The Unconventional Family in Children's Literature
The Unconventional Family in Children's LiteratureINTRODUCTION
OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
ANALYTICAL AND BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REVIEWS
TYPES OF UNCONVENTIONAL FAMILIES: FOSTER, ADOPTED, HOMOSEXUAL
Representations of nontraditional, extended, and often unusual family units in the literature for juveniles and young adults.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the representation of the family in American children's literature was widely derived from the model of the "nuclear family"—a father working outside the house while serving as the primary breadwinner, a mother working at home, attending to the meals, housework, and the immediate cares of her family, and children who exist blithely and safely in the world created for them by their parents. This idealized depiction of familial life was not intended to serve as an objective reflection of the majority of American families nor as a barometer of the potential dangers that awaited children in the real world. Instead, children's literature of the era—picture books, easy readers, chapter books, novels—was solely intended as escapist entertainment that occasionally reinforced simple moral lessons. At the height of this trend in the 1950s, the problems faced by the protagonist of a children's book were often no more intense than the threat posed by a bully, the sadness of a friend moving away, or at its worst, the death of a pet, all of which could be fixed by the calming presence of one's parents. Realistic social difficulties such as abandonment, divorce, separation, or the death of a parent were deemed inappropriate for children and reserved exclusively for the sphere of adults.
Although the children's literature of mid-twentieth century America was largely characterized by these well-intentioned whitewashings of the family ideal, on the converse, the popular children's literature of the late-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century featured numerous examples of unconventional families, particularly in regards to orphaned or near-orphaned children. The most notable of these works include Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L. M. Montgomery, Little Orphan Annie, a comic serial begun in 1924 by Harold Gray based on James Whitcomb Riley's poem, Heidi (1880) by Joanna Spyri, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) by Kate Douglas Wiggin, and Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H. Porter. The popularity of these stories have endured into the modern era, in part due to their elaborately positive depictions of children overcoming devastating loss in order to create new families from the mixed assortment of individuals now forced to care for them. The protagonists of these narratives rarely address the typical emotions of grief and loss experienced by real-life orphaned children and instead immediately begin working on happily and willfully breaking down their distant and aloof new guardians, helping them evolve into wise and nurturing parental figures. While the children's literature of the 1950s promoted nuclear families to an idealized extreme, such children's works as Heidi and Pollyana portrayed orphans and the death of a parent in a similarly exaggerated fashion.
However, sparked by the social revolution of the 1960s, demand began to arise for new depictions of realistic family situations in juvenile and young adult literature. During this period, authors, many from nontraditional backgrounds themselves, realized that children were being underestimated in their capacity to grasp difficult concepts and unpleasant situations. But more importantly, writers of the era recognized that books could be used to help children understand that different, unconventional, or unusual family situations were often positive and more common than previously expected. There was a growing recognition that wholesale presentations of stereotypically nuclear families held the potential to inflict damage on the self-esteem of children raised by alternative families by reinforcing the belief that they were somehow different. To counter this sentiment and as a result of the burgeoning societal shift, a diversifying body of nontraditional children's works began to appear on the market. For example, in Lucille Clifton's picture book Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970), the title character has a happy, normal daily existence with one caveat—his father has passed away. Clifton does not draw negative attention to Everett's single-parent family, instead presenting his situation as completely normal. In picture books from this era aimed at pre-school and early-elementary audiences, there is a definite emphasis on showing that different and unconventional families can be just as good as any two-parent household. However, nontraditional families do have certain distinct family events that are unique to their situations, and many young adult novels of this period attempt to deal with these issues in an empathetic manner. Norma Klein's Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me (1972) relates the story of a single mother and her daughter, Scratcher, and their uncertainty over whether to allow the mom's new suitor—the Wolf Man, as Scratcher christens him—into their lives. Similarly, books attempting to cover the broad spectrum of family arrangements began to arise after the 1960s, from children living with their grandparents to stories of adoption and stepfamilies.
As they increased in availability and popularity, parents, even those in traditional two-parent homes, began to recognize the value of such books, realizing that these texts could be used to prepare children, particularly those reaching their teen years, for the difficult situations that may arise as they grow older. Mary Stoltz's The Edge of Next Year (1974), for instance, chronicles a family's grieving as they struggle with the sudden, unexpected death of their mother, leaving them functioning in a new environment as a single-parent household. Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983) by Beverly Cleary, a Newbery award-winning novel, relates Leigh Bott's eventual acceptance of his parent's divorce and the effects resulting from such a major adjustment. For the title character of The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978), Katherine Paterson's impassioned examination of a foster child, life has been terribly unfair. Abandoned by her flower-child mother, shuttled between three foster homes, and now moving against her wishes to live with her grandmother whom she does not know, Gilly has become an embittered and tough child. But in the spirit of the new realism, this near-orphan finds that life has no easy answers, and she resists anyone's attempts to truly love her—even rejecting Trotter, a rough-hewed foster mother who reaches out to her. Over the course of this sensitive treatment, Gilly meets her real mother—now herself beaten down by life—and eventually makes the first tentative steps towards accepting Trotter's affection, ultimately choosing to live with Trotter over her own grandmother.
The late seventies and early eighties saw a wave of new children's fiction where the teen protagonists are subjected to misunderstanding parents who themselves are capable of greatly disappointing their children. Paul Zindel's canon, particularly Confessions of a Teenage Baboon (1977) where a father suddenly deserts his family, is particularly evocative of this sense of adult failure, though Zindel is by no means alone in writing in this paradigmatic model. Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat (1989) features a set of separated parents unable to look past their own interests for the sake of their child or themselves, leading to an eventual drug overdose by the depressed father. Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming (1981) describes the travails of the four Tillerman children who find themselves homeless and living under a bridge when their mother abandons them. Almost single-handedly, the oldest—thirteen-year-old Dicey—leads her siblings to a happy ending, despite the attempted interference of adults whose threats to separate the children into different foster homes is one of the primary dangers of the narrative. Though some critics have decried the presumed devaluation of the adult presence in this variety of juvenile novel, others point to the fact that the books encourage and illustrate the personal strength apparent in the protagonists, as well as their ability to allow teenagers the necessary push to form identities separate from that of their parents. And ultimately, as undependable as most of the adults appear, the children do discover that role models and strong parental figures are still available and needed to navigate the real world.
In the 1990s and beyond, as family units have become even more diverse, children's novels have begun to reflect these new realities. Books featuring the extended family, the multi-racial family, the blended family, and families with a non-parent as the head of the household have appeared, depicting such lives as normal and happy, resembling the children's novels of the 1960s, but now suited to show the incredible diversity of modern society. Children's books representing gay and lesbian families, such as the seemingly ubiquitous and controversial Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) by Lesléa Newman, have become more prevalent as the issue has come to the forefront. While not generally regarded as a strong work of literature, Heather Has Two Mommies represents a new field in children's literature, and though the debate over gay families remains a point of contention, newer age-appropriate books where the idea is presented as a fundamental matter-of-fact, like Michael Wilhoit's Daddy's Roommate (1990) and Daddy's Wedding (1996), are becoming more and more commonplace in libraries and children's bookshelves.
Starting School [illustrations by Allan Ahlberg] (picture book) 1988
Francesca Lia Block
Weetzie Bat (young adult novel) 1989
It's Not the End of the World (young adult novel) 1972
Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (easy reader) 1983
When Grandpa Came to Stay (picture book) 1986
Dear Mr. Henshaw [illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky] (young adult novel) 1983
Some of the Days of Everett Anderson [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (picture book) 1970
Everett Anderson's Year [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (picture book) 1974
Amifika [illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia] (picture book) 1977
Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (picture book) 1978
Everett Anderson's Goodbye [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (picture book) 1983
My Mother Lost Her Job Today [illustrations by Irene Trivas] (picture book) 1980
Thimble Summer (young adult novel) 1938
Linda Walvoord Girard
Adoption Is for Always [illustrations by Judith Freeman] (picture book) 1986
Where Is Daddy? The Story of a Divorce [illustrations by Susan Perl] (picture book) 1969
Amazing Grace [illustrations by Caroline Binch] (picture book) 1991
Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me (young adult novel) 1972
The Boy in the Moon (young adult novel) 1990
Me Day [illustrations by Robert Weaver] (picture book) 1971
Emily and the Klunky Baby and the Next-Door Dog [illustrations by Martha Alexander] (picture book) 1972
Mama One, Mama Two [illustrations by Ruth Lercher Bornstein] (picture book) 1982
My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel (young adult novel) 1973
L. M. Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables (young adult novel) 1908
Heather Has Two Mommies [illustrations by Diana Souza] (picture book) 1989
The Great Gilly Hopkins (young adult novel) 1978
Eleanor H. Porter
Pollyanna (young adult novel) 1913
Lots of Mommies [illustrations by Jan Jones] (picture book) 1983
Heidi (young adult novel) 1880
Leap before You Look (young adult novel) 1972
The Edge of Next Year (young adult novel) 1974
Homecoming (young adult novel) 1981
Kate Douglas Wiggin
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (young adult novel) 1903
Daddy's Roommate (picture book) 1990
Daddy's Wedding (picture book) 1996
I Love My Mother (children's book) 1975
Confessions of a Teenage Baboon (young adult novel) 1977
A Father Like That [illustrations by Ben Shecter] (picture book) 1971
OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
Anne Scott MacLeod (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: MacLeod, Anne Scott. "An End to Innocence: The Transformation of Childhood in Twentieth-Century Children's Literature." In Opening Texts: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of the Child, edited by Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan, pp. 100-17. Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, MacLeod compares how the portrayals of parents and families—specifically in regards to the fallibility of traditional familial structures—have evolved in children's literature from the early to late twentieth century.]
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Donna E. Norton (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Norton, Donna E. "Family Life." In Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children's Literature, pp. 391-95. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Publishing Company, 1987.
[In the following excerpt, Norton compares and contrasts how writers have portrayed traditional, divorced, and single-parent families in children's literature.]
The family stories of the late 1930s through the early 1960s depict some of the strongest, warmest family relationships in contemporary realistic fiction for children. Today's children still enjoy the warmth and humor represented by the families in Elizabeth Enright's Thimble Summer, Eleanor Estes's The Moffats, Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family, and Madeleine L'Engle's Meet the Austins. The characters' actions suggest that security is gained by family members working together, that each member has responsibility to other members, that consideration for others is desirable, and that family unity and loyalty can overcome hard times and peer conflicts.
Since the early 1960s, many changes have taken place in realistic fiction's characterization of the American family. Authors writing in the 1970s and 1980s have often focused on the need to overcome family disturbances, as children and adults adjust to new social realities. Death of one or both parents, foster families, single-parent families, children of unmarried females, the disruptions caused by divorce and remarriage, and child abuse are some of the issues related to children and their families that now appear in contemporary realistic fiction for children.
This literature may help children realize that many types of family units other than the traditional one are common and legitimate in our society today. Children may also see that problems often can be solved if family members work together. Even when depicting the most disturbing of relationships, authors of realistic fiction may show a family's strong need for unity and desire to keep at least some of its members together.
Authors of realistic stories about family disturbances use several literary techniques to create credible plots and characters. Often they focus on painful and potentially destructive situations and feelings that are common in society today. These situations are usually familiar to readers who may have experienced similar situations, who may have known someone who had such experiences, or who may fear that they will have similar experiences. Authors often tell these stories from the perspective of the child or children involved. First-person or limited omniscient point of view from a child's perspective can be very successful in depicting child characters' emotional and behavioral reactions as they first discover a problem, experience a wide range of personal difficulties and emotions as they try to change or understand the situation, and finally arrive at an acceptance of the situation. Characterization may portray the vulnerability of the characters, create sympathy for them, and describe how they handle the jolting disruptions and personal discoveries that affect their lives. Symbolism and allusion may emphasize a conflict and characterization. Authors often use characters' reactions to change, trouble, and new discoveries to trace the characters' development of better relationships with others or positive personal growth. Some authors, however—such as those trying to make a point about child abuse—use specific situations or discoveries to allow children to escape from all reality. A family member may be the antagonist in these realistic stories about family life, or the antagonist may be an outside force, such as death of a parent, divorce, or moving to a new location. To relieve the impact of painful situations, authors may add humor to characterization or plot development. Humor can make a situation bearable, create sympathy for a character, or clarify the nature of a confrontation.
Divorce and Remarriage
In Peggy Mann's My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel, Joey experiences a series of strong emotional reactions to his parents' divorce. First he believes the separation is his fault. Mann develops the strength of these feelings through Joey's actions: he makes out a list of promises he will keep if his father returns and delivers them to his father. When his promises have no effect on the situation, Joey's emotional reactions change; he goes through a period of hating his father and feeling very confused. Mann suggests that Joey accepts the change in his family life when he can enjoy being with his father during their Sunday visits.
In Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary effectively uses letters and diary entries written by her sixth-grade hero, Leigh Botts, to develop believable characterization and plot and to show changes in Leigh as he begins to accept the actuality of his parent's divorce. As a classroom assignment, Leigh sends his favorite author a list of ten questions. Mr. Henshaw answers Leigh's questions, but also sends Leigh a list of ten questions that he wants Leigh to answer about himself. At first Leigh refuses to answer the questions. Then his mother insists that because Mr. Henshaw answered Leigh's questions Leigh must answer Mr. Henshaw's questions. The answers to the questions allow Cleary an opportunity to provide important background information and to reveal Leigh's personal feelings about himself, his family, and his parents' divorce. Eventually Leigh begins to write a diary—both because Mr. Henshaw suggests it and because Leigh's mother refuses to fix the television. By midpoint in the book, the diary entries begin to change and Leigh realizes changes in his own character:
I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper. And I don't hate my father either. I can't hate him. Maybe things would be easier if I could.
The entries seem believable because Cleary includes both humorous and painful experiences that are important in Leigh's life.
In The Animal, the Vegetable, and John D. Jones, author Betsy Byars focuses on three children's reactions to painful changes in the family. Clara and Deanie's father asks the widow he loves and her son to share a summer vacation with him and his daughters. The two sisters, who had been experiencing sibling rivalry, now confront an outside antagonist in the person of a boy named John D. Byars describes him as a worthy opponent: he is bright, sophisticated, conceited, and writing a book of advice for his inferiors, who, incidentally, are all other children. John D. is also vulnerable, however, and perhaps sensitive; his book is about functioning in a hostile world. Byars describes a series of incidents that emphasize the parents' dilemma, imply their inability to handle the situation, and create sympathy for the characters. Whenever the adults plan a happy excursion something goes wrong: at a cookout the only edible hamburger falls in the sand; during a visit to an amusement park Clara escapes her family only to become sick after riding the Space Cyclone and then seeing John D. with a huge sundae. Although Byars's descriptions of these situations are humorous, the story contains some hostile undercurrents. Byars uses a near tragedy to focus the attention of all the characters on the importance of others. Their reactions indicate that they have learned a great deal about interpersonal relationships.
In Carol Lea Benjamin's The Wicked Stepdog, twelve-year-old Lou is afraid of losing her father's love when he presents her with a new stepmother and a new "stepdog." Benjamin's first-person narrative from Lou's viewpoint emphasizes Lou's sometimes painful and sometimes humorous reactions to her changed family. Lou's changing responses to her stepmother's golden retriever symbolize her gradual acceptance of new circumstances. At first she hates to walk the dog, but by the end of the story, when she meets a boy who also walks a dog, stepdog-walking has become one of Lou's favorite pasttimes.
Single-parent families have always existed, but recent realistic fiction for children portrays such families more often, and sometimes more candidly, than did most realistic fiction in the past. In contemporary novels for children, some of these families are doing quite well, while others face serious problems due to the lack of a mother's or a father's emotional and economic support.
A family's struggle to survive without one parent is a popular plot in contemporary realistic fiction. Authors may suggest that the experience strengthens the children in the family or that the experience causes so many difficulties that the children find coping impossible. In Vera and Bill Cleaver's Where the Lilies Bloom, a fourteen-year-old girl experiences conflict between her desire to keep a promise she made her dying father and her developing realization that she must break that promise in order to ensure her family's survival. Although Mary Call's father dies quite early in the plot, the Cleavers characterize him plausibly as a person who lives by a strong moral and family code. He demands that his daughter take pride in the family name, instill that pride in her brothers and sisters, and hold the family together without accepting charity. Later, this promise becomes a crucial element of the plot and in Mary Call's character development. The authors develop a believable and interesting conflict as Mary Call tries to do as her father demanded, but gradually realizes that she must accept help if she is to gain the knowledge she needs and improve her family's welfare. This story lacks sentimentality; Mary Call recognizes her father's weaknesses and eventually realizes that his judgment about his oldest daughter and the despised neighbor, Kaiser Pease, was in error. The authors lighten the almost insurmountable odds against survival by adding touches of humor. This is especially true in the sequel, Trial Valley, as a more mature Mary Call copes with both family problems and expectant suitors. (Students of children's literature may find it interesting to compare the characteristics of this contemporary female protagonist with the Victorian female protagonist in Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain.)
