present but I am not sure it is always necessary to know. Often the parents in these books just seem to be busy. But I am not sure it matters. The ability of the children to move through the world with little adult interference is what matters for the story. The same was true in the Railway Children, another Nesbitt book which we loved.

What would happen if grown-ups were there? They might make the children do more boring things like clean themselves and come home on time. They might give good counsel which would prevent the children from making mistakes which they do but would also not make for much of a story. Now in my own life, I do think it is wise to seek good counsel. And I hope I am an attentive mother whose children will not fall into serious situations. But I still love books like this.

Sometimes the plot device that gets the child(ren) alone involves a parent dying or abandoning their children or the children running away. A friend told me she will not let her kids read books in which the children run away because she doesn’t want to plant that idea in their heads. For some reason this does not bother me at all. I suppose because it is often a plot device, a way to get the child on their own for the sake of the story. Through books a child can explore what it would be like to be on their own as they live through the characters. In a good book there will be lessons to be learned from this shared experience. But I don’t think the lessons are usually “it is good to run away.”

I have some vague memory of a book I read as a child about a girl and a boy who lived in the woods with a raccoon. I can’t remember how they ended up there by themselves but I remember loving the book. If you have any idea what it is, please let me know so I can look it up again.

Perhaps one of the tamer series is this genre is the Boxcar children. In the first book , their parents have died and the kids fend for themselves for most for the book. I love how they set up house in the old boxcar. But even in subsequent books which are mostly about solving mysteries, they seem to have oodles of free time. Long summers at beaches and old lighthouses in which to untangle very wholesome little mysteries.

And then I wonder what we as the adults should be learning from these stories. In this society of over-scheduled children, are our kids going to be able to have their own coming of age stories? Maybe we don;t want them to have adventures worthy of some of these books, but will they find themselves if they don’t have free time and space in which to do it?

The plots of these books often involve loneliness, boredom, trials. But it is through these things that the characters grow up, find out who they are, make unusual friends. I am not advocating actually abandoning our children. But this is not so far from Charlotte Mason’s idea of masterly inactivity. We need to give our kids space and time that is not programmed by us so that they can have their own experiences and find their own interests. And if there is loneliness or struggles as part of that, we need not step in and solve every problem for them. Gold is refined through fire. If we spare our children every hardship, they will not grow as they ought.


7 responses to this post.

  1. I think you would like Swallows and Amazon by Arthur Ransome. Children with lots of free time, but with parents who encourage them in their independence, aid them when necessary, and step back when they can. They are for around 9-12 age range but we did them as family read-alouds, for which I am grateful – I’m glad I didn’t miss out on them by handing them off to my kids without knowing them myself.


  2. Thanks! I will look into it. We can always use more book ideas, especially ones that appeal to boys.


  3. I have quite a lot of trouble with the kind of thinking that you mention passingly in this post: that letting a child read about a certain subject will lead, either directly or indirectly, to the child emulating the behavior. Reading a story about a child who has run away will not convince a child to do the same; when a child does run away–an enormous and terrifying perspective–there is a lot more at work there than a scene from a book read at age 12.

    I will say that I enjoy books in which the authors do not shuffle the family off to the side conveniently–of course, I equally enjoy any book that has a solid dose of storytelling, nevermind what happens to the parental units. While children do not base their life decisions on the actions of book characters, books, movies, and television shows do affect their framing of how-the-world-works. And I think it’s a right shame that stories take the easy way out (and often a negative, breaking-off-as-the-easy-way-out) when it comes to families.

    I recently finished Inkheart in which the adventure involved the father and an aunt, and their presence was sewn seamlessly into the overall story. It also allowed the main character to be a kid–scared at times and infinitely brave and loving always. A good story should not be sacrificed to have the parents there, and it wasn’t. I’d be interested in hearing what you thought of it if you have read the book.


    • Thanks for the comment! I agree that I don’t think reading a book alone will inspire a child to run away. There are some things I don’t like my kids to read lest they emulate them but they tend to be more mundane things like the idea that all younger siblings are annoying or words or attitudes I don’t want them to copy. I guess I haven’t really thought about why I would worry they emulate some things and not others. Maybe I will ponder it some mroe and do a post on it . . .

      I didn’t mean to say that I don’t like books that don’t show families living and interacting well together. Often in the books I like where kids are own their own, there is a group of siblings on the adventures. I like that a lot better than just showing kids interacting with friends and being mean to their siblings which it seems a lot of books do. One series we loved which shows the family really well is the All-of-a-Kind Family.

      I have seen Inkheart in the shelves and thought that my kids are probably not ready for it yet. Maybe I will check it out myself and read it. I’ll let you know what I think if I do. I am not very good about previewing books my kids read. There just isn’t enough time to read books before they do.


      • I would recommend Inkheart for the 9-12 age group, and very likely as a read-aloud at the 9-10 and younger end of the spectrum. (I’m not sure how old your child is, so it might be a book for the shelf, rather than the immediate read.)

        I’m also going to say that though I thought it was a wonderful story for a young reader, it was a terribly slow one for me as an adult (my review is here), so there’s a bit of a heads up if you’re planning to read it first.

        The main character is also female–which poses a problem if your child is anything like my younger brother when he was going through his phase of refusing to read anything “girly”, much to my aghast.

        On previewing books–It’s rare when we can keep up with their reading pace. They’re literary whizzes on wheels when they find something they like!


  4. […] at Letters from Nebby presents Books in Which Children Find Themselves, and wonders what parents can learn from books that allow children to solve their own […]


  5. […] thinking about this is relation to what books I allow my children to read also. I mentioned in a recent post that children running away from home in books does not usually bother me. I have a friend who is […]


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