Children’s Books: Where are the Parents? (and Lots of Book Recommendations!)

Dear Reader,

Have you ever read a children’s book and wondered where the parents are? There are so many of them in which the parents are either absent, incompetent, or just not main players. And this is not just a modern phenomena. It is true of older books as well — though I suspect fewer of those go with the incompetent parent model.

The fact is books for children are often about kids learning to cope with the world on their own. And they just cannot do that if there are always competent, concerned adults present giving good advice. So getting rid of the grown-ups becomes a common plot device.

I have heard more than one mother lament the fact that there are so few good, involved parents in children’s books, but, not only is this not accidental, I think it can be good for our kids. Through books, preferably good, quality, living books, our kids get to experience worlds and situations they would not otherwise encounter or be ready to encounter. Whether we like it or not, our kids’ lives are about growing independent of us. And when they read these books about kids who have to cope without responsible adults, they get to vicariously do so as well. This prepares them for the point some day when they will need to be more independent. It gives them confidence that they could do things if they had to.

So I have been wracking my brain trying to list the various ways in which children’s books do away with the parents. Here is what I have come up with:

  • Dead parents — This is pretty common and pretty basic. One way or another the parents get killed off early so the kids have to fend for themselves. There may be other adults who become guardians but they are not as involved as a parent would be. The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Warner fits this model. After the first book, the kids have a grandpa to live with, but, as he is aged, he is a more distant figure and only gives occasional wise advice. In some books, the death of the parents may be a part of the plot, but in many it is treated as a footnote about something that has happened before the main plot of the book begins.

Orphans are big in books. One would think from the children’s book section of the library that there must be orphans on every street corner. Of course one of the most famous literary orphans is Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. A common experience for fictional orphans — he turns out to have rich relatives who take him in and give him a happy ending.

Another orphan book we have recently enjoyed is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. If you haven’t run across this one yet, I highly recommend it.

  • Missing Parents — If not dead, the parents might go missing for some reason. This is often more a part of the plot than the dead parents device. After all if the parents are not dead, they can and probably will pop back up at some point. It also allows the children to have a role in their parents’ rescue. Talk about independent kids — they not only act on their own, in some fashion they are parenting the parents. The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley series uses this. There is again a Grandma involved but the parents are in a long-term fairy-tale like sleep until their daughters figure out how to release them.

Another favorite series of ours, the Incorrigibles by Mary Rose Wood, also uses this. The man character, Penelope Lumley, was abandoned at a school for girls. She is now a governess and her pupils are also foundlings. They were living in the woods being raised by wolves and their parentage is uncertain. I await the conclusion of this series to see how it all works out.

In Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr, the mom has been killed (before the plot began) and the dad is temporarily lost at sea (a common place for being lost). I don’t know how the movie is, but I recommend the book.

  • Parents and Children Separated — It may be that the location of the parents is not unknown and that they are not necessarily in trouble but they must be separated from their children for a time. The classic example of this is C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. WWII provided a lot of fodder for good children’s books as parents sent their children to the country for their own safety when London was being bombed regularly by the Germans. Not only are the children separated from their parents without the author having to say anything bad about the parents (quite the contrary), they are also thrown into a new environment. This is a recipe for great adventures.

There may of course be other reasons to send one’s children away for a time. Vacation with relatives is a good one. Cynthia Rylant’s Cobble Street Cousins does this as a set of three girl cousins all get to spend time with their aunt while their parents travel and perform ballets.

Of course the circumstances need not be so happy. Another historical setting which lends itself well to these plots is America’s pioneer days when families travelling west might easily be separated, by choice, illness and death, or Indian attack. In these instances, there is a good chance the parents are killed but they need not be. In Gary Paulsen’s Mr. Tucket series the main character is kidnapped by Indians and it is presumed his parents are still alive. He also comes to take on two children whose parents have succumbed to illness.

A book I loved as a child, Hunger Valley by Edward Seccomb Fox, is another parents-die-while-travelling-west story. It is as sad as its name suggests.

Particularly in novels set in England, boarding school provides the necessary plot device. This serves in the later Narnia novels. Sometimes the school itself provides all the challenges one needs to make a good plot and give the protagonist plenty of obstacles to overcome. Modern books can use summer camp the same way.

  • Variation: One Parent is Absent — In a number of books, only one parent is absent. The result often seems to be that the other parent has little time for the kids (which I suppose is very realistic). This may of course be combined with the parent being dead or lost as well. Getting rid of one parent is easy to accomplish in more modern books where divorce and separation are rife, but it also occurs a fair amount in older books. If dads (it is usually the dad) are not leaving their families by choice, they can still have jobs which take them far afield.

In Swallows and Amazons the father is a sailor, always a good occupation to take one away. The children are then allowed to go and live on an island by themselves for a summer. The mom is occupied by a baby which presumably limits the amount she can do with them though she is still a part of the story and checks in frequently.