In Marilyn Sachs's The Bears' House, detailed portrayal of a harsh reality is crucial to give the plot and the protagonist's responses full credibility. Five children live a crowded apartment; their mother is emotionally disturbed, and their father deserts the family. The children's distrust of the adult world is expressed through their fear of being placed in foster homes and their need to lie to their social worker. Sachs contrasts the harsh reality of nine-year-old Fran Ellen's life with the beautiful make-believe place of her fantasies. When she sits in front of the dollhouse in her fourth-grade classroom, she can visit the Bear family and sit on Pappa Bear's lap when she feels unhappy. The conclusion of the story illustrates that contemporary realistic fiction may not have a "happy ever after" ending: Fran Ellen withdraws into her make-believe world, where she has found her own way to survive in frightening and bewildering circumstances.
In The Night Swimmers, Betsy Byars uses a painful and possibly destructive situation to highlight a young girl's personal and social development and her acceptance of difficult discoveries. Retta's mother has died. She and her younger brothers are being reared by their father, who works nights and is more concerned about developing his career as a singer/composer than about attending to his children. Byars chronicles Retta's personal growth by describing her feelings after her mother's death, the moment when she understands her father's career goals (in reaction to her mother's death he composed a hit song, but did not pay attention to the children), her changing feelings as she tries to be a mother to her two younger brothers, and her final realization that she must accept her father as he is, not as she would like him to be. Byars uses humor to highlight some of these situations and to focus on the painful moments: Retta discovers how a mother should act by observing mothers in the supermarket; she gains cooking skills by watching television commercials. Retta's and her younger brother Roy's reactions to their own final discoveries may be the most poignant moments in the book. Roy discovers that the Bowlwater Plant is not the enormous and wondrous vegetation of his imagination, but is a smelly and ugly chemical factory. Retta realizes that their father is so obsessed with stardom that he cannot relate to his children in the way Retta would like. Roy expresses their discoveries effectively when he compares swallowing a hard truth about life with Popeye swallowing his spinach: both experiences make you stronger.
In Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me, Norma Klein creates a close and somewhat offbeat relationship between a girl and her mother, a professional photographer. Eleven-year-old Brett accepts the fact that her mother and father never married, enjoys her unconventional life, accompanies her mother on peace marches, and has frank discussions with her. (Some parents react negatively to the frank discussions about premarital sex in this book.) Only when her mother meets the Wolf Man and considers marriage does Brett experience fear and confusion. She is afraid her happy life will change and unsuccessfully tries to convince her mother and the Wolf Man that they should not marry. Hila Colman creates a different mother-daughter relationship in Tell Me No Lies. When twelve-year-old Angela learns that her mother was unmarried when Angela was born, Angela hates her mother for lying and runs away to find her father. Colman uses this experience to create an atmosphere in which the girl can understand and forgive her mother. When she finds her father, she discovers he is not like her dreams; in fact, he cannot accept her as his daughter. This turning point in the novel allows Angela to return home with new understanding. Both of these stories depict changes from the realistic fiction of the 1950s. The family structures, life-styles, expressed values, and types of problems reflect contemporary concerns and issues.
Suzanne Bunkers (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Bunkers, Suzanne. "'We are Not the Cleavers': Images of Nontraditional Families in Children's Literature." Lion and the Unicorn 16, no. 1 (1992): 115-33.
[In the following essay, Bunkers presents a critical appraisal of examples of unconventional families in children's literature, providing a bibliographical introduction to current fiction emphasizing nontraditional family structures.]
I grew up in what many would call a traditional family; that is, one composed of two married, heterosexual parents and biological children.1 My mother did virtually all the housework and cared for the five children in our three-bedroom rambler, while my father worked as a rural mail carrier. In our town of 400 in rural Iowa, divorce was nonexistent, single parenthood occurred only through the death of one's spouse, "illegitimacy" was extremely shameful, and adoption took place as a last resort for those married couples whom God had not blessed with "natural" children.
Today I live in a nontraditional family. I am the single parent of a six-year-old daughter, Rachel. Along with our three cats, we live in an older two-story house in a working-class neighborhood of Mankato, a town of about 45,000 in south-central Minnesota. Rachel's father and I never married; her primary home is with me, and she spends occasional weekends with her father in a nearby town.
Like many of you, I grew up steeped in the adventures of Dick, Jane, Sally, Mother, Father, Spot, Puff, and Tim. Typical stories in readers like Helen Robinson et al.'s Fun Wherever We Are (1962), had titles like "Come and Ride," "Look in Here," "Will Spot Run Away?", and "Do Something Funny."2 As a child, I quickly learned that a proper family had two married, heterosexual parents with clearly defined gender roles; children of both sexes; clean and docile pets; and money enough for a house in the suburbs, a late-model automobile, and family vacations. It never occurred to me to question this model until much later, when I discovered that not every family had two parents, that not all parents were heterosexual and/or married, that not all families were biologically constituted, and that not all children and pets were polite and obedient.
This discovery led to my search for children's books that depicted the wide variety of families that I knew existed.3 I will note at the outset that I have not undertaken a scientific search. Rather, I have sampled the children's books available in my community and university libraries as well as those carried by local and regional bookstores. In addition, I have sampled the children's books in our family library, with an awareness that those books reflect an interest in many kinds of family structures. My hypothesis is that images of nontraditional families in children's books have increased greatly in recent years, mirroring the greater visibility of nontraditional families in our culture, and that this development is a healthy one.
Based on my analysis of approximately one hundred children's books, what observations can I make about images of nontraditional families in popular literature for children?4 First and most importantly, the families depicted in these books are decidedly not like that of June and Ward Cleaver. Many are single-parent families; some are stepfamilies; others are extended families including several generations; some are adoptive and foster families. Some recent stories portray a grandparent, aunt, or uncle who has sole responsibility for his or her grandchild, niece, or nephew. Children's books are beginning to acknowledge the fact that not all families are constituted heterosexually; lesbian and gay families figure in several of the books I've sampled. More books are being written about families in which physical, mental, and emotional challenges play a central role. Unemployment, poverty, sexual abuse, and the deaths of family members are all subjects dealt with in children's books published during the past ten to twenty years. In some families, individuals of all ages live together, unrelated biologically or adoptively. In other cases, older persons lovingly care for children who visit rather than live with them.
In contemporary children's books, parent figures are not always protective; children are not always nice; life is not always easy; difficulties are not always overcome. In short, children's books are breaking silences about subjects that were rarely, if ever, explored in depth in the popular literature of earlier days. Nineteenth-century favorites such as Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (all of which addressed family problems) were predicated on the model of the heterosexual, marital, nuclear family. Their structures followed the classic pattern: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Story lines hinged on the problems resulting in adults' and childrens' lives when the "model family" broke down, and the resolutions of such stories depended on the restoration of that model. A "happy ending" necessarily meant that the reconstituted heterosexual, marital, nuclear family prevailed. Not so today.
One significant kind of children's book published during the past fifteen to twenty years deals with children's responses to divorce. Beth Goff's Where Is Daddy? The Story of a Divorce (1969) describes the reactions of a preschool girl, Janeydear, to her parents' divorce. Fears of abandonment, hostile outbursts, sorrow and grief—all are experienced by Janeydear, whose mother and father try, despite their own distress, to ease those feelings. Although the final line of the story is, "Janeydear felt much better," readers young and old know how deeply her parents' divorce has shaken the little girl.
My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel (1973), by Peggy Mann, How Does It Feel When Your Parents Get Divorced? (1977), by Terry Berger, and Mommy and Daddy Are Divorced (1978), by Patricia Perry all try to show, through children's eyes, the adjustments that family members must make when a divorce occurs. In all three stories, the father moves out of the family home, and the children are at first afraid and then angry. Photographs and illustrations are essential to each story; readers view the parents arguing, the children looking forlorn, and finally the family members regaining their ability to feel happy again. Statements like "It didn't feel good to see Daddy go, but we knew that we would see him again soon" (from Mommy and Daddy) and "Although my parents no longer live together, their feelings for me are the same" (from How Does It Feel) reinforce the primary message in each book: divorce does occur; shock, sadness, anger, and acceptance are normal; life goes on.
Two more recent books deal with additional complexities found in the divorced family. In Kathy Stinson's Mom and Dad Don't Live Together Any More (1984), the little girl who tells the story moves with her mother and brother to an apartment in the city and visits her father at the family's house in the country on weekends. During the course of the story, she learns that she cannot make her parents happy, despite her desire to, and that her parents both love her, but "just not together." Michael Prokop's Divorce Happens to the Nicest Kids (1986), is a self-help book for children and adults. It attempts to dispel such myths as "kids are the cause of the divorce," "kids cannot be happy living with one parent," and "kids can solve their parents' problems and save their parents' marriage." Along with illustrations, it provides a useful glossary of terms related to divorce (e.g., confusion, counselor, guilt, shame, tension). The increasing number of children's books that deal with the subject of divorce reflect our culture's need to provide guidance for children who must come to terms with families that split apart.
Books about stepfamilies, increasingly visible in American culture, raise intriguing questions about the roles of adults and children in what have been euphemistically called "blended" families. Several of these stories also incorporate variations on the stereo-types of the wicked stepmother and the tyrannical stepfather. Betty Ren Wright's My New Mom and Me (1981) traces the stages in a young Hispanic girl's adjustment to her mother's death and her father's remarriage. Of her new stepmother, the narrator says: "The first day that Elena came to our apartment to live, she tried to hug me. I wouldn't let her." The family cat's disappearance and subsequent rescue by Elena convinces the girl that it's all right to love her stepmother: "Then [Elena] put her arm around me, and I leaned against her. It felt good—better than I had expected." Significantly, the girl's mother has died, not divorced her father, and the implication is that Elena will now mother the girl rather than have to compete with the "real" mother for the daughter's love and attention. Nonetheless, My New Mom and Me attempts to deal candidly with the conflicting emotions a child feels when asked to accept a new parental figure.
Quite a different scenario emerges in Happily Ever After … Almost (1982), by Judie Wolkoff. This adolescent novel is narrated by Kitty; her parents have divorced, and each has married someone else. The story centers on a Caucasian family in which sisters, half-sisters, half-brothers, and stepbrothers figure prominently. The novel chronicles the first year of Kitty's mother and stepfather's marriage. The opening lines of the story set its tone: "Well, we made it! We survived our first year. We're alive and well—at least nobody's hospitalized at the moment." Central to the novel is Kitty and her sister Sarah's growing acceptance of R. J., their new stepbrother. While the story is basically upbeat, it does contain one unpleasant character: R. J.'s mother Kay, the wicked ex-wife (a variation on the wicked stepmother) who eventually relinquishes custody of her son to her ex-husband and moves to London. This is one of only a few stories depicting a custodial father; unfortunately, it reinforces the stereotype that a mother who relinquishes custody of her child must be a nasty person.
Norma Klein's adolescent novel, Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me (1972), incorporates both the stepfamily and the single-parent motifs. Eleven-year-old Brett knows that her mother has never been married and states: "The only part that I really mind about Mom not being married is when people ask questions. Otherwise we have a good time, better in some ways than lots of my friends who have mothers and fathers" (16). Brett's first reaction to her mother's news that she will marry Theo (the Wolf Man) is "I really felt horribly sick. I can't even describe it" (149). Overwhelmed by all the changes that she knows will take place, Brett wonders at the end of the story what her "new life" will be like.
Brett's perspective is far more somber and less optimistic than Kitty's; the two novels balance one another in their portrayals of adolescent girls' adjustments to becoming members of stepfamilies. Both novels, however, verify that stepfamily relationships are fragile and complex, and that no hard and fast rules exist for the way a stepfamily ought to function.5
This same theme runs throughout Barbara Seuling's What Kind of Family Is This? A Book about Stepfamilies (1985).6 The opening sentence of the story asks the reader to imagine what it might be like to become part of a stepfamily. The story follows the experiences of Jeff, whose mother has remarried and whose stepfather, Henry, brings two children, Samantha and Scott, to the newly "blended" family. Jeff is angry that he has to wait to use the bathroom. He and Scott argue over having to share a bedroom. Finally, Jeff screams at his mother: "What kind of family is this? I don't have any privacy. I don't want to be here! Why do we have to live here anyway?" His mother's reply, "It takes time, but you'll get used to it," does little to satisfy Jeff. The rest of the story follows all five members of the stepfamily as they slowly learn how to live together.
Stories dealing with gay and lesbian families are not often found in bookstores or libraries. Apparently, few major publishing houses are willing to take the risk of publishing overtly gay and lesbian stories for children. Similarly, many bookstores and libraries are reluctant to stock such stories, fearing negative response from homophobic customers. Nonetheless, such stories provide a valuable perspective on nontraditional families in children's popular literature. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (1983), by Susan Bosche, involves a young girl growing up in her father and his lover's home. Jenny's mother lives nearby, and Jenny spends many days with her. This story centers on the surprise birthday party that Jenny, her mother, and her father plan for Eric. The book highlights the caring environment in which Jenny lives, and it subtly reminds readers that a gay home can be a happy home.
Jane Severance's Lots of Mommies (1983) tells the story of Emily, a little girl growing up in a home where she receives love and encouragement from several female caregivers. The women live cooperatively: Emily's mother, Jill, is her primary parent; Annie Jo helps Emily cook; Vickie takes her to the library; and Shadowoman teaches her sewing and gardening. Once again, a nontraditional family is shown to be a happy family, and readers are challenged to expand their perspective on what a healthy family is.
Extended families are common in contemporary children's books, particularly families in which grandparent-grandchild relationships figure. Death and dying are central to many of these books. When Grandpa Came to Stay (1986), by Judith Caseley, focuses on a grandfather and grandson in a Jewish family. Grandfather Jacob Levy has come to live with the Golds (Benny, his mother, and his father) after the death of his wife, Sarah Levy. Young Benny is initially frightened by his grandfather's tears and sadness, but a special kinship develops between the two after they visit the cemetery to lay flowers on Sarah's grave.
Similarly, in Trudy Madler's Why Did Gramdma Die? (1980), a young Caucasian girl, Heidi, must come to terms with her beloved grandmother's death. Heidi wonders why she and her parents couldn't keep Grandma alive. Only after viewing her grandmother's body at her funeral and telling her goodbye is Heidi able to accept death as a part of life.
Grandmama's Joy (1980), by Eloise Greenfield, deals with the reactions of a little African-American girl, Rhondy, as she comes to accept the deaths of her parents. Because they died when Rhondy was a baby, she has no memory of them, and she is puzzled by her grandmother's sadness. Rhondy, who has heard the story of her parents' deaths before, listens intently as her grandmother retells the story. Rhondy especially looks forward to the way her grandmother ends the story:
"You'll always be my joy," [Grandmama] said. Rhondy didn't have to lift her head to look at Grandmama's face to know that she was smiling a real smile and that the lines between her eyebrows had gone away…. She felt so happy inher grandmama's arms because as much as she was Grandmama's joy, Grandmama was her joy, too.
The impact of AIDS on family relationships is explored in MaryKaye Jordan's Losing Uncle Tim (1989). The story is told from the perspective of young Daniel, whose favorite uncle slowly wastes away and eventually dies. The story deals honestly with Daniel's growing understanding that he can't "catch" AIDS from Uncle Tim; in so doing, the book attempts to educate readers about the realities of HIV infection. In portraying Tim's death and Daniel's grief, the book does not gloss over the harsh realities of a beloved uncle's death from AIDS and its impact on those who survive.
In addition to these stories, several others highlight affectionate grandparent-grandchild relationships. In Matt's Grandfather (1970), by Max Lundgren, young Matt goes with his parents to the "old people's home" to help his grandfather, who is growing senile, celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday. The story gives children a realistic glimpse into what old age can be like. In so doing, it parallels other recent children's books such as Freddy My Grandfather (1979), by Nola Langner, and Jesse and Abe (1981), by Rachel Isadora.
Norma Farber's How Does It Feel to Be Old? (1979) is one of our family's favorites. Told in the form of a poem, this story depicts the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter. Trina Schart Hyman's sepia-tone line drawings are effective in super-imposing images from the grandmother's past on her present, creating a visual memory collage. The book portrays the difficulties inherent in growing old as well as the joys of passing on one's stories and memories to a beloved granddaughter. The story concludes with the grandmother's prophecy: "Soon you'll be knowing / that Grandma has died / while you are still growing / in inches and pride."
