I was reading an interview with Rebecca Stead the other day in which she talked about why she had set her new novel, When You Reach Me, in 1979.
“I wanted to show a world of kids with a great deal of autonomy,” she explains, “and I wasn’t sure that it would ring true in a modern New York setting. For better or for worse, life is different now.”
That difference was the subject of a fascinating article in the New York Times last weekend about letting children walk to school. In 1969, the article reported, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school, but by 2001, only 13 percent still did. And a study of San Francisco Bay Area parents with children ages 10 to 14 found that half would not allow them to walk without supervision.
As a parent and as an environmentalist, I have all kinds of concern about the long-term effects of driving children to a playdate seven houses away, as was described in the article. But I also have concerns as a children’s book writer. It’s awfully hard to get a plot going when your character’s parents keep barging into the story and fixing everything in the first chapter, or demanding that Lucy and Edmund call as soon as they get to Narnia to let Mom know they’ve arrived safely and aren’t planning to get into any sleds driven by strange White Witches.
I once had a mystery writer tell me that the first order of business when constructing a scene of peril in a contemporary mystery is to figure out how to separate the protagonist from his or her cell phone. For children’s book writers, the task is similar, except that we have to separate our protagonists from their parents.
The easiest solution to the problem of meddlesome parents is to kill them off. There’s a reason why there are so many orphans in children’s literature, from Harry Potter to the Baudelaire children to Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper to the entire crew of The Mysterious Benedict Society. If that doesn’t work, the next best thing is to send your young protagonists off to the country. The Blitz was a wonderful device for shipping children away from their parents but inventive writers have come up with all kinds of devices: the depression (A Year Down Yonder); illness (The Gray King); a tornado (The Wizard of Oz.)
Still, there are times when you want your children to be at home and not stupefied with grief about their newly deceased parents. And for many years you could count on parents to be slightly oblivious to their children’s whereabouts. As long as they showed up for breakfast and dinner, they could spend their days being whisked off on magic carpets or spying on the neighbors or visiting other worlds. Until now.
Now parents are so involved in every breath their children take that writers have to resort to time travel to get rid of them. Gone are the days when fictional children could wander about by themselves with their friends and siblings having adventures. Of course, between soccer practice, homework, and clarinet lessons, children don’t have all that much time to have adventures anyway, but should an adventure be scheduled for the hours between 3:30 and 5:00 pm, it would quickly have all the fun sucked out of it by parental caution. Planning to travel to another dimension, Meg and Charles Wallace? Better make sure they have cell reception there. Thought you might take a walk in the Hundred Acre woods, Christopher Robin? Not without your mommy!
One wonders what would happen to the child protagonists of classic literature if they were written today. Would Max’s mother have to drive him to the place where the wild things are and sit in the car waiting while he tamed them? Would Alice’s parents have accompanied her down the rabbit hole and read the ingredients on the little cake that said Eat Me to make sure it didn’t have too much sugar or trans-fat? Would Harriet the Spy’s mother have allowed her to go wandering around the neighborhood spying on people or would she have insisted Harriet simply watch reality TV instead? Would Milo’s father have insisted on going with him through the Phantom Tollbooth, just to make sure it was safe?
In my book The Sea Serpent and Me, I purposely created a world in which the little girl protagonist can take a bath by herself, raise a sea monster by herself, and even swim in the ocean by herself. But I did so with much trepidation, knowing that some parents (and at least one reviewer) would find such a world quite puzzling. Children, of course, accept the fiction of a parentless world quite easily – their imaginations are blissfully free of all the cosseting and instruction of their daily lives. But those of us who write for them are finding it increasingly difficult to create a fictional space where they might plausibly have a few adventures. That’s bad news for children’s book writers and even worse news for children.