Follow This Blog: RSS feed
A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

And Now . . . Introducing the WORST Parents of 2013!

Read enough middle grade children’s literature and it all begins to blend.  In 2013 I’ve noticed the occasional odd trend here and there, but when it comes to a post like this one I fall back on an old reliable: Terrible parental units.  They’re staples.  They’re what keep us going.  Admittedly they’re far more common in young adult literature than children’s literature (the general tone in children’s books is just the kill them off early) but once in a while you get a real baddie. What does this say about the role of parents in books for children?  Indeed, what does it mean for a story when the greatest antagonist is often one’s own parent?  From the depressing to the deplorable, sometimes I like to catalog the worst of the worst and assess what it might mean about parents in books for kids at all.

To limit myself I’m only going to include actual parents, not step-parents or aunts and uncles (sorry, The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas).  Here then are some of the parents that made me want to reach within the pages of the books with intent to strangle.  We put them into three categories.  The first, and widest, is:

Mildly Awful

On the one hand, Shida’s mother is biting, neglectful, and self-absorbed.  On the other, it seems pretty clear, to the average adult reader anyway, that she’s clinically depressed.  The mother in Hold Fast by Blue Balliett falls into the same category.  This is a mom who can’t help herself, let alone her kid.

The dad in this particular book falls into the category of Dads-who-care-more-about-a-cause-than-their-own-kid.  Indeed the flaw of the book isn’t the writing or characters, which are entirely charming, but rather the fact that the dad isn’t punished for his abject neglect of his kid by the tale’s end.  Grrrr!

Again with the bad dad.  Not a villain by any stretch, but any father who refuses to let their kid lighten up their after school load when that kiddo hardly has time to eat or sleep is no saint.  The mom isn’t much better with her aversion to conflict, but she improves.  And so, to be fair, in time does the dad.

The dad is essentially useless, both as a character and a parent.  And the mom?  If you’re not talking about her music she can’t relate to you.  These two fall squarely into the category of Folks Who Shouldn’t Have Had a Kid In the First Place.

The next category is  . . .

Pretty Darn Bad

Technically it’s fiction.  In this book I’m thinking particularly of Magulu’s father, who is directly responsible for her ending up a slave.  Admittedly it was an extreme circumstance and he didn’t feel great about it.  Still and all, ending up in the slave trade is NOT a good thing to inherit from your papa.

We know they have their reasons.  Sure they do.  But acting like your kiddo is dead just because she misplaced her shadow?  Geez, dudes.  Nothing right about that one.

Without giving anything away, when Stanley’s father does the unspeakable act that causes his son to run away from home to join the WWI front, you’re totally on Stanley’s side.  Here we have a grief-stricken father, which explains his actions to some degree, but for at least half the book you aren’t seeing that.  You’re just seeing his flaws.  And they’re enormous.

The sin suggested in the Sam Angus book is mirrored in this one.  When your mom is hellbent on killing your pet, that’s when you have to figure she’s got some problems of her own.  And Mrs. Buckman hasn’t much in the way of redeemable qualities.  I might even come close to putting her in the category of . . .

Bad As They Get

When your mom is arrested for participating in an illegal dog fighting ring, that’s bad.  But disappointing your offspring continually after that?  Let’s give this mom a hand.  She’s pretty terrible.

And the winner, of WORST parents of 2013 are . . .

Admittedly it’s hard to compete with selling your kids into slavery or going to jail for illegal activity, but the Gadsbys have their own unique flaws.

Now bear in mind that when I say this I do so knowing full well that Mr. and Mrs. Gadsby do not beat or hit or really even yell at their kids.  Instead, they abandon them with a frequency that made even the smallest hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  These self-absorbed, greedy, tunnel vision parents have their reasons for acting the way they do.  Well . . . Mrs. Gadsby thinks she does anyway.  Having lost a child three years earlier she stays away from her family because it’s too hard to cope.  Well boo-hoo to you, madam.  When even your rebellious teenage daughter is desperate for your presence, you know you’re doing something wrong.  Mr. Gadsby, in sharp contrast, is a cad.  His seeming turnaround at the end of the book did not fool me one bit.  He’s a horror show of a parent.  The Gadsby children are better off without him.  There.  I said it.

