Power in Children's Books

Author(s): 
Department: 

Dear Friends: I went to a children’s writer’s workshop and read the manuscripts of all the participants. They were exceedingly dark, and the child protagonists were thrust into life and death situations that most of us would never face. The hero or heroine was, without exception, the child of impaired, absent, or dead parents.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Cinderella was a step-child. Heidi is sent to live with her grandfather. Harry Potter is a wounded orphan. Luke Skywalker is living with an aunt and uncle. Dorothy has her Auntie Em. The list goes on. Why?

It’s a power issue. The child protagonist must have some power over his or her own life. Children are presumed to develop power only in the absence of parental authority. Does our society feel uncomfortable with powerful children within families?

Children’s book publishers tell writers they want active, spunky, protagonists who confront crises on their own and exercise power over their own lives.

Not only that, our culture’s desire for excitement drives us to stories of greater and greater challenges, with epic scope crises. Our protagonists are asked to save lives, cities, nations, or the entire universe from those who would do them harm. They confront and use tremendous power.

Children living in a traditional family of father, mother, and siblings are apparently boring. Their ordinary challenges are too tame for our literary tastes. Their parents are presumed to be in control of their lives, so they have little or no real power.

The result of this assumption is that children’s literature is nearly devoid of examples of well-functioning family units. Young readers and movie-goers see few good role models of healthy parent/child/sibling relationships. Any stories that show caring parents are often bland or feel preachy and in any case they are written only for the youngest children.

Some families I know have loving parents who gradually increase the independence of their children and include them in family decision-making. These children have a lot of power within their families. They often become leaders in their life outside the home. Is this boring?

I’d like to urge the writers and editors among us to publish stories which model real relationships that have their give and take, and families that share a foundation of deep love, and whose children are trusted to test their wings. Children with power within a family are not a threat to parental authority, but evidence that the parents have succeeded in teaching their children responsibility. The lives of children who act independently, with a loving family at their back, can be suspenseful, exciting, funny, and supportive of positive values.

Sandy Farley