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:
- A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk
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.
- This Journal Belongs to Ratchet by Nancy J. Cavanaugh
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!
- Jack Strong Takes a Stand by Tommy Greenwald
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 Truth of Me by Patricia MacLachlan
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
- Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger
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.
- Ghoulish Song by William Alexander
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.
- Soldier Dog by Sam Angus
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.
- Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
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
- Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle
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 . . .
- After Iris by Natasha Farrant
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!