I am from a problem area of society

Reading the course contents from my MA last week, I was rather shocked to discover that I come from a recognized problem area of society.

The focus for that week was on ‘socially committed writing’ and the materials introduced this topic by saying: ‘A feature of the later part of the twentieth-century was the increase in the number of children’s books which took a hard look at many of the problem areas of society, such as homelessness, single parent families, drug abuse and racial prejudice.’

I’ve never considered myself in this light before, though I remember very clearly growing up in the mid-80s through to the late nineties and people having very strong views about the evils of single-parent families. News stories would hint at the social disruption children like me were causing across the UK – as if we were a band of hard-hearted outlaws who left nothing but crime and unhappiness in our wake.

Still, it was rather shocking to read that single parent families can be classes as a problem area of society. I wanted more clarification on this assertion, but none was offered.

And, in fact, the only text we looked at that showed this particular family structure was Dear Nobody, by Berlie Doherty, which deals with the issues raised by another potential problem area of society – teenage pregnancy.

Image courtesy of www.berliedoherty.com

In this story, teenagers Chris and Helen think they are in love and their first physical encounter results in Helen falling pregnant. The book revolves around the way in which they and their families come to terms with this. Chris, the father, comes from a single-parent home and it is portrayed as a very warm, loving and stable environment. Thank you, Berlie, for showing that single parents and their offspring are not social pariahs.

So why has this type of family been singled out (pardon the pun) as a social problem? From what I remember in the 1980s (and my memory’s a little hazy in my fourth decade), we were viewed as rather a disturbed lot, prone to anger and antisocial behaviour, and were low achievers academically and vocationally, with an article in the Daily Telegraph, from relatively recently in 2008, stating: ‘Young people whose mother and father split up are also three times as likely to become aggressive or badly behaved, according to the comprehensive survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics.’ (You can read more about this here.)

The problem with statistics is that they are figures and not people. I won’t deny that they reflect elements of reality, of society, but they also risk turning people who might otherwise break the trend into discouraged accepters of an unhelpful stereotype. I was lucky – I was encouraged to be successful, to study hard, to never be a victim. I’m not blowing my own trumpet (well, I am not trying to at least) but even though my mother and I struggled to pay the bills (working two jobs each as well as studying and working), I got a place at Oxford, and neither of us has ever been unemployed and a burden to the taxpayer. Nowadays, I don’t think that single-parent families are considered as quite as dangerous to society as they used to be because the traditional family structure has changed so much in a relatively short space of time.

Turning to children’s literature, I wanted to see how it reflected what was happening in society. And not in the sort of books that (apologies for my frustration here), talk rather patronizingly to parents and children about ‘hey, it’s OK not to have your mummy/daddy living at home with you’. No, I wanted to look at books where single-parent families just were – with no excuses and no apologies.

It was quite hard to come up with loads of books where this was the case. Granted, plenty of books have orphans and half-orphans, but it seems as if a parent dying is acceptable and less likely to turn you into a social monster than divorce, for example. What I did find were the following:

  • Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech: I really loved reading this book, filled as it was with tenderness and respect for the central character, Salamanca Tree, who embarks on a journey to find her mother, who left her and her father. There is no indication here that Salamanca is nothing but an intelligent and well balanced child. Yes, she does yearn to find her mother and discover why she left, but she’s not filled with existential angst or boiling rage at life.
  • Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren: OK, this is a little farfetched, as Pippi doesn’t actually live with a parent (she sets up home on her own with her monkey and her horse after her father is presumed lost at sea, and her mother is dead). However, what Lindgren does so well is take a potshot at po-faced societal expectations that all happy children must live either with a family or in a children’s home in order to grow up into successful and obedient human beings. Pippi can defend herself, with hilarious humour, against attempts to force her into conformity. Sure, she’s a little wild but she’s also brave, generous and kind-hearted and the reader cannot stop rooting for her.
  • Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine: This story is tragicomic, really. It made uncomfortable reading for Holly and me but not because the children were maladapted – it was the dreadful behaviour of the adults that made us squirm. In fact, the children were much more well adjusted than the parents and our hearts broke for their pain at how the parents behaved. But at least this shows that children can remain true to themselves and brave even in the face of parental weakness.

I found other examples of children who were brave, likeable and successful but these tended to come from families where one parent had died rather than separation or divorce.

So I leave you with this question: Can you recommend good books about children from single-parent families? Is the death of a parent more acceptable than divorce or separation in children’s lit?   