Annie and the Old One (1971), by Miska Miles, centers on the Navajo world of young Annie and her aging grandmother, who shows Annie how to light a fire in the hogan, make fry bread, and weave traditional Navajo rugs. Weaving becomes Annie's means of preserving her matrilinear heritage and of facing her grandmother's approaching death. Annie and the Old One is poignant, yet it is also vibrantly alive with Annie's knowledge of belonging to her culture—a knowledge passed on to her by her grandmother.
Two novels by Hadley Irwin, What about Grandma? (1982) and The Lilith Summer (1979), present positive images of grandmother-granddaughter relationships for adolescent readers. In the first novel, sixteen-year-old Rhys, whose parents had divorced when she was a baby, travels with her mother Eve to visit Grandma Wyn for part of the summer. There family secrets are uncovered, and a close bond among grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter is cemented. In the second novel, reluctant twelve-year-old Ellen takes care of seventy-seven-year-old Lilith Adams, and the two become fast friends.
Grandma Gets Grumpy (1988), by Anne Grossnickle Hines, depicts an overnight stay at Grandma's for Lassen and her four cousins. Although their grandmother is delighted to have her young guests, they try her patience, and eventually she "gets grumpy," leading Lassen to whisper, "She sounds just like my mom."
"You bet I do," Grandma replies. "That's because I taught Lassen's mom, and Brian's mom and Casey's dad everything they know about being grumpy. And I'm older, so I've had more practice." As the five grandchildren watch Grandma's grumpiness pass and her tenderness toward them return, young readers learn about the realities of interacting with a grandparent who displays a normal range of emotions.
All of these grandparent-grandchild stories belie the myth of the generation gap and compassionately portray the difficulties as well as the delights of inter-generational relationships. Such stories are complemented by children's books that feature independent older people who are happy with their lives. Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius (1982) is perhaps the best-known example. Miss Rumphius, known as the Lupine Lady, lives in a seashore cottage. As a young woman named Alice, she had lived on her own, worked as a librarian, and traveled to faraway lands. Now, as an old woman, she sows lupine seeds each spring and encourages children like her great-niece, little Alice, to "do something to make the world more beautiful."
Charlotte Zolotow's I Know a Lady (1984) is narrated by a young girl named Sally who makes friends with an old woman on their block. Sally watches her plant flowers, feed the birds, and make Christmas cookies for the neighborhood children. Sally muses, "I wonder what she was like when she was a little girl," and she concludes, "If I was an old lady and she was a little girl, I would love her a lot the way I do now."
Like these two stories, Wendy Kesselman's Emma (1980) and Quentin Blake's Mrs. Armitage on Wheels (1987) center on older women who have many talents. Seventy-two-year-old Emma takes up painting, surprising her children and grandchildren and curing her loneliness. Mrs. Armitage travels through the countryside on a bicycle which she has equipped with horns, umbrella, sails, and dog seat. When her bicycle crashes under its own weight, she calmly picks herself up and sets off again—this time on roller skates. By picturing older women who are energetic and enterprising, all four books help to dispel the myth of the fragile, helpless "old lady."
Still more children's books portray mutually supportive relationships between an adult and a child. Jeannette Caines's Just Us Women (1982) tells the story of a young African-American girl and her Aunt Martha as they embark on a car trip through North Carolina, stopping wherever and whenever they choose and thoroughly enjoying themselves. Another such story is My Dad Is Really Something (1983), by Lois Osborn, in which Harry George, a young Caucasian boy, befriends Ron, a new boy in the class who perpetually brags about his father. When Harry George learns that Ron's father has actually died years earlier, he offers to share his own father with Ron.
Allen Morgan's Daddy-Care (1986) is a wish-fulfillment story that follows a day in the life of Danny and his dad as they exchange roles. Danny takes his father to "Daddy-care," where he and his friends work on cars, eat lunch together, take naps on their cots, and argue while playing poker. The story concludes with Danny reading his dad a bedtime story, singing him a song, and turning out the light. In Daddy-Care readers see a loving, secure single-parent family. Morgan's story works well as a tongue-in-cheek look at the power dynamics of parent-child relationships.
A Chair for My Mother (1982), by Vera B. Williams, portrays a working-class family of women (Grandma, Aunt Ida, Aunt Sally, Mama, and her young daughter Rosa) who join forces to save money for a new over-stuffed chair to replace the one destroyed when Mama and her daughter's house burned down. A Chair for My Mother is the first in a series of stories that focus on the same family; in each case, Williams's lush illustrations and text reinforce the idea that a multi-generational family is a loving, respectful environment in which a child can grow up.
The variety of stories about nontraditional families is not exhausted by those discussed thus far. Many books focus on the adoptive family. Adoption Is for Always (1986), by Linda Girard, goes much further than earlier books like Valentine Wasson's The Chosen Baby (1939, 1967) in discussing the role of the birthmother as well as that of the adoptive parents. InAdoption Is for Always, Celia fantasizes about her birthmother, Susan. Her adoptive mother and father reassure Celia that being adopted means being loved. Crossracial adoption is the subject of Chinese Eyes (1974), by Marjorie Ann Waybill, and We Don't Look Like Our Mom and Dad (1984), by Harriet Langsam Sobol. Both stories revolve around the adoption of Asian children by Caucasian heterosexual couples.7We Don't Look Like Our Mom and Dad concludes by expressing a theme common to stories about nontraditional families; no one family is typical, and each is a family because its members choose to be one.
Mama One, Mama Two (1982), by Patricia MacLachlan, is one of the first contemporary children's books to depict a young girl's life in foster care. Maudie's foster mother ("Mama Two") tells her a bedtime story about Maudie's mother ("Mama One"). The story reveals that, although Maudie's mother loves her very much, the family's poverty leads to her mother's depression and eventual hospitalization. Maudie goes to stay with Katherine, a foster mother who has a small baby. Tom, a social worker, visits Maudie and Katherine regularly, and they call the foster home Maudie's "for-a-while" home. Although Maudie's biological mother is not physically present in the story, her spirit is present; and the implication is that someday Maudie will return to Mama One, taking with her warm memories of Mama Two.
Michele Maria Surat's Angel Child, Dragon Child (1983) emphasizes the strength of family ties across cultures. The book tells the story of Nguyen Hoa, a little girl who has come from Vietnam to the United States with her father and older sisters. Nguyen Hoa, called "Ut" (for "smallest daughter") by her family, longs for her mother, still far away in Vietnam. Ut remembers her mother's musical voice, telling her to "Be my brave little Dragon," and she looks at the tiny photograph of her mother which she keeps in a matchbox. Although she feels like an outcast at school, Ut is eventually befriended by an American boy named Raymond, who helps her write stories about her life in Vietnam. On the last day of school in the spring, Ut and Raymond run to her home to greet her mother, who has just arrived. Colorful, detailed illustrations by Vo-Dinh Mai, a native of Vietnam, make this book especially realistic—and poignant. The author's note explains that Surat based the book (her first children's book) on a story told to her by a Vietnamese child and that Surat's goal was to "create a story that would promote understanding between Vietnamese children and their American peers."
Many contemporary children's books consider issues not often touched on in earlier children's books. My Daddy Don't Go to Work (1978), by Madeena Spray Nolan, and Tight Times (1979), by Barbara Shook Hazen, offer a child's perspective on a parent's unemployment. So does My Mother Lost Her Job Today (1980), by Judy Delton, which focuses on Barbara Anne, a little girl whose single-parent mother has just been laid off from work. The story portrays the fears of both mother and daughter as they talk about what they will do to get by until the mother can find another job. This book is especially good at showing that the loss of a job often has very little to do with competence or performance—and far more to do with economics.
Child sexual abuse, a timely subject, figures prominently in several children's books. Recent statistics indicate that one girl in four and one boy in nine will be victims of childhood sexual abuse. This subject is central to Pamela Russell and Beth Stone's Do You Have a Secret? (1986) and Judith Jance's It's Not Your Fault (1985). Please Tell (1991), published by the Hazelden Foundation, tells Jessie's story in her own words, accompanied by her own crayon illustrations. Her story begins, "Dear friends everywhere, I was hurt by someone I loved and trusted, when I was four. He was my uncle and my godfather." Jessie speaks to other children, emphasizing how important it is to "Keep telling until someone helps you. You don't have to live in a bad dream anymore."
All three of these picture books make clear that sexual abuse does not always take the form of intercourse—that it can include inappropriate touching, language, and threats. These books also dispel the myth that perpetrators of sexual abuse are strangers; in actuality, the abuser is often a family member.8 The importance of children's breaking silences about forms of abuses is at the heart of each story—along with the importance of adults' believing those children and reporting allegations of sexual abuse to child protection authorities.
Other children's books examine the dynamics of families whose children are differently abled. For instance, in Elizabeth Fanshawe's Rachel (1975), the title character, a young Caucasian girl, is in a wheelchair; in Margaret Walden Froelich's Hide Crawford Quick (1983), twelve-year-old Gracie Prayther, her parents, and siblings learn to deal with the fact that their new baby, Crawford, has been born with only one foot. My Sister Is Different (1981), by Betty Ren Wright, describes a boy's relationship with his older, retarded sister; while My Friend Jacob (1980), by Lucille Clifton, portrays an interracial friendship between young Sam, who is African-American, and his older retarded friend, Jacob, who is Caucasian.
Some children's books poke gentle fun at traditional notions of what a family should be. Nancy Carlson's The Perfect Family (1985) has Louanne, a piglet who is bored with being an only child, spending the weekend with her friend, George, a bunny who lives next door with his mother, father, five sisters, and four brothers. Louanne has to struggle to get enough food to eat and a place to sleep in the overcrowded household. The story concludes with Louanne's grateful return to her own home and her avowal to her mother that "you and Daddy are the perfect family for me." Your Family, My Family (1980), by Joan Drescher, and How We Live (1977), by Anita Harper, portray children living in diverse types of families ranging from biological nuclear families to adoptive families to extended families to stepfamilies to foster families to single-parent families. Both picture books imply that no one "best" type of family exists and that all types are just fine.
Fantasy books for children offer one of the most fruitful avenues for studying "nontraditional" families.9 Books about witches are particularly intriguing in terms of how they portray the notion of family. Several current books take issue with the stereotypes of the wicked witch. Norman Bridwell's The Witch Grows Up (1979) and Babette Cole's The Trouble with Mom (1983) feature benevolent witches in heterosexual nuclear families, making friends with neighborhood children and casting benevolent spells to rescue those in danger. Marc Brown's Witches Four (1980) is about four little girl witches who apparently live without benefit of parents in a purple and pink Victorian-style house. They "brush their teeth with spider paste" and "eat bat-wing sandwiches. They like the taste!" A Woggle of Witches (1971), by Adrienne Adams, describes the Halloween festivities of a charming "woggle" (or group) of witches who live in the forest, fly to the moon on their brooms, and get frightened by children in Halloween costumes.
And not all witches are depicted as women. Donna Lugy Pape's Taffy Finds a Halloween Witch (1975) tells the story of an orange cat adopted on Halloween by a young boy dressed as a witch. Books about witches, like those about imaginary animals, utopian societies, and journeys to far-off worlds, serve an important function in the world of children's and adolescents' books. Such books present authors and readers with opportunities for imagining new types of family structures, ones where boundaries between parents' and children's traditional roles are blurred, if not done away with altogether, and ones where insights gained by reading can be applied to real-life families.
As all of the stories cited above illustrate, children's literature is increasingly demonstrating that families cannot so easily be dichotomized as "traditional" or "nontraditional" and that no one family is "normal," "typical," or representative of all families. In doing this study, my intention has been to be exploratory rather than dogmatic, selective rather than comprehensive. I have set out to celebrate the expanding boundaries of children's literature while making a personal and scholarly foray into uncharted territory. I believe that it is essential to our children's and our own development that we open the gate and walk beyond the tiny, fenced-in reading yard of the old Dick, Jane, and Sally stories.
Apparently, the editors of Penguin Books have realized this, too, for they have published Marc Gregory Gallant's "all-new primer," More Fun with Dick and Jane (1986). Its intended audience includes "the millions of people who readily recall that immortal line: 'See Spot Run.'" The preface to this primer explains what happened to the title characters and their little sister Sally when they all grew up.10 Dick has become a systems engineer for a public utility; he's married to Susan, and they have three sons. Jane, who is divorced, lives with her two daughters in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. She works as a loan officer, selling Amway in her spare time. Sally has been married and divorced twice; child-free, she is public relations director for a large winery in Mill Valley, California. Father died in 1981, and Mother now lives in a retirement home outside Dayton. Puff and Puff are also deceased, and Spot's namesake lives with Dick, who never takes him for a walk without the indispensable pooper-scooper.
Stories in More Fun with Dick and Jane include "A Good Guess" (Dick, Susan, and their sons buy an Apple Macintosh) and "Fair Trade" (Dick's son Adam trades his G.I. Joe to Jane's daughter Jessica for her Barbie doll). Also included are "Can You Guess?" (Jessica spray-paints her hair green and becomes a punk rocker) and "An Evening with Sally" (Sally treats her significant other, Craig, to wild mushroom salad with radiccio and radish sprouts, followed by cold poached chicken with walnut and basil pesto). The tongue-in-cheek humor of More Fun with Dick and Jane will strike a chord with "baby boomers" who are ready and able to poke fun at themselves. Gallant's re-vision of the Dick and Jane stories effectively lays to rest the time-worn maxim, "Some things never change."
In the world of popular literature for children, things are changing all the time, and portrayals of many family configurations are steadily increasing. These stories cross boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, age, and bloodlines. In fact, children's literature strikes me as far more progressive in redefining the family and in reshaping cultural attitudes toward the family than the current crop of "family films" now in theaters (and video stores) everywhere. Like many kindergartners, my daughter Rachel loves movies that feature children, especially little girls. During the past two months, we have seen "All I Want for Christmas," "Curly Sue," "Baby Boom," "Three Men and a Baby," "Three Men and a Little Lady," "The Maid," and "Trading Hearts." Each of these movies has a little girl as a central character, and each storyline initially features a single-parent family.11 But not for long. By the end of each movie, the little girl and her mother or father have invariably been matched up with another parent of the opposite gender. Together they dance, stroll, skip, or drive off into the proverbial sunset—"happily," as they say, "ever after."
"Mommy, does that always happen?" Rachel asked, as we walked home after one such movie.
"No, honey," I shook my head. "Most of those movies aren't like real life."
"Or else you just never see that they don't stay together after the movie ends," she concluded solemnly.
I repeated this conversation to a good friend who is also a single parent. She chuckled, "I wonder why kids catch on so fast and it takes us adults so much longer?"
I nodded. I think I've caught on. Given the tenor of our times and the current emphasis on a return to "traditional family values," many filmmakers have a difficult time finding financial backing for their movies unless the storylines feature heterosexual, married (or soon-to-be-married) couples—with or without children. I know that financial exigency and market appeal are central factors in why many contemporary films take so limited a view of family life. Still, I can't help but wonder how it affects a child's sense of self to see his or her kind of family treated as though something is wrong with it that needs "fixing. "
That's one reason I spend a good deal of time searching for children's stories that feature diverse kinds of families—stories that don't always end in a rosy glow. I believe it's worthwhile for children to be exposed to more than one "script" for life's relationships. It isn't always easy to find children's books that feature diverse types of families, but it is well worth the effort. Now, if I go into a bookstore and observe that it doesn't carry children's books that portray many kinds of families, I recommend some titles to the manager. If I notice that a library's books offer a limited range of portrayals of families, I ask the children's librarian to look into ordering ones that do. After all, they are out there. And those of us who live in nontraditional families, as well as many of us who don't, are glad of it.
Ironically, the concept of the traditional family—that is, the heterosexual, two-parent, marital, nuclear family with the mother caring for children at home and the father working outside the home—is itself a relatively recent phenomenon (Lamb 2-3). Extended, single-parent, lesbian, gay, adoptive, foster, and other types of families have existed through the ages. These types of families, however, have generally not been validated by Western societies and thus have remained invisible in official historical accounts.
In examining the axioms on which the superiority of the traditional family has been based, Lamb asserts not only that a "diverse array of nontraditional family types" does exist but also that the study of them can "help to illustrate the complexities and potential variability of developmental processes" (Lamb 10-11).
Fun Wherever We Are, the third Pre-Primer of the New Basic Reading Program, contains stories about the family at home, at the shopping center, and in the family car. The eighteen stories in this Pre-Primer use a total vocabulary of seventy-two words, and, as the authors state in the afterword, "join to provide a book that encourages steady growth in interpretive abilities"(78).
Interestingly, the authors do not address the question of what kinds of interpretive abilities, in addition to those of plot structure and syntax, the stories encourage in young readers.
