What Did You Learn?

July 20, 2011

General Writing: Adults in Children’s Books

Filed under: General Writing, Genre — Tags: , , — ax20 @ 9:58 pm

Something became particularly clear to me while reading a recent manuscript: adults do not belong in children’s novels. I don’t mean there can’t be any adults around ever. What would Harry Potter have been like without the Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Sirius Black, and the Hogwarts faculty? What would The Hunger Games be like without Haymitch? What I am saying is that they cannot be completely involved in every aspect of the main characters’ adventures.

There is a simple reason for this. If an adult is always around, the children–in nearly every situation–must be passive. Think of it this way: Imagine the only way to save the world was to do dangerous thing X. What mother would allow their child to take that risk instead of taking it themselves?

Sure, there are exceptions. A mentor has to let their student take action or they can’t learn–Dumbledore did eventually bring Harry with him to the cave while searching for the Horcrux and even helped him pull off some of his various adventures. But throughout much of the series, Dumbledore kept things from Harry to “protect” him. In Book Five, Dumbledore came to the Ministry of Magic and jumped in to stop Voldemort from killing Harry. This is also the reason Dumbledore had to eventually die. So long as he was alive, Dumbledore would never allow Harry to face Voldemort on his own.

Another exception is when the adult is so cowardly that the child has to take care of them. This happens at times. One example would be a child who has had to grow up because their parent has fallen apart for some reason and the child has taken care of them (In The Hunger Games, Katniss has been taking care of the family by hunting and providing an extra income.) Another is the abusive/evil adult who does not care for the world or their child, forcing the kid to take action. Or, as in the Alex Rider and Maximum Ride books, the kids are fighting/spying on adults who are “the enemy.” All of these cases inherently create tension, making them acceptable. Otherwise, the adults should come in and out of the story.

The author’s job is to to create an excuse for the parents’ absence. In Narnia, the kids are sent away for their protection because the country is at war. Harry is an orphan and, for the most part, in school. In Gregor the Overlander, Gregor’s mom is at work and his father has disappeared. Whatever the excuse, the parents should not be around for the key moments when the children have to take action. They need to use their own cleverness, strengths, and intelligence to succeed on their own so they can learn about themselves.

So, I will say it again: Adults do not belong in children’s books!

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