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?