I use the terms "traditional" and "nontraditional" advisedly because I do not believe that such an artificial and potentially harmful distinction can or should be made. Jean Belovich defines twelve different family structures which she sees operating in the United States today:
There is the traditional family, where Mom stays home and Dad goes to work; the Dad-stays-home-and-Mom-works family; the both-spouses-work family; the single-parent family; the remarried family; the homosexual family; the unwedteenager-with-child family; the nonmarital family; the foster care family; the interreligious family; the interracial family; and the communal family.
Although Belovich explains that many more family structures might exist, she asserts that "all families strive for similar goals: financial stability, cooperation, harmony, emotional support, trust, and unconditional love" (xv).
- I would note that, while the majority of books in my sample are children's picture books, some juvenile and young adult novels are also included. Complete citations are in works cited.
Elizabeth Einstein makes this point:
One of the most complex of family relationships is the stepfamily—a configuration resulting from remarriage with children. Its very existence is a product of death or divorce. No one forgets this; fear of its recurrence is part of the stepfamily's fragile foundation. This family faces a challenging task. Yet few people understand its special dynamics, and this lack of knowledge can lead unsuspecting stepfamilies into chaos.
- In a "Note to Parents" preceding the story, the editors explain that the purpose of the story is to "show your child that he or she is not the only one who has worries or uncertainties about becoming part of a new family." The editors' note goes on to encourage readers to use the book as a starting point for discussion about fears involving the dynamics of the stepfamily.
- The subject of crossracial adoption has become much more controversial in the years since these books were published. In Minnesota, for instance, the court now presumes that a child's best interests will be met by intraracial rather than interracial adoption. Children's books dealing with this aspect of adoption are yet to be published.
- Mankato, Minnesota is in Blue Earth County. The 1991 statistics on sexual abuse in our county, compiled by Blue Earth County Sexual Assault Services, indicate that twenty-three cases involving sexual abuse (maltreatment) had been substantiated. Of these, 89 percent were perpetrated by males, 11 percent by females; 90 percent of the victims were female, 10 percent male. The most frequent perpetrators included stepfathers, brothers, uncles, friend/acquaintances, and babysitters.
- I would like to thank Natalie Rosinsky for bringing this idea to my attention.
- More Fun with Dick and Jane is the first of the New Contemporary Reading Series, according to its publishers. It contains both formal and colloquial English and introduces 242 words not used in any previous primer program.
- The movies mentioned here, like the books cited above, reflect choices made by our family. An interesting topic for another essay would be an analysis of how contemporary "little girl" films compare with "little boy" films in terms of plot lines, family structures, and thematic emphases.
Adams, Adrienne. A Woggle of Witches. New York: Scribner's, 1971.
Belovich, Jean. "Preface." Making Re-marriage Work. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1987. xv-xvii.
Berger, Terry (and Miriam Shapiro). How Does It Feel When Your Parents Get Divorced? New York: Simon, 1977.
Blake, Quentin. Mrs. Armitage on Wheels. London: Collins Picture Lions Books, 1990.
Bosche, Susan (and Andreas Hansen). Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. London: Gay Men's Press, 1983.
Bridwell, Norman. The Witch Grows Up. New York: Scholastic, 1979.
Brown, Marc. Witches Four. New York: Parents Magazine Press, 1980.
Caines, Jeannette (and Pat Cummings). Just Us Women. New York: Harper, 1982.
Carlson, Nancy. The Perfect Family. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 1985.
Caseley, Judith. When Grandpa Came to Stay. New York: Morrow, 1986.
Clifton, Lucille (and Thomas DiGrazia). My Friend Jacob. New York: Dutton, 1980.
Cole, Babette. The Trouble with Mom. New York: Coward-McCann, 1983.
Cooney, Barbara. Miss Rumphius. Viking Penguin Puffin Books, 1982.
Delton, Judy (and Irene Trivas). My Mother Lost Her Job Today. Chicago: Whitman, 1980.
Drescher, Joan. Your Family, My Family. New York: Walker, 1980.
Einstein, Elizabeth. The Stepfamily: Living, Loving & Learning. Boston: Shambhala, 1985.
Fanshawe, Elizabeth (and Michael Charlton). Rachel. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury Press, 1975.
Farber, Norma (and Trina Schart Hyman). How Does It Feel to be Old? New York: Dutton, 1979.
Froelich, Margaret Walden. Hide Crawford Quick. Boston: Houghton, 1983.
Gallant, Marc Gregory. More Fun with Dick and Jane. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.
Girard, Linda Walvoord (and Judith Friedman). Adoption Is for Always. Niles, IL: Whitman, 1986.
Goff, Beth (and Susan Perl). Where Is Daddy? Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
Greenfield, Eloise (and Carole Byard). Grandmama's Joy. New York: Collins, 1980.
Harper, Anita (and Christine Roche). How We Live. New York: Harper, 1977.
Hazen, Barbara Shook (and Trine Schart Hyman). Tight Times. New York: Viking, 1979.
Hines, Anne Grossnickle. Grandma Gets Grumpy. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1988.
Irwin, Hadley. The Lilith Summer. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1979.
——. What about Grandma? New York: Atheneum, 1982.
Isadora, Rachel. Jesse and Abe. New York: Morrow, 1981.
Jance, Judith A. (and Mariana Megale). It's Not Your Fault. Edmonds, WA: Franklin Press, 1985.
Jessie. Please Tell: A Child's Story about Sexual Abuse. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1991.
Jordan, MaryKaye (and Judith Friedman). Losing Uncle Tim. Niles, IL: Whitman, 1989.
Kesselman, Wendy (and Barbara Cooney). Emma. New York: Harper, 1980.
Klein, Norma. Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Lamb, Michael. "Parental Behavior and Child Development in Nontraditional Families: An Introduction." Nontraditional Families: Parenting and Child Development. Ed. Michael Lamb. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1982. 1-12.
Langner, Nola. Freddy My Grandfather. New York: Four Winds Press, 1979.
Lundgren, Max (and Fibben Hald). Matt's Grandfather. Trans. Ann Pyk. Stockholm, 1970. New York: Putnam's, 1972.
MacLachlan, Patricia (and Ruth Lercher Bornstein). Mama One, Mama Two. New York: Harper, 1982.
Madler, Trudy (and Gwen Connelly). Why Did Grandma Die? Milwaukee: Raintree, 1980.
Mann, Peggy (and Richard Cuffori). My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.
Miles, Miska (and Peter Parnall). Annie and the Old One. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
Morgan, Allen (and John Richmond). Daddy-Care. Toronto: Annick Press, 1986.
Munsch, Robert N. (and Michael Martchenko). The Paper Egg Princess. Toronto: Annick Press, 1980.
Nolan, Madeena Spray (and Jim LaMarche). My Daddy Don't Go to Work. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 1978.
Osborn, Lois (and Rodney Pete). My Dad Is Really Something. Niles, IL: Whitman, 1983.
Pape, Donna Lugy (and Carol Nicklaus). Taffy Finds a Halloween Witch. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1975.
Perry, Patricia, and Marietta Lynch. Mommy and Daddy are Divorced. New York: Dial, 1978.
Prokop, Michael S. (and Dennis McCullough). Divorce Happens to the Nicest Kids. Warren, OH: Alegra, 1986.
Robinson, Helen M., Marion Monroe, A. Sterl Artley (and Bob Childress). Fun Wherever We Are. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1962.
Russell, Pamela, Beth Stone (and Mary McKee). Do You Have a Secret? Minneapolis: CompCare, 1986.
Seuling, Barbara (and J. Ellen Dolce). What Kind of Family Is This? A Book about Stepfamilies. Racine, WI: Western, 1985.
Severance, Jane (and Jan Jones). Lots of Mommies. Chapel Hill, NC: Lollipop Power, 1983.
Sobol, Harriet Langsam (and Patricia Agre). We Don't Look Like Our Mom and Dad. New York: Coward-McCann, 1984.
Stinson, Kathy (and Nancy Lou Reynolds). Mom and Dad Don't Live Together Any More. Toronto: Annick Press, 1984.
Surat, Michele Maria (and Vo-Dinh Mai). Angel Child, Dragon Child. New York: Scholastic, 1983.
Wasson, Valentine (and Glo Coalson). The Chosen Baby. 1939. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1977.
Waybill, Marjorie Ann (and Pauline Cutrell). Chinese Eyes. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1974.
Williams, Vera B. A Chair for My Mother. New York: Morrow, 1982.
Wolkoff, Judie. Happily Ever After … Almost. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury Press, 1982.
Wright, Betty Ren (and Betsy Day). My New Mom and Me. Milwaukee: Raintree, 1981.
——, (and Helen Cogancherry). My Sister Is Different. Milwaukee: Raintree, 1981.
Zolotow, Charlotte (and James Stevenson). I Know a Lady. New York: Viking Penguin Puffin Books, 1984.
Mark Vogel and Anna Creadick (essay date September 1993)
SOURCE: Vogel, Mark, and Anna Creadick. "Family Values and the New Adolescent Novel." English Journal 82, no. 5 (September 1993): 37-42.
[In the following essay, Vogel and Creadick review a series of young adult novels, targeted toward adolescents, that reflect the late-twentieth-century emphasis on embracing "family values."]
Like—Leave it to Beaver—they had the perfect family. I envisioned that my family should be really nice and neat. You kind of get it in your head that that is the way it should be … like family life should be nice and perfect, things always get together in the end, and someday you will meet your prince and live happily ever after.
Interview with Anna, age 17, Watauga High School, Boone, North Carolina November 2, 1991
I want to be the all-American type family man. I don't want to end up like my father in any way. I want to be the artist; I want to get married; I want to have kids; … I want to spend time with my kid, which is something my father has never been able to do. That is why I will never be like him—never.
Interview with Dan, age 17, Watauga High School, Boone, North Carolina September 7, 1990
The near hysteria in the last several years emanating from the term "family values" apparently won't go away. If we look at the phenomenon optimistically, we might infer that the American populace is coming to grips, in a groping fashion, with widespread social changes that have been furiously at work for some time, some would say since the end of the Vietnam war. As society bends and shifts to deal with divorce, varying sexual orientations and gender roles, home-lessness, child abuse, and teenage pregnancy, the concept of family changes. The results are startling. In 1970, 13 percent of US households were "single-parent" families; by 1990, the number had more than doubled to 28 percent, and 24 percent were headed by the female parent (Keene et al. 1991, 93-95). Divorce rates continue to be very high. Half of the US marriages of people in their thirties are likely to end in divorce, and three out of every five of those divorces will involve children (Glick 1990, 141). In 1990, over 40 percent of marriages were remarriages for one or both parents. Children who live with both parents are on their way to becoming a minority—in 1990, only 69 percent (Coleman and Ganong 1990,926). Clearly, the age of the nuclear family has given way to a new age of single-parent families, stepfamilies, cohabitating stepfamilies, and so many other variations that there is no one "new" family structure. Those affected most by these social upheavals are children.
Nearly all observers can note the widespread societal changes, but few (especially among our political leaders) can coherently deal with the complex forces at work and understand how those involved can deal with them. Maybe literature, by providing distance, can provide the answers. This essay argues that recent adolescent literature illustrates complex situations with illuminating humor and surprising wisdom. A look at the best of recent novels reveals that adolescent literature has evolved toward a new realism. This shift comes at an appropriate time, for as Frances Duncan suggests, "Today's young adult novels are adapted by teenagers who want to know how others live at a time when people don't stay still long enough for them to observe" (1980, 329).
Even a brief look at contemporary YA novels tells us that adolescents in the 1990s face a fastpaced and bewildering culture. What is significant is the newfound power adolescents have discovered to change their worlds. No longer are protagonists asked to suffer in silence, as they so often did in the 1970s "problem novel." Pivotal recent novels reveal a new breed of adolescent—one who adapts, survives, and sometimes even thrives in this chaotic society. These adolescents are wily, self-sufficient, and remarkably aware of the world around them. What is most important is that they actively work to construct a new community with or without the help of adults. The values these adolescents adopt suggest that hope might be more appropriate than hysteria as new generations confront our current malaise.
The primary challenge young adults face is establishing an individual identity—and then finding a place for this new self in a larger community. In contemporary novels protagonists understand that an individual vision is an essential end-product of listening and observing. But these young adults do more than listen, observe, and accept, for borrowed idealistic philosophies and easy choices are not allowed in their world. Like Will Neuton in Gary Paulsen's The Island (1988), and like pragmatic Huck Finn, characters must often reject the "advice" that they are given in their search for what works. Will knows he must carve out his precepts even as he listens to advice from all sides.
Everybody is always looking for something for life to be like. One teacher told me once that life is like an onion, and you just kept peeling back layers and never really got to the middle of it…. And then came a whole bunch of things for life to be like—life was like a beach, life was like a treadmill, life was like a carnival…. I finally figured life isn't like anything. Life is just life.
Beyond simple acceptance or rejection is the awareness that dreams must be modified to fit a shifting, multifaceted culture. Nick, in Ron Koertge's The Boy in the Moon, must revise childhood dreams as he sees friends and family changing around him.
I remembered when we were about ten and we thought of that—how when we grew up, we'd buy a house and live in it and stay friends forever. All that seemed like a thousand years ago, and I felt so much older and somehow taller, as if I was looking down on an idyllic, miniature town—the kind model railroaders build—with twinkling lights, spotless streets, and mirrored lake: Perfectville, where nothing ever changed.
Then I caught myself. What kind of life was that? Worse than being a statue in a museum.
Though Nick hasn't worked out a blueprint for perfect living, he has learned that easy answers are not usually viable and that change is inevitable. By necessity he and other protagonists talk calmly about painful realities that accompany change. Choices are often made after observing, then rejecting, adult attempts to simplify complex issues. He has learned that it is healthy to share the pain (and the observation). He can help his friend Kevin deal with the outpourings of his father, a closed-minded evangelist who finds all the world "ugly." What might crush them individually is digested wisely in a group. After witnessing Kevin's father preach his fire-and-brimstone explanation of world problems, Nick's girlfriend Frieda sums up the situation: "It's all kind of sad and pitiful. He's so hurt…. Not that I likeit … and not that I want to listen to much more of it" (135). In a world where flawed adults hold the reins of power, adolescents must band together to share talk and to provide a unified front. In a fragile world these relationships are precious.
As products of "nontraditional" families, most protagonists have experienced separation and divorce. In many cases they've witnessed a good deal more than simple break-ups in relationships. Drug abuse, depression, dislocation from family, job pressure, confusion over religious beliefs, and depression take their toll on adult relationships. Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat (1989) has seen her separated parents passively refuse to reach out even when life itself is on the line. When Weetzie finds her father dangerously depressed, she tells her mother, "[Y]ou should call him." Her mother refuses to act. She simply states, "It makes me too sad" (74). Soon afterwards, Weetzie's father overdoses on pills.
Although these protagonists function quite well in their chaotic settings, they still experience the alienation that is almost required of adolescence. Their alienation doesn't stem from rigid adult structures, however, as it did in earlier YA literature. The adult "conspiracy" so prevalent in Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese (1977) and The Chocolate War (1974) is not alive in these contemporary novels. Rather, the adults simply choose to answer to their own needs first, regardless of the consequences for the children. In The Boy in the Moon Kevin's father sacrifices his sons' needs on the altar of a self-created theology. In Sue Ellen Bridgers' Permanent Connections Ellery's newly divorced mother announces she is "finished with doing her duty … and with taking care of things she [hasn't] chosen herself" (1987, 63).
These parental choices lead young adults to the conclusion that self-absorption is a primary characteristic of adulthood. But their frustration with this state of affairs leads not to despair but to actions which build a "new world," providing support which parents cannot give. Far from being passive victims, they see through what the adults clearly hope is mysterious and indecipherable. Brock Cole's Celine (1989) knows the score. When her young friend Jake suggests that his recently divorced parents still love him and the breakup isn't his fault, she knows she is expected to agree. But she can't, for she knows "the truth." "His parents don't like their lives anymore, and they're willing to chop the kid up a bit to change things…." (86)
Celine and Weetzie find ironic humor in their positions. This sometimes shocking and funny ability to verbalize where they stand in relation to adults is the first step towards constructing their futures. Thus, Celine can fully explain the "profound existential anguish" her presence causes her stepmother.
After all, no one told her when she was a young graduate student … that the French professor with whom she had fallen in love had secreted somewhere in Iowa a lumpy adolescent. I was an unlooked-for absurdity, a serpent in the bosom, a cloud before the sun, a shock.
A vital resource young adults use to construct their new worlds is the popular culture that surrounds them. Weetzie Bat, a filmmaker, and Celine, an artist, have grown up studying this culture; they use what they have experienced as a seedbed for their art. Weetzie takes the alliance with TV, films, fashion, and music to the limit—her wardrobe, her relationships, and her future goals are splashed liberally with the paint of mass culture. As an offspring of Hollywood parents, Weetzie flamboyantly brings together a hodgepodge of influences, borrowing more from talk shows than from Biblical injunction. Like other protagonists, she has learned that unconventional choices can work when she makes do with what is available.