  1. The picture books by Sarah Garland about Eddie (Eddie’s Kitchen, Eddie’s toolbox, Eddie’s Garden) show a single parent household which is wonderfully rich and stable (and also chaotic as ANY household with children can be). I love them.

    Looking fo JJ (Anny Cassidy) has a single parent family where the daughter in that family become a murderer and the implication is definitely that her personal circumstances played a large role in her behaviour. It’s a good read, but definitely doesn’t show single parent families in a good light. In fact, thinking about it, there’s another single parent family in the book which is also full of problems, and the family which is portrayed as relatively happy and stable is a family with both parents present.


  2. I wrote an essay on the changing representation of single-parent families in kids lit for my MA! Also being one of the 1980/90s ‘problem’ kids made it very dear to my heart. Jacqueline Wilson was a big part of the essay, though for her the singleness is still very much a plot point (Suitcase Kid and Illustrated Mum esp). I also wrote about Vivian French’s Sharp Sheep, which is excellent fun.
    It’s something I like to bear in mind when writing myself, and I have some by-the-by single families in my work as a matter of course. In fact, the only book I’ve written without a single parent family in it is about the parents getting divorced! (Operation Eiffel Tower).


    • Hi Elen
      I would love to read that MA essay! I will look out for the books you mentioned and am glad to hear you’re aware of single-parent families when writing your books. We need some nice examples out there! 🙂


  3. Thank you so much Zoe for responding to this. I will take a look at these books as this is such an interesting area. I think the problem for me with the course materials last week was that single parent families were quoted as a kind of societal problem in the same way that racism, drug taking, alcohol abuse, etc, were, implying that members of these families caused trouble. I am in no doubt that there are issues that can be linked to growing up in a single parent family but I think they are the result of something deeper than just having one parent rather than two. One stable and loving parent is better than living in a house full of hatred, rows, and bitterness, where parents stay together for the sake of the children but in the process create (even unwittingly) a hostile and tense environment.


  4. Very interesting post. I agree that the books I read as a child and teen (70s/80s) about single parent families felt a little threatening to my own safe, secure, suburban family. And, yes, I would say that stories involving the death of a parent seemed more acceptable (though tragic) in some way (e.g. the Box Car Kids). However, I never felt that the kids in these books were problematic–in fact, as with Pippi, they always seemed stronger and cooler than other kids. In some ways, I think we are meant to envy their freedom from parental control. (I am always looking for movies and books that celebrate a positive relationship between kids and parents…hard to find!). In terms of divorce, I think/hope that most books recognize that families come in all shapes and sizes, especially as divorce and single-parenting by choice is so common now.


    • Hi!
      I think you’re right – nowadays, books do reflect modern family structures in a more positive way than before. And the battles between parents and children are a good source of conflict in children’s books! So actually finding a totally ‘normal’ family is quite difficult. As Joan Aiken said about writing for children, the first things you’ve got to do is get rid of the parents so the story can start!


  5. I grew up with a widowed mum in the 1960s so I do relate to this. I find the whole concept of “single mums” as a problem area dated and offensive. It’s a throwback to the rather earnest “problem novels” of that period, I think.

    Yes, I do agree that there are far too many stories where one parent (usually Mum) is dead these days. Divorced parent stories tend to focus on the trauma of the divorce itself, thus pathologising it in a way. That has its place but I’d love to see more books where it’s taken as a given that some children are raised by single parents who have chosen that lifestyle and are positive about it, whether that includes regular contact with the other parent or not.

    Jacqueline Wilson is generally known as someone who writes social realism with the emphasis on “issues” and “problems”, but I do like her early title “The Mum Minder”. The little girl in that story has a single mum, apparently deserted by dad, who finds life pretty tough working as a childminder to make ends meet, but Wilson’s account of a chaotic week when Mum gets flu is in fact very positive and heartwarming. And, although they are known (some would say notorious) for other reasons, the adoptive relationship between Tracy and Cam in the Tracy Beaker books is very nicely done.

    But please, no more maudlin tales of Mum dying of cancer and leaving a diary for her traumatised offspring. Enough already, at least for a while.


    • Thanks so much for your comments on this. It’s funny that you should say that about the mum usually dying – my daughter asked why this is nearly always the case the other day. I wonder why… Is it the worst thing that can happen to a child?


      • I think anyone who’s been following the news recently would be able to think of worse things, though whether they could be dealt with in children’s books is debatable. I suppose the death of a parent is always the precipitator of change, and therefore drama. Also tragic untimely death is a bit “flavour of the month” at present. But why mum and not dad? Good question.


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