A case could be made that there are already plenty of flawed parents in young adult literature. Richie, from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park immediately comes to mind. Is there a more despised character in YA? For me, no.

– Bryan Bliss

 Eleanor and Park cover

We hate richie

from Eleanor & Park

Fathers In Picturebooks

and_to_think_that_i_saw_it_on_mulberry_street

It’s common for a young boy in a picturebook to want to impress his father. This can even drive the plot, forming the ‘Desire’ part of the story structure (Desires to prove himself to his father).

Examples are the Spot books by Eric Hill and some of the Dr Seuss books — notably his first, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, in which a boy tries to impress his father by concocting an interesting story about what he saw on the way to school:

When I leave home to walk to school,

Dad always says to me,

“Marco, keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.”

This desire line feels to me like a specifically masculine one; I can’t easily think of picturebooks (or even stories for older children) in which a boy or a girl must prove themselves to their mother. In storybook world, a mother’s unconditional love is taken for granted whereas that of a father must be hard won.

Fathers and Disney Fairytale Adaptations

from The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past by Tison Pugh, Susan Aronstein

my heart belongs to daddy

Fathers And Domestic Work

There is much to be said about mothers in children’s literature. While authors try to get adult figures out of the way so children can solve their own problems, if there is a parent hanging around the house, it is usually the mother.

Although, arguably, social roles are changing and in more and more households domestic work, including food provisioning, is being shared, cultural change is slow. Vincent Duindam, citing the work of Dr. Morgan, confirms that most of the evidence shows that there are “very slow changes in the direction of men’s participation” in domestic duties and child care and this is supported by the lack of male figures performing these roles in children’s books. In the conservative world of children’s literature it is the female, rather than the male, in general, who is still linked to the domestic.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

 

Fathers Preparing and Serving Food

from David's Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts, 1977. The story looks progressive, until you realise the father may only be cooking because his wife is away giving birth.

from David’s Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts, 1977. The story looks progressive, until you realise the father may only be cooking because his wife is away giving birth.

Mr Gumpy's Outing table_700x380

Mr Gumpy seems to be a single father with two children and a farmyard full of slightly anthropomorphised animals. So I’m going to assume he made tea himself.

It is rare to find instances of males providing food in children’s literature. One such is Will in Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Will nurtures Lyra through food, cooking an omelet for her. He has knowledge of relevant food rules and domestic hygiene practices. It could be argued, however, that Will is feminized by the role he performs, especially given that he is also earlier seen to be caring for his sick mother. Pullman’s framing of the boy as having murdered a man may serve the purpose of counteracting the feminizing effect of his implicit domestication.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

As Daniel points out, when dads serve food in children’s fiction they are often less ‘fussy’ about its presentation than the mothers. They’ll provide a meal, and sometimes the meal ends up really delicious and fun, but he’ll slap the knives and forks onto the table rather than expecting them to be laid out, as a mother might. Instead of acting in loco parentis, the dad in a story is often ‘babysitting’. In real life, too, you often hear men talking about ‘babysitting’ their own children, but women will almost never use this term when describing their own mothering duties.

Daniel does offer one example of a nurturing male who provides food in children’s literature, and that’s Michael from David Almond’s Skellig. He looks after an old man presumed to be a tramp.

skellig-cover-image

Fathers = The Modern-day King Archetype

…and have all the strengths and weaknesses of the archetypal king of yesteryear and modern day fairytales/fantasy.

from John Truby's book The Anatomy of Story

from John Truby’s excellent book The Anatomy of Story

To this end, it’s useful to take a look at various ‘King tropes’ when understanding the roles — the strengths and weaknesses — typical of fathers in fiction.

King Tropes

The Good King

The High King

 

Fathers In Fairytales

There is hardly a tale in the Grimms’ collection‘ — argued the Grimm scholar and fairy0tale activist Jack Zipes, in 1995 — ‘that does not raise the issue of parental oppression.‘ And yet, ‘we rarely talk about how the miller’s daughter is forced by her father into a terrible situation of spinning straw into gold, or how Rapunzel is locked up by her foster mother and maltreated just as children are often locked up in closets and abused today.’

— Frances Spufford, The Child That Books Built

 

Related Links

Dads In Prison at Books For Keeps

The Tiny Key: Unlocking the father/child relationship in young adult literature by Zu Vincent

Fantastic Dads and Father Figures, a Goodreads List

Books for Teens with LGBT Parents, a Goodreads List

Picturebooks About Fathers, a Goodreads List, because publishers like to put these out into the world around fathers’ day.