Even her daughter is planned by using the "resources" at hand. Duck, her gay male live-in friend, tells her how to solve the "father" problem. Characteristically, the solution is borrowed from TV: "I saw it on a talk show once. These two gay guys and their best friend all slept together so no one would know for sure whose baby it was" (44).
The result is Cherokee, who "looked like a three-dad baby … like a girl love warrior who would grow up and wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. canyons" (54).
Such a unique blend of cultural "borrowing" provides much of a flavor found in Weetzie Bat, Celine, The Boy in the Moon, and Permanent Connections. In each case, at least for a time, traditional "family" values are overwhelmed by the neutral, color-rich world of TV, movies, and music. But ultimately the richness of popular media does not simply wash over these young adults. Each is a discerning borrower, adept at recognizing ill-conceived ideas. I see these same abilities in the young adults I face daily. After all, popular culture is a tool which they've been working with since childhood. If the ability of these fictional characters to critique "the media" reflects actual American adolescents, then William Bennett, Dan Quayle, and other critics have missed the mark in categorizing mass culture as a brainwashing bludgeon.
These protagonists can also teach us about the failures of schooling in the 1990s. Each assumes that the school is "smaller" and less relevant than the mass culture that swirls about them. When they do talk about formal education, they associate it with adult tendencies to make rigid class distinctions and categorize students in superficial ways. Particularly vulnerable are school-sanctioned groups. Cynthia Rylant's Soda Jerk feels that joining structured school groups would mean embracing a world of clichés. He has no trouble putting the most visible groups in their place:
These jocks have been dead
ever since some guy
shoved a ball into their hands as they were climbing
out of the sandbox and just about to have
an original thought.
Like most adolescents, he has been thoroughly socialized in school and thus has recognized social inequities linked to class, race, and gender:
… [W]e watched year after year
while the ones who got it—
the ones just made for a world
of square pegs and square holes—
carried off little medals.
Yet, he sees no salvation in conforming. In a world where new rules for survival must be formulated, mere clique-ish popularity and catering to adult standards is an anachronistic and futile exercise.
Though these protagonists reject the primary mission of school as molding adolescents to adult expectations, they recognize pragmatically that they must understand the logic of schooling. For the ever-observant Celine, the contradictions she sees at school ultimately affect her performance. Her difficulties with writing about The Catcher in the Rye come from her problems accepting what her teacher wants:
[I]t seems to me to be sort of a smash-and-grab for the high schools to start taking the book over. Because, unless we are going to start throwing up on the teacher every time he brings the subject up, we are going to have to pretend that he is really very wise and understanding and not at all like the adults in Catcher in the Rye….
In Jerry Spinnelli's Maniac Magee (1990) the young hero refuses to attend school. Until he can satisfy his most pressing need—a home—, learning for learning's sake must wait.
The alienation these adolescents face appears to have deeper roots than simple frustration with adults. Often, the alienation, like the break-up of adult relationships, can be linked to the transitory, disconnected American landscape. The idyllic picture of childhood most adults cherish contains in-depth knowledge of place—a world of streets, creeks, neighborhoods explored time and again. But these adolescents move too often to know any world intimately, and as they move, the culture moves around them. Celine already has moved from mother to grandmother to father in three separate communities. Maniac, having lost his parents, moves first to relatives, then later, on his own, to a number of temporary homes within the city. Kevin shuffles between his father in Missouri and his mother in California.
Cut off from stable communities, and sometimes the land itself, they feel the void created when adults wrestle with the realization that discarded roots cannot easily be rebuilt. They face a future that promises more restless movement. In the chaos, they find that the land itself reflects the changing present more than it does the historical, stable past. Having seen the impermanence of family relationships, they wisely assume that little they currently prize will remain as is. Thus, like Weetzie, they are forced to "create" their own culture and history out of the transient present, but this is difficult when history is confined to the length of her memory. In the southern California flux Weetzie swims in, the past is characterized by "Elvis Land," which she remembers from childhood. "There had been a beat-up Cadillac, a picture of Elvis, and a giant love letter … on the lawn" (40).
Weetzie knows that place for many Americans is a choice, and not something assigned at birth. Where one chooses to live determines options. Thus, when she must choose between her father in New York and her mother in southern California, she chooses place over either of her parents. "[S]he couldn't leave where it was hot and cold, glam and slam, rich and trashy, devils and angels, Los Angeles" (19).
Nick, in The Boy in the Moon, must also make choices. The options are mirrored in the land itself. "Out West in Kevinland the concrete had won, but not here" (79). But even in the stability of the Midwest he sees evidence of failed adult dreams.
Off to the left and right were narrower, weedier lanes, almost paths now—leading to ramshackle houses, to deserted ones, or to nothing at all. And I know that people had come here, to the heart of the heart of the country, with variations of the same dream that Kevin hoped would come true in California—to feel at home somewhere, to be happy and free.
That's the dilemma faced by these young adults (and by many of my students)—not obtaining success, or money, or prestige, but discovering or sometimes creating "home," happiness, and stability.
What makes these novels interesting is how young adults solve these problems. Rob, in Permanent Connections, has advantages over other protagonists because his Appalachian roots are still accessible. His job is to reconcile his "modern" rock-and-roll persona with the "old world" his father had once found lacking. Unlike his father, he realizes that material success may not be enough to create a new home to replace the old. The rootlessness Rob has inherited has made him an expert in ways to evade emptiness—pretended indifference, marijuana, alcohol, sex, and loud music. But none of these "New Jersey" outlets work when he comes up against Ellery, another adolescent uprooted from home and family. Rob is able to find peace only when he realizes the power of an extended family. He learns he isn't now, and has never been, alone. "The Dicksons, generations of them whose names he didn't even know, were there"(250).
Finding "home" for Rob means discovering an "ace card" he doesn't know he possesses. For other teenagers, this ace card no longer is accessible. Maniac, Celine, Weetzie, and Kevin must learn to construct extended families from the friends, parents, and lovers they have available. The result, especially in Maniac Magee and Weetzie Bat, is a colorful patchwork community comprised of individuals not typically thought of as compatible—gay males, African Americans, the homeless, the old, and the young. What holds these newly constructed families together is a surprising collection of "traditional" values (love, cooperation, respect, tolerance). The lure of home as a haven is the glue that holds the individuals together. Maniac sums up what they gain from their unconventional union—a "private language of caring." "Inside his house, a kid gets one name, but on the other side of the door it's whatever the rest of the world wants to call him" (53).
Chaos threatens constantly to destroy their best efforts. But the passivity bred of fear they see mirrored in many adults is not an option. Action is the only recourse. Like Weetzie, they know that choices can lead either to the dark underbelly of despair or to a new community.
[L]ove and disease are both like electricity…. They are always there—you can't see or smell or hear, touch, or taste them, but you know they are there like a current in the air…. We can choose… we can choose to plug into the love current.
The stories these adolescents tell illustrate the dilemmas faced by many American families. Robert Bellah and others in Habits of the Heart (1985) document the lives of Americans caught between the often contradictory goals of striving to satisfy individual needs and building stable families and communities. Bellah, borrowing from de Tocqueville, suggests that the love of individualism has caused many Americans to "forget their descendents." This "makes the current widespread nostalgia for 'the family' all the more poignant" (82).
Bellah and his co-authors describe what is missing.
Communities … have a history—in an important sense they are constituted by their past—and for this reason we can speak of a real community as a "community of memory," one that does not forget its past. In order not to forget that past, a community is involved in retelling its story, its constitutive narrative…. These stories of collective history and exemplary individuals are an important part of the tradition that is so central to a community of memory.
As our students read contemporary young-adult literature and write about their responses, they share their stories. From these stories will be formed the strange, and possibly wholesome, communities of the future. Some, like Nicole, have much to unravel.
In my own life, I've just realized, I have already experienced about five or six different kinds of family structures. I usually say "my parents are divorced," but that label does not cover it all:
1. I lived for 10 years with my sister and both my parents (nuclear family).
2. I lived for two years with my parents, my sister, my parental grandmother, and my older half-brother (my father's son by his first marriage) (extended nuclear family).
3. After the divorce, I lived for three or four years with my sister and my mother (single-parent family).
4. Plus we spent summers with my father and his live-in girlfriend (de facto stepfamily #1).
5. Then, my mother's boyfriend moved in and has lived with us for the past eight years (de facto stepfamily #2).
6. Now my dad has remarried, and I lived for at least one full year with him and my new stepmother, six years older than me (stepfamily).
Somewhere in all that confusion, new family forms are coalescing. When students like Nicole read adolescent fiction and respond through writing and sharing with peers, they inevitably compare their lives with those of both peers and fictional characters. Often the dilemmas students have faced and the decisions they've made are remarkably similar.
Kevin in The Boy in the Moon explains how observers come to construct the face of a man in the moon. "It's all those flaws coming together to make a face"(145). This is a powerful metaphor that brings many adolescents together. Rather than caving in to despair, they create new communities out of the flawed materials of the present. Though these new communities wouldn't be recognizable to many who have grown up in the "old" families, the values often remain the same. Each new family has begun the arduous task of collecting and weaving together the stories necessary to make the communities permanent. Each hopes to create a coherent face, a new nurturing nontraditional family, which can face the future with hope.
Bellah, Robert N., and James L. Paul. 1985. Habits of the Heart. New York: Harper.
Block, Francesca. 1989. Weetzie Bat. New York: Harper.
Bridgers, Sue Ellen. 1987. Permanent Connections. New York: Harper.
Cole, Brock. 1989. Celine. New York: Farrar.
Coleman, Marilyn, and Lawrence H. Ganong. 1990. "Remarriage & Stepfamily Research in the 1980's: Increased Interest in the Old Family Form." Journal of Marriage and the Family 52.4 (Nov.): 925-40.
Cormier, Robert. 1977. I Am the Cheese. New York: Pantheon.
——. 1974. The Chocolate War. New York: Pantheon.
Duncan, Frances. 1983. "The Young Adult Novel: One Author's Response." Signposts to Criticism of Children's Literature. Ed. Robert Bator. Chicago: ALA. 324-30.
Glick, Paul C. 1990. "American Families: As They Are & Were." Sociology and Social Research: An International Journal 74.3 (Apr.): 139-45.
Keene, Karlyn H., and Everett C. Ladd, eds. 1991. "Family Demographics." The American Enterprise 2.2 (Mar.-Apr.): 93-96.
Koertge, Ron. 1990. The Boy in the Moon. Boston: Little.
Paulsen, Gary. 1988. The Island. New York: Orchard.
Rylant, Cynthia. 1990. Soda Jerk. New York: Orchard.
Spinnelli, Jerry. 1990. Maniac Magee. Boston: Little.
Marilyn Fain Apseloff (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Apseloff, Marilyn Fain. "Abandonment: The New Realism of the Eighties." In Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, edited by Sheila Egoff, Gordon Stubbs, Ralph Ashley, and Wendy Sutton, pp. 359-64. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Apseloff appraises the recurring theme of parental abandonment in contemporary children's literature, concluding that such works demonstrate a new reinterpretation of adults in children's texts as fallible human beings.]
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ANALYTICAL AND BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REVIEWS
Binnie Tate Wilkin (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: Wilkin, Binnie Tate. "Families." In Survival Themes in Fiction for Children and Young People, pp. 107-24. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1978.
[In the following excerpt, Wilkin provides an introductory bibliographical overview of the various books directed towards children with unconventional family scenarios.]
* * *
My family, I'm close to them in some ways. I'm not close to my mother, but I'm close to my brother and sister. We're pretty good together, we always have good times together.
My mother's family raised me. I love them and appreciate them. Someday, when I'm responsible enough, I'd like to have a family of my own.
My family is a wonderful family, we all get along pretty good but I don't want a family until I'm54.
I miss them, they would like for me to come home. I remember when I was little I went to church every Sunday, but now I'm kinda glad. You know, when you get older you appreciate things more. But, I don't want to go home. I want to be on my own. My family can't back me up all the time, I have to learn how to do for myself. I don't want to be dependent on my family. I don't want to have to say mamma did this and mamma did that.
When I have kids, I want to have something, I want to teach them everything—how life is. I'm not gonna hide anything. Kids are okay, but it's best to have a man and have something to show your kid. Of course accidents can happen and a girl can get pregnant, but she's got a problem if she doesn't want an abortion.
Prominent educators view the child, not as an individual, but as a member of a family. Many agree that most formative development takes place outside the school, nurtured by the family unit, or by the community when the family unit is weak. For example, the construct for Montessori education placed strong emphasis on the parent. Montessori believed that the school was partner to parents, particularly to mothers, who are largely responsible for the child's education. In the original Montessori school the concept of parent involvement included releasing the child from school if the cooperation of the parents was not received. This procedure indicated this educator's strong belief that educational exposure can easily be undermined by attitudes and reactions in the home.
Montessori believed in parent involvement, but she did not view the family as an isolated unit. She felt that such isolation did not allow for the development of attitudes of sharing and brotherhood. She felt that it was often within families that the strongest class barriers and subsequent national barriers were formed. She conceived the school, the parent and the community as a cooperative for the child's benefit.
Kohen Raz, in a discussion of the American preindustrial society, explains that during those times an extended family concept was prevalent. Younger people were expected to assume the roles vacated by parents and close relatives. In most cases, it was unnecessary to move far from the original family in order to form a life and work pattern acceptable to the society. Hence there was no need for the preparatory processes of pre-adolescence in which the child could begin to experiment with stepping out into the wider world.
Regarding current trends affecting the American family, Hurlock concludes that with the turn of the century came major changes in family relationships, especially those between children and parents and children and grandparents, which has resulted in a deterioration of the family in general.
She lists parental attitudes which affect the negative developments in the child's family relationships. These include over-protectiveness, permissiveness, rejection, domination, submission to the child and over-ambition for the child. She further indicates that the size of the family affects these attitudes and relationships. Small families are listed as negative in the tendency toward overprotectiveness, while large families lack close parent-child relationships. In small families the application of pressure for achievement is more prevalent than in large families, according to this theorist.
Most importantly, Ms. Hurlock states emphatically that the mass media as well as personal experience strongly influence a person's concepts of proper family roles.
In conclusion, it appears that the American family has reached a critical point in its development. More mothers are heads of households. There are more one-parent families with either the mother or father as a single role model. Extended family involvement is decreasing. And status of children in decision-making is changing.
Therefore, those with peripheral influence on the child's developmental processes may have to assume greater responsibility than ever before. Educators and community leaders will probably be required to present a variety of positive family models to young people. Early instruction will need to include family concepts and problems.
Many materials still present the nuclear family as the ideal, while other common family forms are often omitted or are portrayed as negative. Some recent materials for children present problematic family situations such as divorce, remarriage, sibling rivalry, etc. The presentation of more varied perspectives of the family could help children make choices and develop attitudes which will be helpful to them in the future.* * *
Note: Children's Literature: An Issues Approach, by Marsha Kabakow Rudman, includes a chapter dealing with sibling relationships within the family. Some of the titles discussed are included here, but Rudman's book has additional resources for expanding the approach to families in literature. The section following "Siblings," titled "Divorce," also includes a helpful list of titles offering views of families facing divorce.* * *
All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor. Illus. by Helen John. Chicago: Follett, 1951.
It's 1912, on the predominantly Jewish East Side of New York. Ella is twelve, Henrietta is ten, Sarah is eight, Charlotte is six and Gertie is four. These are the five girls in the "All-of-a-Kind Family."
This story chronicles the humor, adventures, and family experiences of the five girls and their relatives. People are poor and crises must be faced, but strengths and joys of being together in an affirming family are apparent. The religious celebrations are handled naturally as part of the story, as is the anticipation of the new baby whom father wants to be a boy.
Sequels to this story are More All-of-a-Kind Family and All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown.* * *
The Bear's House, by Marilyn Sachs. Illus. by Louis Glanzman. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Ten-year-old Fran Ellen Smith sucks her thumb. She knows that when school is out, someone will be given the bear's house which Miss Thompson keeps in the classroom. Fran wants that house more than anything, even enough to stop sucking her thumb.
When her daddy left home Fran Ellen's mother retreated into herself, becoming progressively more ill. Fran decides that the truth must be kept from everyone or the social worker will come and take the entire family away. So she and the other children live a pretend life, hiding mother away in the bedroom whenever anyone appears, and taking care of themselves and the baby the best they can. Until—Miss Thompson comes to deliver the doll house and discovers the truth.
A poignant, sometimes funny story of young people designing their own pattern for survival. It is the story of a family torn by adult trauma, but of children who determine to stay together.* * *
Danny Rowley, by Reginald Maddock. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.