Another book we’ve enjoyed recently, The Lost Island by Eilis Dillon, has a sailor dad who leaves and then is lost. The mom is a good parent but allows the boy to go after his father so we get the child rescues the prent plot again too. It’s a good read.

E. Nesbit, a wonderful author, seems to do away with one poarent quite a bit. In The Railway Chidlren, the father is falsely inprisoned. It has been a while, but as I recall the mother is too preoccupied to be much aware of what is going on.

Of course, one easy solution is to kill off just one parent. The remaining parent may then be too sad to cope, too busy to pay attention, or rather incompetent at parenting alone (often a dad, I fear). There is also the added element that the kids can set up the widowed parent with a new spouse. The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall and its sequels are wonderful books that follow this model.

  • Incompetent Parents — Sometimes there are just bad or at least neglectful parents. In Saffy’s Angel and its sequels by Hilary McKay, the dad has left the family but the mom is pretty out of it too in a hippie, air-headed kind of way.

That’s my list. Can you think of other ways to get the kids by themselves? Or other books that use these devices?



9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Karen on December 21, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    Are you meaning books where the characters are human? in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (which I was afraid to read as a child — the rats being scary), Mrs. Frisby raises her “children” all alone, with the help of the other mice and some rats. The story actually centers around Mrs. Frisby.

    A Little Princess – the father is away fighting in the army, then presumed dead, then found alive. The mother died before the story began

    The Secret Garden – Mary was an orphan, taken in by a distant uncle.

    Understood Betsy – Betsy is an orphan and for some reason (I can’t remember just now) she has to leave her two aunts who are raising her to live with another aunt or something. That’s a good book. We really enjoyed it.

    Right now we’re reading Poppy by Avi, in which Poppy’s parents are present, but the father is a weak sort and the mother rather feather-brained. They’re mice. Another good book.

    Heidi was an orphan.

    Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Bulla – is that the book where the children’s mother dies in England, so the children come across the ocean to the Jamestown settlement all by themselves? I mix up that book with another one about a Lion. Anyway, the children are all alone.

    The Jungle Book – Mowgli is raised by wolves.

    Oh, what’s the story by Alice Dalgliesh about the boy who lives on his own and befriends an Indian boy? His parents come to him later in the story……Sign of the Beaver?

    I can’t think of anymore off the top of my head…..It is good for our children to read about these scary things (being separated from parents), but it makes our book lists look very sad and tragic!

    Perhaps we should list “perfect” books! The list would be shorter! *L* Honestly, I can’t think of any books where the parents are both together and the situation is what my girls live (two parents loving each other and them)……

    Even Nancy Drew was without a mother, and her father was busy. I can’t remember enough of the Hardy Boys’ story to say whether they had parents or not in the story.

    Good post, Nebby!
    Merry Christmas!


    • Great list, Karen. Thanks so much for contributing!
      That’s a good question about animals. I think the people I have talked to who object to the broken families in books would be less bothered if animals were the main characters.
      Some books I have thought of with solid families:
      Little House books
      All-of-a-Kind Family
      the Littles (though not quite people)
      Caddie Woodlawn
      the Great Brain books

      I am sure there must be more too.


      • Posted by Karen on December 27, 2014 at 2:37 pm

        I think Doll Story (? is that the title?) by Ann Martin, I think the family is complete. The doll family is missing a member, but I can’t remember who. That was a fun book I read out loud to our girls. I’ll have to revisit it.


  2. Posted by Liz Flint on December 27, 2014 at 11:14 am

    How can you leave out one of the most popular orphan’s of our time, Harry Potter? Of course, his situation also includes a British boarding school (though only for the most elite students.) The Boudelaire children in a Series of Unfortunate Events are also orphans, and while popular, I do not find them to have as interesting a plot or themes as those listed below or the Harry Potter books. A lovely oldie with an orphan is Anne of Green Gables especially in the first book.


    • Posted by Karen on December 27, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      I forgot about Anne, too! I’ve never read Harry Potter, so I didn’t realize he was an orphan (ducking so the tomatoes don’t hit me! *L*).

      I just finished the Saturdays by Enright – those children only have a father. Their mother passed away. So, they’re not total orphans, but missing a parent. That was a good book, I highly recommend it!


  3. I haven’t read Harry Potter either 😉 My oldest has read all the books twice. We have read Saturdays and a bunch of others by Enright though I would have been hard pressed to remember the family situations in them. Anne is a great addition. My daughter has read all those she could get her hands on multiple times.
    Thanks for the input, everyone!


  4. Posted by Melissa Kline on December 27, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    5 Little Peppers . . . mom with quite a few children and no father.


  5. […] a necessary plot device that allows the character to grow up. I have even blogged on that before here. But I still feel the current crop of kid’s lit goes beyond what was around when I was […]


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