Now you let off some steam.  Worst parents in children’s novels of 2013  . . . GO!

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I was getting worried as I scrolled down this list that After Iris wouldn’t make it because those parents made me SO MAD. SO VERY VERY MAD. You have kids who are ALIVE. Love them! And I’m not going to forgive the dad just because he’s [redacted spoiler] – that fixes exactly NOTHING. How great would it have been if he had shared that with his kids WHILE IT WAS HAPPENING???

  2. Are we limiting the list to middle grade? Because the mother in Julie Berry’s “All the Truth That’s In Me” falls well into the “pretty darn bad” for much the same reasons as “Goulish Song.”

    And if we are keeping it to middle grade, then I’m afraid that I COULD NOT BELIEVE the parents in “Escape from Mr. Limoncello’s Library.” Really? You’re going to let some strange guy keep your kids in a library overnight, and you only get to watch them on monitors?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh, yeah. Mr. Lemoncello totally counts. But no YA. That would open floodgates I cannot hope to touch.

  3. Fantastic Family Whipple : parents are more concerned that their children break records constantly than anything else. They actually are mortified when their one son, the main character is born a few minutes too early and deprives them of the record of having every child born on March 1st.

    The Creature Department: Our parents are determined to have their son follow in the footsteps as food critics, despite the fact he doesn’t care to do so. They quiz him on the meals they serve him (and they can’t cook at ALL).

    Texting the Underworld: Conor’s father is a bitterly disappointed man who whines about the things he didn’t get to do with his life because of choices Conor’s grandad made. conor’s father is determined to send him to latin school and then onward on the track to majoring in economics, as his father once dreamed of doing, and something Conor has no desire to do.

    The Vine Basket: Mehrigul deals with a scornful alcoholic and gambling father and a completely depressed mother who can barely function.

  4. I’m pretty late with my to-read list, but the one that came to mind is from last year, if it counts. The terrible thing that happened to Barnaby Brocket, by John Boyne. I could not believe his parents could be so cruel! Ignoring and simply ditching their son for being different.

  5. Eric Carpenter says:

    What about SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY? Sarah’s mother drowns her twin brother and attempts to drown her. Her father becomes an alcoholic coping with the fall out of the incident (which occurs long before the narrative).

  6. I haven’t read any of these books, so I can’t comment on them. (I will be searching them out–thanks!) A few thoughts on the general topic: fiction, of course, thrives on trouble and conflict. Without it, there is no story. For most young people, their families are their immediate sphere…and often a source of conflict and trouble.

    Also, here is so much dysfunction in the world! Lots of people are struggling and making bad choices…or are ill-equipped to raise their children. And children suffer in ways large and small because of this. This needs to be reflected in literature for kids. Finally, as a child, books were my lifeline in a very difficult situation. Some people don’t understand, but reading about other kids’ problems was comforting and inspiring to me.

    None of this is to say that these tropes might not get tiring for some readers or can stand in place of good characterization.

    Another for the list: Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Desperaux, where a father trades his daughter for a pack of cigarettes.


  7. Valerie Ware says:

    Great list…I am envisioning a very cool display…
    Don’t forget The Willoughby’s, by Lois Lowry

  8. How about the father in Sharon Creech’s “The Boy on the Porch?” He surely deserves some sort of award…

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Y’know I thought about including him. I guess I just figured we didn’t quite know enough about him. He definitely does some crummy stuff, but ultimately his son apparently goes to college so something must go right somewhere. Dunno. What do you think?

      • hmm…you’re right. I *just* read it with my daughter, and she was incensed. But Jacob didn’t seem afraid of him–just liked the farm.
        That’s Sharon Creech for you–she never fills in all the blanks, does she?

  9. I thought Winnie from Phoebe Stone’s Romeo Blue was a “difficult” mom. She was a heroine, for sure. But that didn’t really help her daughter a whole lot. I kept asking myself what I would have done if I had her talents during the beginning of WWII. Well, let’s just say, I did not like her and I felt that she let her daughter down – a lot.


  1. […] parenting. Betsy Bird (New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist) has helpfully cataloged kid lit’s worst parents of 2013 for Fuse 8. Right at the top (or I suppose the bottom) of the list is Shida’s mother […]