Set in England, this story presents a common crisis which often engenders problems for parents and teens. Danny's mother announces that she plans to remarry, triggering such resentment in the boy that he goes out and smashes several street lamps. Later, Danny finds himself hiding out with two Black boys, dubbed "the niggers" by his mother and the police. This encounter and subsequent happenings establish a bond between Danny and the two Black kids.
Laura Higgins, daughter of the groom to be, is no happier about the situation than Danny. But in spite of their protests, the marriage takes place and Danny goes to live at the Higgins' home.
Life is not easy for the new family. Laura intends to be so hostile that the marriage will be forced to break up. Partially because he resents Laura's treatment of his mother, Danny slowly has a change of heart. He learns to respect his stepfather's strength and knowledge. He silently appreciates his stepfather's positive attitude toward Blacks.
Added intrigue revolves around activities of a gang who burglarize and steal. One of the Blacks, Robbo, is accused of a crime committed by the gang leader, Mugsby Jones. Danny, his stepfather and friends devise a plan to trap the real culprits, saving Robbo from being falsely charged.
Ingredients of family and gangs are handled credibly in this story, but the portrayal of the two Black characters is forced, probably because the Blacks remain ineffectively one-dimensional against the whites and their attitudes of prejudice.* * *
The Dollar Man, by Harry Mazer. New York: Delacorte, 1974.
Positives and negatives of a one-parent family are convincingly explored in this novel about fourteen-year-old Marcus Rosenbloom.
Until his fourteenth year, Marcus has felt reasonably secure in his relationship with his mother, although he has experienced uncomfortable moments with his peers when the subject of fathers has come up. He knows nothing about his father. His mother, Sally, has only explained that she didn't want to marry him.
Over the years Marcus's close relationship with Sally and his positive relationship with her boyfriend has been enough. However, during his fourteenth year, Marcus experiences insecurities about being overweight. He envies his peers and dreams about his father.
Marcus then becomes involved with a new group at school and is suspended on a "bum rap" of marijuana possession. As the result of a confrontation with his mother, he learns his father's name for the first time. Marcus traces the clues he finds and finally locates his father, only to discover that he is not the kind man of his dreams. He is a shallow man with negative values, a man he doesn't know or want to know.
This is an important book because of its realistic exploration of the pressures on a child by his peers and society when he has only one parent. The positives of the mother-son relationship are explicit enough not to be obliterated by Marcus's obsession over finding his father.* * *
The Edge of Next Year, by Mary Stolz. New York: Harper, 1974.
Family problems are dealt with in this story of Orin Woodard, aged fourteen. His mother is killed in an accident and his father turns to alcohol because of his grief. Orin thus becomes the head of the family but he, too, finds it hard to accept his mother's death. Later, in a harrowing experience in a cave, Orin accepts the reality of life and wanting to live.
This is an unusual family story. Each person is a unique individual. The father loves to read poetry and was a political reporter for a liberal newspaper. Mother was a bird watcher and brother Victor knows everything about animals.
Orin finds it hard to understand the individual reactions to his mother's death. His father is lost in despair and Victor, obsessed with collecting specimens, doesn't seem to miss her very much. Orin's own return to reality at the end implies his understanding of the others' reactions to his mother's death.* * *
The Family under the Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carlson. Pictures by Garth Williams. New York: Harper, 1958.
A mother and her three children, evicted from their home, take refuge under a bridge in Paris. Armand, an old hobo who declares he hates children, discovers them there. But it is evident that Armand has a heart, because he shares his food with the family. He also learns that the children can serve to his advantage in his solicitations on the streets of Paris. Armand poses as the grandfather of these poor motherless waifs and it is even more appealing to sympathetic givers when the children sing, for it is the Christmas season.
Armand takes the children to visit Father Christmas and their greatest wish is to have a home where all the family can be together. Later, the children are discovered by two women who decide to seek help for them. To escape social workers they must leave, so Armand takes them to live with his friends in a gypsy camp. All is well for a while, but trouble develops and the gypsies have to leave. There seems to be no place to go, until Armand, now the children's adopted grandfather, decides to take a job. With the job he is able to provide living quarters for the family.
Throughout this story, one is impressed with the strong feeling of families who wish to stay together. We also are introduced, in a warm and positive way, to the life style of a hobo and to gypsies.* * *
A Girl Like Me, by Jeannette Eyerly. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966.
Beginning with a double date (in separate cars), Robin finds herself involved in more than she is prepared to handle. She subsequently develops a questionable relationship with Randy Griffin and later discovers that her friend Cass is pregnant.
The story follows the theme of the trials of pregnancy out of wedlock and the unreadiness of teens to face the problems of love and marriage. More importantly, this narrative reveals family relationships. Cass's father and mother had great expectations of her. When she becomes pregnant, her father is so angry that he places her in a home for unwed mothers.
Through her involvement with Cass, and her trauma over what might happen to Cass's baby, Robin, who is an adopted child, has a sudden need to know who her parents are. She starts a search on her own, secretly taking information from her adoption papers. After finding out her mother's name, she locates an old lady who tells her about her mother's death. Robin then realizes the blessings of being loved by a new father and mother.
The search and discovery may seem a little too easy, but the story shows believable insight to the adoptive child's sometimes overwhelming need to know who his or her real parents are.* * *
The Glass Room, by Mary Towne. Drawings by Richard Cuffari. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
Two boys in very different family situations exchange feelings about their pain and frustrations. Robin's family are all musical. He is frustrated by the constant noise and clutter. Simon's mother and father are separated. Simon and his architect father live in a house with a glass room, his father's studio.
Each of the boys finds himself feeling jealous of the other's way of life. Robin thinks the glass room and the quiet and solitude of Simon's home is perfect. On the other hand, Simon finds the humor, noise, and activeness of Robin's family delightful.
An accident, in which Simon breaks his ankle, brings a lot of things into focus. When Robin goes to Simon's father for help, and he refuses to listen, Robin realizes that there is a difference between quietness and really listening and caring.
In the end, the two families get together, including Simon's mother, who has come for a visit. Each boy settles into his own way of life, with a few changes in perception brought about by their summer's relationship.* * *
Guy Lenny, by Harry Mazer. New York: Delacorte, 1971.
This story deals with the problem of families broken by divorce. Guy has lived with his father since his mother left home to marry another man. When the story begins, he is faced with the realization that his father has established a relationship with another woman, which weakens the strong father-son bond. Guy resents the courtship, but doesn't feel the full impact of its meaning until his mother returns to town. His mother, after talking with his father, has come to take Guy to live with her and his stepfather. Guy feels his father has lied to him by implying that they would always be together. He runs away to be alone for a while, and then returns. Nothing is resolved, except that Guy realizes that no matter with whom he lives, now he is somehow apart from both his mother and father and must make decisions for himself.
The presentation of the parents is not as negative as in some novels of this type. One understands that Guy has made it difficult for his father by refusing to relate to the girlfriend, and his mother tries, however unsuccessfully, to explain her earlier decision to leave him.* * *
The Happy Orphelines, by Natalie Savage Carlson. Pictures by Garth Williams. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.
This is the story of Brigitte and the other girls who live in a Paris orphanage. A special kind of family with love and sharing is portrayed through the little girl who wants more than anything not to be adopted.
This book demonstrates that love can be found in situations other than the nuclear family. It also demonstrates how the child views herself, in contrast to how the world views her. Happy times among the family of orphans contrast with outsiders' view of them as pitiful orphans.* * *
Henry 3, by Joseph Krumgold. Drawings by Alvin Smith. New York: Atheneum, 1967.
Through Henry Lovering, who has an IQ of one hundred and fifty-four, the frustrations of the "special" child are revealed. Henry is tired of being ostracized by his peers because of his smartness. When his family settles in suburban Crestview, he hopes to keep his IQ a secret, but Fletcher Larkin discovers his genius and threatens to expose him.
Added to Henry's struggle to relate positively to his peers is the theme of life in an affluent community. False value systems and pressures are credibly exposed as other members of the family seek position and security in the new community.
A sudden hurricane takes a couple of lives, shocks residents into new values, brings Henry and father closer together, and adds a new member to the Lovering family.* * *
Home from the Hill, by Margaret Baker. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
In this pleasant, fast reading book, four children set out to reunite their family by finding a suitable home during a housing shortage in England.
The family's cottage home is destroyed in a flood and they are forced to move to a crowded flat in town. Mamma has twins and papa is out of a job and the health inspectors remove them from their flat. The family is separated—the two girls sent to a home for girls, the boys to another site, mom and the twins taken care of in a hospital, while father searches for work.
The family still communicates but most of all they want to be together. Although the arrangements are temporary, the children become impatient and hatch a scheme to escape and search for a suitable home for the whole family. Aided by a beautiful African girl, Liberty, the girls escape on bikes to join their brothers in flight from the authorities and in search of a house. They find refuge in the cottage Liberty has suggested as a hideout, but soon they must move on, for the authorities are close in pursuit. They escape to another house, where they encounter a young runaway who aids them in their second escape. When they are later captured, all is well because their friends have helped to arrange for the family to be together again.
An enjoyable and lightly suspenseful story emphasizing strong feelings of family togetherness.* * *
I Know You, Al, by Constance Greene. Illus. by Bryon Barton. New York: Viking, 1975.
Sequel to A Girl Called Al, which follows Al through the development of family problems when her mom meets a new boyfriend and Al worries about whether she will marry him. Humorous perspectives of adolescent growing pains are seen.
Al was introduced in A Girl Called Al as being different, independent, wearing pigtails, a bit overweight, with a high IQ and wanting to take shop. The concentration is on Al as an individual and her relationship to her friend Kate. The family situation is exposed in this earlier title, however, as we are introduced to Al's divorced parents and her feelings about them. There is also an element of the need for surrogate parentage as Al and Kate spend time with the building superintendent, a friendly and unconventional man.* * *
Life of Keshav: A Family Story from India, by Rama Mehta. Illus. by Negri. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.
Life within a poverty-stricken family in India is exposed through this story of Keshav, who faces many problems when he receives help which enables him to attend a city school. The setting, emotions and conflicts are sometimes better portrayed than the characters. The atmosphere in the home is not conducive to studying. Keshav is caught between the values and rituals of his village life and his desire to get an education. The conflict forms the vehicle by which a view of the family is presented.* * *
The Long Journey, by Barbara Corcoran. Illus. by Charles Robinson. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
Thirteen-year-old Laurie takes a long journey to get help for her grandfather, who is going blind. Laurie has lived alone with her grandfather since her parents were killed. They live near an old abandoned mining town, where their life is simple and devoid of modern conveniences. Steering clear of the authorities, who might take her away, Laurie doesn't go to school. Instead she takes a correspondence course and reads anything available. When it is certain that her grandfather is losing his sight, he sends her on horseback to Butte, Montana to solicit help from her uncle.
On the trip she encounters a weird stranger dressed in black robes. When he threatens her and almost takes her captive, she is convinced that her grandfather is right about the viciousness of the world outside their remote home. She escapes and is later rescued from a storm by a lonely retired school teacher. At the teacher's house Laurie experiences use of many modern conveniences for the first time—a bathtub, a television, a gas stove, etc. The only person whom she meets and really trusts is an Indian boy who helps her get her bearings when she is lost.
Finally she arrives in Butte and her uncle arranges an operation to save her grandfather's sight. When her uncle requests that she stay, Laurie is faced with the decision whether to stay and discover more about the "outside world" or to return to her former way of life with her grandfather. She decides to return.
Variations in life styles provide one of the central themes of this story. Her grandfather distrusts modern ways of living, but he needs modern medicine to save his eyesight. Laurie has learned to enjoy bathtubs, fancy meals, symphonies, libraries, etc. She now faces life with fewer negative attitudes, and accepts the invitation to spend summers in the city with her aunt and uncle.* * *
Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me, by Norma Klein. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Scratcher lives in a liberated world where adults discuss serious matters with children—like love, sex, marriage and divorce. Scratcher's mother is a single parent. She never married and doesn't apologize for it. Her child is not sensitive about not having a father, except that it presents a minor problem when they have father's day at school.
At a political march, mother meets the "wolf man" (he owns a wolf hound). Scratcher likes the wolf man, but she hopes that he and her mom will not get married. Contrary to the liberated view of the mother presented in the beginning, mom does marry the wolf man.
This story is important for its view of contemporary thinking and its presentation of options for life styles. Some roles are a little overplayed, but humor provides a balance.* * *
Naomi in the Middle, by Norma Klein. Illus. by Leigh Grant. New York: Dial, 1974.
Naomi is a seven-year-old second child. She and her older brother face the arrival of a new baby. This rather slight story portrays sibling rivalry and attempts to explore questions of birth and sex. The answers regarding pregnancy and sex are rather inadequate but some may find them appropriate for an early age group.* * *
A Quiet Place, by Rose Blue. Pictures by Tom Feelings. New York: Franklin Watts, 1969.
A somewhat slight book about a boy who searches for a quiet place to read, away from the family noises and interruptions, and away from friends who would rather play. More importantly, this is the story of a family of loving parents and foster-children.
In the beginning, Matthew, who is nine, has some bad experiences in foster-homes devoid of love. Then he is placed with a mama and daddy who love him and want him. He also acquires a new sister and a baby brother.
Tom Feelings' illustrations add to the text, making this a warm portrayal of a Black family.* * *
The Rock and Willow, by Mildred Lee. New York: Lothrop, 1963.
This story is placed in the 1930's on an Alabama farm where Enie Singleton lives with her family in poverty. During her high school years Enie copes with her mother's death and the death of her sister. When her father remarries she feels resentment and eventually leaves home to pursue her dream of being a writer or a teacher.
There are many ingredients which give power and depth to this narrative. The lifestyle, foods and community surrounding this family are adequately presented. Enie's projection into early adulthood and her assumption of adult chores and roles are credible. The alienation of her sixteen-year-old brother from his father is sharply epitomized by the demands placed upon him to work, which leave no time for recreation. Family selectiveness is shown as Enie's father shows tender feelings only toward the younger sister. Brother Leroy, who is Enie's favorite companion, lives in a world of unreality which is perhaps an escape mechanism. Enie has a brief love affair with a wanderer. When she makes up her mind to leave, she symbolically throws away the strap her father has used for whippings. In conversation with her Aunt, her Aunt says, "you got to ask or take or get left out."* * *
Sister, by Eloise Greenfield; with drawings by Moneta Barnett. New York: Crowell, 1974.
A Black family's chronicle of joys and sorrows as told by Doretha, aged thirteen. Doretha's older sister Albertha has quit school and spends most of her time hanging around with a gang. Doretha is afraid she will be influenced by Albertha, but determines not to be.
The joys portrayed include happy scenes of the father interacting with his wife and daughters; a trip to hear a favorite singing group; a holiday picnic in the park with family and friends; and attending Sister Shani's School of Black Freedom. Episodes of sorrow include the father's death from a sudden heart attack; mama's retreat from the girls to handle her own sorrow; mama's encounter with a man whom she later discovers is married; and Albertha's involvement in a fist fight, which lands her in the hospital.
Doretha gains strength from the support offered by her family and community, but Albertha's struggle with herself is not won. This is a quietly moving and believable story.* * *
Teacup Full of Roses, by Sharon Bell Mathis. New York: Viking, 1972.
Elements of survival within an urban Black family are explored in this book. Three brothers, Joe, Paul and Davey, are shown in all their individuality within the family group. Joe has a dream of going to the same college as his girlfriend Ellie. Paul, in spite of his extraordinary talents as an artist, is strung out on dope. Davey is very smart and shows great potential as a basketball player.
Mama becomes so involved in trying to save Paul that she can't provide the reinforcement necessary to encourage Davey and Joe in their endeavors. Pop, who has a heart condition, stays quietly in the background until he can't take it anymore. He gives what encouragement and support he can to the two sons who want to make something of their lives.
The story clearly exposes a family with needs and conflicts. The ordeal of such a family trying to maintain a sense of unity and balance is evident. Also, the positive interaction necessary to reach out to the future is described.
Mama tries to escape the reality that Paul is lost, by maintaining a false sense of hope. She provides meaningless support for him. Joe tells stories, in which he expresses his hope. He finds promise in his relationship with Ellie and in his fierce love for his brother Davey. Davey survives on his ability and inner-strength, supported by Joe's reinforcement.
In the end, tragically, Davey is killed. Paul betrays them all because of his compelling need for dope. Joe is left to reshape his world. Somehow one feels he will do it positively.
A unique view of family and community support systems is offered in the author's Listen for the Fig Tree (Viking, 1974). This is the story of Muffin, who is blind and lives alone with her alcoholic mother. Her notable title, The Hundred Penny Box (Viking, 1975) beautifully portrays the positives of relationships between the very young and the very old.* * *
Tuned Out, by Maia Wojciechowska. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.
