Fathers In Children’s Literature

THE FATHERLY IDEAL

Historian Bernard Wishy has noted that as paternal rule in the New England household faded in reality, it flourished a good while longer in story and myth. In popular advice books for parents of the 1830s written by Jacob Abbott, Samuel Goodrich, and others, “it was the mothers who were at the centre of home life, [but] in books for children written by the same authors, the father was clearly in control of the family. This difference,” according to Wishy, “is not surprising for it had not been decreed that the mother formally replace the father. She had, for the sake of practicality, stepped into roles in the nurture literature that the American father could not play well.” Under the new regime, not least of the mother’s primary duties was “to teach the child that he owed supreme respect, love and obedience to his father.”

Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard S. Marcus

The father who goes to work (during daylight), then comes home to protect his family overnight was the middle class ideal. The city in the background of the 1952 illustration below suggests the father commutes and earns a big wage, returning to the utopian suburb each evening.

“Daddy’s Home”, illustration by Jerome Rozen, 1952
N.C. Wyeth (American, 1882-1945), After The Day's Work, 1923
N.C. Wyeth (American, 1882-1945), After The Day’s Work, 1923

If anyone’s in any doubt about the image of father as protector, take the illustration below, which is selling insurance.

STAYING SAFE #1 NORMAN ROCKWELL (1894-1978) FATHER’S RETURN HOME 1973 American Mutual Insurance Company Christmas card

TERRIBLE FATHERS

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

‘I hate him,’ Eleanor would say.
‘I hate him so much I wish he was dead,’ Maisie would answer.
‘I hope he falls off a ladder at work.’
‘I hope he gets hit by a truck.’
‘A garbage truck.’
‘Yeah,’ Maisie would say, gritting her teeth, ‘and all the garbage will fall on his dead body.’

from Eleanor and Park

Fathers In Picturebooks

It’s common for a young boy in a picture book 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 picture books (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 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

Fathers and Disney Fairytale Adaptations

“My Heart Belongs To Daddy”: Fathers, Bad Boys, and Disney Princesses

Fatherhood is a powerful force in Disney Princess films. Fathers bequeath nobility and exert influence over their daughters, whose marriages often effect the reproduction of economic capital. Even when the fathers of Princesses are absent, as in Snow White, Cinderella, and The Princess and the Frog, they instigate storylines: Snow White’s and Cinderella’s fathers marry cruel stepmothers, setting in train narratives in which the monstrous feminine is central. Angela Carter describes this scheme in her story “Ashputtle or The Mother’s Ghost,” where she reflects that in “Aschenputtel,” the Grimms’ version of the Cinderella story, the father is “the unmoved mover, the unseen organising principle, like God.” In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s father has died by the time the story begins, but not before impressing upon Tiana the imperative of hard work, which, he promises, will enable her to “do anything you set your mind to.” Disney’s Sleeping Beauty features two fathers: Aurora’s father King Stegan and his friend King Hubert, who arrange the betrothal of Aurora to Prince Phillip, Hubert’s son. While the Sleeping Beauty scenario comprises the most explicit reference to practices of dynastic marriage in aristocratic families, all the Princess films strenuously advocate heterosexual romance and (with the exception of Pocahontas) marriage, so arguing for the maintenance of “traditional” social and economic orders.

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

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

Absent Fathers

Where the father is absent from a children’s story, no matter how terrible he was, the child character often longs for him. (The same is true of absent mothers.) Examples include:

  • Lenny’s Book Of Everything by Karen Foxlee
  • Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
  • Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen
  • Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
  • You May Already Be A Winner by Ann Dee Ellis
  • Dog-man: A tale of two kitties by Dav Pilkey
Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Widowed  and Fatherless
Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Widowed and Fatherless

In modern children’s stories the fathers are absent for a wide variety of reasons, sometimes those reasons are left unexplained. In 20th century children’s stories the fathers are often absent because they are at war.

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is a stand-out example of a picture book about a child’s emotional landscape as the father is away at war.

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, bringing him Chinese takeaway (but in a way that puts me right off Chinese takeaway, I must say).

Examples

  • King Arthur
  • Zeus
  • The Tempest
  • The Godfather
  • Rick in Casablanca
  • King Lear
  • Hamlet
  • Aragorn and Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
  • Agamemnon in the Iliad
  • Citizen Kane
  • Star Wars
  • Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire
  • American Beauty
  • Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman
  • Fort Apache
  • Meet Me In St. Louis
  • Mary Poppins
  • Tootsie
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Othello
  • Red River
  • Howards End
  • Chinatown

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

King Tropes

The Good King

The High King

Related Links

Header painting: Nils von Dardel (Swedish, 1888-1943), My daughter, 1923. Watercolor on paper, 45 x 28 cm. Private collection

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