Although this book presents a study of the drug culture, family relationships are basic to the theme. Young Jim worships his older brother, Kevin, and suffers acute disappointment and confusion when he discovers that Kevin is hooked on drugs.
When Kevin is later hospitalized, his basic problem is revealed. He has found it impossible to handle his family's dependency upon him. Since hearing his parents state when he was younger that they would remain together only because of him, Kevin has assumed that the family's togetherness depended upon him.
The story of Kevin's drug involvement and response to them is not as credible as in some other books, for example, Go Ask Alice. More realistically presented are the themes of hero worship and of pressures in family relationships.* * *
Abby, by Jeannette Caines. Illus. by Stephen Kellogg. New York: Harper, 1973.
A warm and simple story of an adopted child. Abby is happy, lively and fascinated by the fact that she is adopted. She loves to look at her baby book and hear the story of how she was found by her family. Realizing her need for this affirmation, Kevin, her older brother, takes her to school and brags about having a new sister to keep forever.* * *
Adam's World: San Francisco, by Kathleen Fraser and Miriam Levy. Chicago: Whitman, 1971.
Part of this loving Black family's strength lies in their cultural identity. Adam and his family live in San Francisco at the top of a tall building overlooking the bay. Father, a seaman, returns home from a trip to Africa, bringing beautiful cloth which mother sews into clothing for the family. All of them feel proud and beautiful when they wear the new outfits to a street party.* * *
Be Nice to Josephine, by Betty Horvath. Illus. by Pat Grant Porter. New York: Franklin Watts, 1970.
Families are important, even if it means giving up a day playing ball with the boys to "be nice to Josephine," who is probably pretty and who probably plays with dolls and tea sets.
What a pleasant surprise to discover that Josephine likes to fish and even digs her own fishing worms. But she is also human enough to cry when teased.
This simple picture book touches upon male and female conflicts arising from learned stereotypes. It also emphasizes the importance of making decisions in support of those close to you.* * *
Boss Cat, by Kristin Hunter. Illus. by Harold Franklin. New York: Scribner, 1971.
A slight but warm story of an incident in the life of a Black family. Tyrone Tanner wants to keep a black cat for a pet, but his mother won't let him. Later on, the "boss cat" saves the day when mamma is frightened by mice.* * *
City in the Winter, by Eleanor Schick. New York: Macmillan, 1973.
Positive portrayal of a little boy and his grandmother spending a winter afternoon together. Jimmy helps his grandmother with household chores on the day he stays home from school because there is a blizzard.* * *
A Family Failing, by Honor Arundel. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1972.
The complicated relationships which lead to a separation of parents is explored in this title. When the father eventually moves out, the daughter is forced to reshape her view of both parents. (Faults with this title are explored in Children's Literature: An IssuesApproach, by Masha Kabakow Rudman, pp. 51-52. Ms. Rudman explores the fact that many books about family problems portray the mother negatively, showing her absorbing most of the guilt for the parental conflicts.)* * *
Friday Night Is Papa Night, by Ruth Sonneborn. Illus. by Emily McCully. New York: Viking, 1970.
Although viewed in a setting of poverty, the strengths and love of a Puerto Rican family are seen as the children wait for papa to come on Friday night. Papa works at two jobs far away from home, so he only comes home on Friday night. The children are worried when papa doesn't appear at the usual time. He arrives late because he took a sick friend home. The children are happy to get their usual presents but the best gift is to have papa home safe.* * *
I Would Rather Be a Turnip, by Vera and Bill Cleaver. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971.
As is typical, this writing pair offers a readable and believable presentation of an atypical family situation. Annie Jelks faces adjustment to having her illegitimate nephew come for a visit. Annie has decided to hate Calvin upon his arrival, but her sympathies are aroused when others in the small town taunt the warm and exceptional child. Annie's changing attitude is affected by the Black maid, who is shown in a warm relationship to the children.* * *
Then Again, Maybe I Won't, by Judy Blume. Scarsdale, N.Y.: Bradbury, 1971.
Thirteen-year-old Tony is worried about things like nocturnal emissions and erections, but his major problem is his view of the family. His father, having sold an electrical invention, becomes a success and moves the family from Jersey City to a big house on Long Island. Tony dislikes the "keep up with the Joneses" attitude around him. His questioning of the family's sense of values causes him acute stomach pains. Because there is no physical reason for the pains, Tony sees a psychiatrist, who begins to help him face his conflicts.* * *
Trouble in the Jungle, by John Rowe Townsend. Illus. by W. T. Mars. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969.
The adventures of four English children temporarily abandoned to live in an empty warehouse in a slum area. Their survival is complicated by their irresponsible Uncle Walter's involvement with a gang of criminals. Sequel to this story is Goodbye to the Jungle, in which the family moves to a development project. Walter, the ne'er-do-well head of the family, finds himself in trouble with the police. Kevin, 15, and Sandra, 14, assume responsibility for holding the family together.* * *
Where Is Daddy? The Story of a Divorce, by Beth Goff. Illus. by Susan Perl. Boston: Beacon, 1969.
As often happens in the case of a divorce, the little girl in the story blames herself for her parents' divorce. Her mother and grandmother help her to understand that the problem is between her parents, and is not her fault.
Masha Kabakow Rudman (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: Rudman, Masha Kabakow. "Family." In Children's Literature: An Issues Approach, pp. 27-45. New York, N.Y.: Longman, Inc., 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Rudman constructs a reference guide to modern children's literature focusing on unconventional families, subdividing her list into several particular subject categories such as divorce, adoption, foster families, and orphaned children.]
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TYPES OF UNCONVENTIONAL FAMILIES: FOSTER, ADOPTED, HOMOSEXUAL
Douglas Powers (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: Powers, Douglas. "Of Time, Place, and Person: The Great Gilly Hopkins and the Problems of Story for Adopted Children." Children's Literature in Education 15, no. 4 (1984): 211-19.
[In the following essay, Powers observes that Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins provides an accurate portrayal of a child without a family trapped within the foster care system.]
Gilly, otherwise known as the Great Gilly Hopkins, central character in Katherine Paterson's award-winning story by the same name, has great difficulty in asserting control over her nomadic life as an 11-year-old foster child. Three foster homes in three years; before that we do not know how many. At times when stressed by an adult who intrusively (in her view) calls her Gilly, she musters, in a few short words, her quest for control, identity, and dignity: "My name is Galadriel," she says (p. 3). On another occasion, when a new teacher, who associates her name with a character in J. R. R. Tolkien, courteously asks if she may call her Galadriel, the answer is different: an unmistakable "No" (p. 21). The intention is the same—control and distance.
This young girl has developed a ready supply of automatic responses, all aimed at self-protection and control of intruders, real or fancied. Her world view is of an ever-threatening place. She reads that world at lightning-quick speed and responds accordingly, though she is not always as discerning as she might be. But she does not wish to place herself at further risk; later she may modify her responses so that they are more appropriate to the present rather than the past, with its accumulation of disappointments and hurts.
There are many Gillys in our country. Informed estimates put the figure for children in foster care at about 500,000. In 1975 about 100,000 of them were available for adoption.1 These children are rarely orphans in a biological sense, but many of them are orphans in a psychological or sociological sense. Their status as foster children has come about through parental neglect, abuse, abandonment, and usually combinations of destructive, inadequate, and irresponsible parental child care. Some of them have been back and forth from parent to foster care several times; others have been in continuous foster care most of their lives.
Foster care takes many forms. Most children are placed with families who are licensed as foster parents, but there are also small group homes and children's homes, the last being the institutions (many are church-related) which were once called orphanages. Each child in foster care represents a separate story, a story with its own dynamics, in which parental immaturities, inadequacies, discords, disabilities, and plain hard luck may play a role. The child in each story represents loss—of satisfying human relationships—the losses occurring at critical times in a developing life. It is not surprising that frequently there are scars, open sores, unhealed wounds and festering abscesses, physical and emotional.
Gilly Hopkins, 11, cannot remember her own mother, who apparently left home to be a flower child in Haight. She does have a picture of the beautiful Courtney Rutherford Hopkins and a letter of endearment from her mother, her legacy when she was placed into foster care as a very young child. At least she has some concrete words and an image before her on which to build her fantasy of a beautiful, wealthy mother who will rescue her some day from the "undesirable" substitutes who try to care for her. In her third foster home in three years, Mrs. Trotter's, Gilly begins to learn from an unknown grandmother, who unexpectedly shows up, of the runaway Courtney who has not been in touch with her mother (her father has since died) for thirteen years (pp. 108-109). The grandmother has only recently learned that she has a granddaughter, and each word of the attempted conversation for the both of them is like the awkward uncertain steps of a baby wanting to walk.
Actual foster children the author has encountered have both better and worse times than Gilly.2 The Chandler children, two boys and two girls, were placed together in foster care when their struggling mother had an insidious emotional breakdown and was hospitalized for more than a year. Their father, in prison at the time, when released, found a job first, then his children, and together they visited the mother. Later, after the mother had been home for some time, the children were returned, and the family remained intact. The Chandler children had a sense of place and of parents.
Others are not so fortunate. Cynthia had been in twelve foster homes by the age of 6. Ralph had been in three foster homes and had been adopted twice (both failures) by the age of 10. Mary had been in several foster homes from age 5 to 8, having been originally removed from her reclusive father who had been reported for repeated sexual misuse and offering her to others for the same purpose. Carson, at 7, had severe scars on his hands and arms, the result of his mother's holding his extremities to a hot stove and from jabs with her lighted cigarettes. Yet his tissues and his spirit struggled for survival, and in quiet moments he cried for his absent "mama." William, at 9, had three foster home experiences and had been left by his mother with a baby sitter one December. He did not know that each of his parents had gone in a different direction. "They said they'd be back to get me in time for Christmas," he said. He waited each year, and as Christmas came and went, and no parents with it, the boy became more confused. But he insisted, "I've got parents, and I don't want any others."
The coping efforts within this large group of children are limitless. Some take on the coloration of the Great Gilly Hopkins; some lie, deny, steal, run away; some have sleeping and eating disturbances; some are hostile and aggressive, even sadistic; some are passive victims awaiting the next anticipated insult, their self-fulfilling prophecy usually working. Many have major academic deficits and delays; some make immediate attachments that are unfeeling empty motions; some cannot make and keep friends; many are jealous and greedy. The list is long.
They act and react in hundreds of ways, most of them reflective of the aftermath of a child's lack of nurture and proper care, including love. The children are constantly concerned with their losses and their life stories, both consciously and unconsciously. They are continually trying to create or recreate their own worlds. Their wishes and dreams often clash resoundingly with the expectations of foster care and adoptive persons, a strong reason for the frequent shifts in place (and significant persons) and the further fragmentation of their life histories. Not all foster experiences by any means fit this pattern, but it is a shockingly frequent one.
The supply of children without adequate care from biological parents does not remain constant. It multiplies. When the numbers grow large and public concern reaches a certain level, we have historically made certain bold moves. In the 1850s when the concentration of unattached youths in our eastern cities reached thousands and thousands, they were loaded on trains going into the midlands and western reaches of this country.3 Unloaded along the railway at small stations, they waited to be selected by farmers and ranchers who drove their wagons to the station to pick out from the waifs a supply of hands for labor. Close to one hundred thousand children had been placed in this way between the 1850s and 1900, but no formal study was done as to how they fared.4 Some, no doubt, fared all right. After the Civil War we developed orphanages and children's homes as places for parentless children to grow up. Then in the early part of this century, we pursued the plan of foster care with families.
Adoption has been around for a long time, either as an informal or formal means of providing homes for unattached children. Generally, adoption has been for infants and more realistically might be referred to as "finding babies for those who want to adopt." At any rate, with the marked sociological changes that have occurred since the 1940s, the availability of infants for adoption has declined steadily.
A large number of persons want to adopt children for various reasons; and with a growing awareness that foster care was not proving to be a very good way to "grow up" for many of our floating children, we have in the last decade embraced the idea of "permanency" for them. This would seem to be a good idea. However, we are talking about older children, not infants; and the ease with which children are assimilated into living situations other than their biological families decreases as age increases. Although there are different routes to permanency, it has come to mean adoption primarily.5
That is where more troubles arise with the foster care children under discussion. In a hurried, harried world that seeks for an all-purpose formula or method that will bring high yield for a minimum of effort, it is not surprising that we have taken this approach with our surplus, damaged, older children. If permanence equates with adoption, then perhaps the sooner it can be brought about, the better. That probably holds true for infants and may be desirable for children of any age. However, adoption is far more complicated for older children.
As a result we have moved these children into adoption with great haste. Many have never been clear about their origins or even the part of the country from which they came. Some have strong attachments to their biological families, but others can name few or no relatives. Parental whereabouts frequently are unknown. The children are confused about many important matters. In addition, their frequent moves, most often under crisis conditions, contribute to lowered self-esteem with unresolved anger; and lacerated partial attachments leave them even more confused.
The beginnings of their life stories are unknown or hidden and distorted. Often the characters are poorly identified, and place is not even an old oak tree viewed through a dirty windowpane, or a pattern of ceiling cracks in an early childhood bedroom. But if a clear beginning is not there, sometimes it can be created.
The beautiful Courtney Rutherford Hopkins, formerly of Virginia, the mother of Galadriel Hopkins, alias Gilly, lived in splendor somewhere in that distant enchanting land of light called California. Gilly said, "in California the sun always shines" (p. 86), as she shivered her way toward the tiny bus station where her carefully laid plan to reach California (on a ticket she would buy with stolen money) would be all too obvious to the experienced clerk.
Out of the morass of memories and emotions described, children have been placed in the chutes for rapid release and adoptive placement, too often with minimal effort in helping them put their life stories together. With a low sense of self-worth, a high level of mistrust, and their less than gratifying histories, children have been placed in adoptive homes in a matter of a week or two after being informed; and many have been placed across the continent without even sightly knowing their adoptive families. When an adoption fails, the popular thing to do has been another quick adoptive placement, even in a few days or weeks. Families (or single persons) in recent years have not been subject, as a rule, to any pervasive or searching preadoptive study, another important reason for the failures.6
That families are willing to adopt under these circumstances shows us the importance of children (for many reasons) in the lives of adults and the compelling wish or need to do good work. Unfortunately, such families also exhibit a woeful lack of knowledge and often commitment required to optimally parent someone else's child, and in many instances a complete disregard for what has gone before. Also, expectations of these older, adopted children are often completely unrealistic.
According to the author's inquiries, over fifty percent of the adoptions of older, troubled children fail. This gains perspective when compared with a failure of less than five percent for children adopted as infants. The wonder is that the figure is not higher for the older group, and it may be, since any reliable, official figures are almost impossible to obtain.
The Great Gilly is fortunate that her third foster home in three years is with the overweight, bordering-on-the-illiterate Trotter, who in fact is a rare, if somewhat unreal, mixture of insight, heart, and patience. She sets few limits, but they are real ones; she absorbs the angry squawkings of the lonely Gilly; and above all she is neither destroyed nor narcissistically injured by Gilly's verbal attacks and general hard-headedness. Gilly, over her protest, is moved by her caseworker to live with the old-fashioned maternal grandmother in Loudon County, Virginia. She occupies temporarily the like-it-was room of her uncle who had been shot down in Vietnam. Then her mother, at the grandmother's urging and purchase of an airline ticket, comes home from California for an overnight visit. Gilly's mother is no longer the beautiful Courtney Rutherford Hopkins of Gilly's fantasy, but a disheveled mosaic of conflict, immaturely arrested and invested in herself, with nothing left over for a nearly 12-year-old daughter.
Gilly's moment of truth is at hand. At a pay telephone she drops in her coins, and when Trotter answers, Gilly, beginning to cry, tells her that she is coming home. Trotter informs Gilly that home is with her grandmother, that she should stay there (pp. 146-148):
"Go to hell, Trotter," Gilly said softly.
With rare irony, Trotter responded, "Well, I don't know about that, I had planned on settling somewheres else."
"Trotter, I love you." After more mutually affirming, intimate conversation by long distance, Gilly announced, "I'm ready to go home now."
The bubble of fantasy that had protected her has exploded. But the new reality brings relief. Gilly Hopkins now has enough of the parts of her life story together, enough of a sense of time, place, and person to come closer to accepting herself without continually waging her exaggerated, self-protective, yet self-destructive war against the world.
So many foster children need assistance in finding and assembling the parts of their life stories. Someone has to go back with them and help unearth the parts. This needs to be done, if at all possible, before the older, troubled child is placed for adoption. Finding and placing in perspective one's life history is a major undertaking and does not need to be complicated by the stresses of adapting to a new family in a new place at the same time.
The return to the past for story parts can be done through combined approaches. Psychotherapy uses recall and play, wishes, and dreams to capture fragments of memories and to express feelings, whatever valences they may hold, about the mechanical march of disappointing, hurtful events in the lives of these children. Throughout the process the building of relationships of trust is of central importance.
At all times in the search for story, it is vital to gather data and record them as concretely as possible. The child works at "growing" a family tree a branch or twig at a time. There are trips to the town where the child was born, looking for familiar landmarks (a school, a street, a house) or familiar faces. Letters of inquiry go forth, visits are made to courthouse records, old newspapers are scanned—whatever will bring in a piece of information. One tries to find family and relatives (brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin). The children often want to see persons from their own families, even though unable to live with them. There are forays to cemeteries to read tombstone inscriptions of parents, grandparents, siblings, and relatives. If a parent is in prison, the child may be taken there to visit. Many pictures are made, with the child as photographer or at least helping. In this extended, time-consuming endeavor, much information is exhumed, some of it unpleasant and disturbing. But there are always some matters in which the child can take pride; such islands of joy, however small, are sought for with resolve.
Given the time and support necessary to pursue their stories, most children are able to put their lives into a more satisfactory perspective. Those who have felt that all the past troubles were because of their "badness" find out differently. Angers and confusion are dissipated and clarified. Unrealistic fantasies are no longer as necessary. Of much importance is the fact that the child is actively engaged in the search, and is considered important enough by adults to warrant their extended assistance in the search.
When the story begins to develop some sense of continuity and meaning, the children are nearing readiness to think about their futures. The timetable must be their own, however. They must have a voice in finding their permanency, which may be an adoptive home. If so, the chances that the adoption will succeed have been greatly increased (especially if proper attention has been given to selection of a particular family for a particular child). Whatever the more permanent living arrangement that seems most desirable for a child (adoption, guardianship with a foster family, small group home or children's home), the chances are increased for a more satisfying life. And for children who have found their story, there will be less need for adult careers dedicated to the lonely, wandering, sometimes frantic search for their long lost sense of person, place, and time.
Well-written stories such as The Great Gilly Hopkins, so beautiful and sensitive in its telling, so real in its grasp of the issues, have a useful place in the process of helping foster children find their lost stories. No adult can read it without becoming more aware of how and why troubled children see the world as they do. The Great Gilly Hopkins can be read to or by some children who are ready to look for their own histories, and this may help to give them heart and hope. There is so much of value in the story, and here only a few isolated events have been mentioned.
After Gilly's grandmother comes to visit while Trotter is sick, and it appears that Gilly will go to live with her at a later time, the girl muses: "I just wanted—what had she wanted? A home—but Trotter has tried to give her that. Permanence—Trotter had wanted to give her that as well. No, what she wanted was something Trotter had no power over. To stop being a 'foster child'…"(p. 124).
Most of these children are tired of being foster children (with all that the phrase implies), and this, despite the fact that there are some good foster parents. They want a place where they belong, a place they can call home, peopled with love. Joe, a 6-year-old abandoned by parents who were migrant workers, said it clearly:
On Buying a Child
families in quick succession
had turned him in
will not show affection
was the given reason
in both instances
When he talked with me
he spoke of being sold
by one family to another
now he was waiting to be
sold and bought again
He didn't know by whom
but said he wanted
to be bought by someone
where he could stay
Before he left that day
he came closer and asked
to give me a hug saying
that if you liked someone
a hug would tell them so
Then he paused at the door
turned and asked if ever
I'd thought of buying a child
to live at my house7
- Broadening Adoption Opportunity, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Development Services, Administration for Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau, Washington, D.C., April, 1980.
- Stories cited are from the author's personal files.
- C. L. Brace, Dangerous Classes of New York (1872), p. 253.
- M. Z. Langsom, "Children West," paper prepared for the Department of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1964.
- D. Powers and J. Y. Powell, "A Role for Residential Treatment in Preparation for Adoption"
- Douglas Powers, ed., Adoption for Troubled Children, p. 145.
- Adoption for Troubled Children, p. 201.
Paterson, Katherine, The Great Gilly Hopkins. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978 (Avon edition, 1979).
Powers, D., and Powell, J. Y., "A Role for Residential Treatment in Preparation for Adoption," Residential Group Care and Treatment, 1982, I (2), 3-18.
Powers, Douglas, ed., Adoption for Troubled Children. New York: Haworth Press, 1984.
Claudia Mills (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Mills, Claudia. "Children in Search of a Family: Orphan Novels through the Century." Children's Literature in Education 18, no. 4 (1987): 227-39.
[In the following essay, Mills provides a critical analysis of the portrayal of orphans in children's literature throughout the twentieth century, commenting that "novels about orphan children reveal some deeper truth about how our society views children and how it views itself."]
As long as there have been novels about children, there have been novels about orphans. The child emerged as the focus of literary attention for the first time in Wordsworth's and Blake's celebration of childish innocence, giving rise to the sentimentalized portrait of the Romantic child so familiar in the Victorian novel.1 And with a striking frequency, the child protagonists of Victorian fiction were orphan children. The great novelists of the nineteenth century who explored the world of childhood created a gallery of memorable orphan children: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Silas Marner's Eppie. For all the reasons that childhood itself appealed to literary sensibilities of the time, orphanhood was more appealing still. Peter Coveney, in his study of the idea of childhood in English literature, attributes the appeal of childhood to the fact that "in childhood lay the perfect image of insecurity and isolation, fear and bewilderment, vulnerability and potential violation" to expose the encroaching evils of the industrial revolution.2 And among children, who is more insecure and isolated, frightened and bewildered, vulnerable and potentially violated, than the orphan? Just as the child figure in literature has been used to embody themes about the nature of man,3 so orphan children have been used to dramatize the perils and possibilities of childhood.
Orphans have abounded in novels for children as well; novels about orphans may seem more the rule than the exception in classic children's literature. At some level, every child envies the orphan. The orphan child represents pure possibility, freedom from family ties that chafe and bind. Yet almost every orphan novel in the end is about the search for a family: the protagonist finds a home, finds loving and caring adults to whom he can belong. Thus the orphan novel both allows the child reader to escape vicariously from the confines of family ties and stresses their importance.
Orphan novels have remained a mainstay of children's fiction throughout this century. But twentieth-century orphan novels exhibit marked changes as the century progresses. Three great bursts of literary interest in orphans can be identified, occurring in the early years of the century, in the 1940s, and in recent years. The novels within each period show a remarkable family resemblance; equally remarkable is the change in the image of orphanhood over time. The effervescent, exuberant orphans of the century's early years give way to the passive, polite orphans of the 1940s and early 1950s, culminating in the angry, bitter "orphans" (often actually foster children) of more recent fiction.4 While I cannot undertake here a full historical and sociological explanation of why these changes occur, I want to suggest ways in which these changes align themselves with evolutions in how childhood itself has come to be perceived.
Effervescent, Exuberant Orphans
Within the span of a decade four of the most famous orphan novels of all time appeared in succession: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), Anne of Green Gables (1908), Daddy Long-Legs (1912), and Pollyanna (1913).5 In all four novels the heroine is immediately recognizable as a literary type, the Romantic child: innocent, uncorrupted, and in late Victorian popular fiction, much sentimentalized. Although these child protagonists have endured grief, loss, neglect, abuse, poverty, and friendlessness, they appear absolutely unscathed and unscarred by these experiences.6 Anne's exuberance and imagination are undimmed by years of foster care where she was used as little more than a household drudge. Pollyanna's zeal to play the "glad game" has survived the death of her mother, a childhood of poverty, and finally the loss of her beloved father as well. Jerusha (Judy) Abbott endures eighteen years of institutionalization with her sense of humor and infectious high spirits intact. Rebecca is packed off to Aunt Miranda and Aunt Jane with eagerness for a great adventure, not with the sense that she is unwanted at home. Above all, years of lovelessness have done nothing to temper these children's seemingly boundless capacity to give and receive love.
The four novels share a basic structure. In each the heroine is placed in a situation where she is initially unloved or unwanted, but she proceeds undaunted to unleash her pent-up love upon the first object in her path, however inappropriate. At first the love is lavished where it is distinctly unwanted; in the end, it is the dearest of all objects to its possessor.
Anne arrives at Green Gables because of a mistake: the Cuthberts send a second-hand message to the orphanage that they want an orphan boy to help Matthew with the farming; along the way their instructions are garbled and Anne arrives instead. Scarcely daunted by Marilla's forbidding reception of her, Anne pours out her heart in endless conversations that end up working their magic on Marilla, despite her complaints about Anne's "chattering on." When Anne spontaneously gives Marilla a kiss, Marilla is "secretly vastly pleased at Anne's impulsive caress, which was probably the reason why she said brusquely, 'There, there, never mind your kissing nonsense. I'd sooner see you doing strictly as you're told.'"7 Halfway through the novel, when Anne takes her tumble off the ridgepole, Marilla finally realizes "what Anne had come to mean to her. She would have admitted that she liked Anne—nay, that she was very fond of Anne. But now she knew as she hurried wildly down the slope that Anne was dearer to her than anything on earth" (p. 237).
Jerusha Abbott, bidden to write businesslike progress reports on her studies to her determinedly anonymous patron, proceeds in her first letter to turn him into a father figure she can love and confide in. Told to address her unknown benefactor as "Mr. Smith" and correspond with him only through his secretary, she treats the instructions as a shared joke, christens him instead "Daddy Long-Legs," and sends bubbling letters that candidly relate her collegiate adventures. Gradually she forces Daddy Long-Legs into grudging correspondence with her; meanwhile her effervescent personality compels him, in the person of Jervis Pendleton, to fall in love with her.8
Rebecca and Pollyanna face in their new homes longstanding family antagonisms: in both cases their new guardian aunts—cold, stern spinsters—disapprove deeply of their dead fathers. Aunt Miranda, furthermore, issued her original invitation to Rebecca's older sister and is fairly horrified that Rebecca is coming in her stead. Of course, Rebecca's lively and affectionate nature eventually triumphs over Aunt Miranda, who, if she never expresses her love for Rebecca directly, shows it in the end by willing the brick house to Rebecca as her own.9
Pollyanna offers the supreme example of willing love into existence by a dogged belief—in the face of all evidence to the contrary—that it exists already. On her first meeting with Aunt Polly, who didn't so much as condescend to meet her long-lost niece at the train station, she "had fairly flown across the room and flung herself into her aunt's scandalized, unyielding lap" (p. 28). Throughout Pollyanna insists on believing in Aunt Polly's goodness and kindness until, clearly bested in the encounter, Aunt Polly breaks down and becomes good and kind in reality. Soon Aunt Polly, to the amazement of the hired girl Nancy, actually worries about Pollyanna for the first time. Finally Aunt Polly's anxiety over Pollyanna's car accident makes clear to all that her care of Pollyanna is no longer motivated by a sense of duty: "Yer hands don't shake, and yer eyes don't look as if ye was tryin' ter hold back the Angel o' Death himself, when you're jest doin' yer duty" (p. 167).10
In keeping with the ideal of the innocent, unspoiled, Romantic child, these heroines exhibit no moral growth in the novels; they already represent a kind of moral perfection. Thus the changes they undergo are a matter of gradual maturation rather than of any deeper character change, and even these have come as a disappointment to many readers, who regret the tempering of Anne's and Rebecca's youthful exuberance.11 Adult attempts at moral instruction are portrayed almost invariably as wrong-headed and repressive (e.g., Marilla's unfair severity when she thinks Anne has lost her amethyst brooch) or are altogether lost on the children, who persist in interpreting attempted punishments as special treats intended for their edification and delight. There is an irony in Marilla's attempting to teach Anne how to pray, when clearly Anne's joyful fellowship with nature places her closer to God than Marilla can ever hope to be.
Instead, the child heroine leads the adults in these novels closer to the kingdom of Heaven. While the children themselves remain fundamentally unchanged, others are changed enormously by them. Anne brings joy to Matthew and helps Marilla to mellow; Rebecca brings joy to Aunt Jane and helps Aunt Miranda to mellow, if less dramatically; Pollyanna gladdens the entire population of Beldingsville; Judy melts the heart of her crusty guardian and gets him to like girls (at least one in particular). This image of the child as redeemer is a familiar legacy from nineteenth-century fiction. While Reinhard Kuhn notes that "the child as savior is firmly established at the very core of the Christian and classical traditions,"12 the redemptive child found full flower in the nineteenth century, perhaps most memorably in Silas Marner, George Eliot's tale of a hardened miser returned to humanity by the love of the orphan child Eppie.13 Thus these orphan novels early in the century reinforce a view of the child's nature as inherently good and capable of transforming and redeeming adults who have grown too distant from their own childhood.
Passive, Polite Orphans
Two world wars and a prolonged depression prepare the way for a new breed of orphan and orphan story, emerging in the wake of World War II. Gone is the effervescent, bubbly orphan rushing pell-mell into her new home, compelling cold, hostile spinsters to love her in spite of themselves. The new orphan is passive, shy, reserved. Her orphan experience prior to the beginning of the novel has marked her more deeply, making her not bitter (that is still to come in orphan novels a few decades hence), but timid, excessively polite and courteous, temperamentally unable to step out of line. These novels tell the story of drooping, wilted flowers who learn to blossom. Three exemplary novels here are Sensible Kate by Doris Gates (1943), Adopted Jane by Helen Daringer (1947), and A Nickel for Alice by Frances Murphy (1951).14 These signal a new realism in the depiction of orphan characters—the abandonment of a primarily literary convention in favor of an attempt to show a real, albeit somewhat stereotyped, child—and reflect a shift in the image of the nature and needs of children.
Unlike their orphan predecessors, Kate, Jane, and Alice come into their new home situations with clear reservations. They hope to be loved and accepted, but they certainly do not expect it. Jane, for example, though thrilled about her summer placements with Mrs. Thurman and the Scotts, hardly allows herself to hope for anything more than a temporary holiday in a real home: "She'd offer to help Mrs. Scott with the housework, even though there was plenty of hired help to do it. And maybe when Mrs. Scott saw how useful she was, maybe, oh, maybe—'There you go again,' she admonished herself sternly…. 'Better not expect anything, and then you won't be disappointed'" (p. 18).15
These children are not able to express love or affection easily. When Kate has a first stirring of empathy for Mr. Tuttle and blurts out to his shy "I hope you'll like us" the warm-hearted answer, "I hope you'll like me," "The words just popping out of her like that without previous thought or planning so astonished Kate that she was completely tongue-tied immediately after they were spoken" (pp. 19-20).16 Such spontaneous expressions of feeling strike her as unseemly: "She couldn't even answer Mr. Tuttle's quick smile … but sat there worrying for fear she had said the wrong thing" (p. 20). Part of Kate's growth in the novel is her learning to express feelings. Afraid at one point that the social worker has come to take her away, she indulges in a most uncharacteristic out-burst: "I don't want to go away…. And I won't go back to Cousin Ethel. If you make me, I'll be a problem. I promise. I won't do one thing right. Not one" (p. 132).
Jane is even more reserved than Kate, answering all Mrs. Thurman's inquiries about her journey with a meek "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am," not so much from any inherent shyness as from rigid asylum notions of politeness. Jane would never dream of expressing her desire to visit again at Mrs. Thurman's—and surely not to stay forever. She is horrified when her friend India Maude wants to ask Mrs. Thurman if Jane can be invited back: "Jane was shocked at the idea. 'Promise me you won't,' she begged. 'Promise me you won't even hint'" (p. 129).
In A Nickel for Alice, Alice's inability to express feelings is a central theme. Alice cannot reciprocate the (admittedly somewhat lukewarm) affection shown to her by her first foster mother; in her second foster home, Alice longs to call Mrs. Potter "Mother" as she's urged, "but the word 'Mother' would not come out … something held her back" (p. 86). Like Jane, Alice is alarmed at a friend's suggestion that she should tell Mrs. Potter that she wants to stay: "Oh no, I couldn't do that…. Promise you won't say anything about it. They might keep me just because they're so good, but they really want a boy and it wouldn't be fair" (p. 74). But finally at the crucial moment, she makes herself express her heart's desire: "Taking one deep breath to give herself courage, she burst out, 'I don't want to go away. I want to stay here'" (p. 136).
Hand in hand with these children's inability to express emotion goes an abiding concern with meeting adults' expectations. All three are obedient children, fond of order and stability, eager housekeepers determined to earn adult approval with mop and dustcloth. Doris Gates tells us flat out that "Kate liked order. It was the opposite of messiness and its presence gave you the feeling of knowing what you were about" (p.13). Jane Douglas is a natural choice when Mrs. Thurman writes the orphanage requesting a summer visitor who is "quiet and well-behaved" (p. 6). She is so doggedly polite that her very excess of good manners comes to seem a species of rudeness, as when she refuses to let Mrs. Thurman spend any money buying her summer dresses and persists in addressing the servants as "ma'am." Alice Wright is described by orphanage authorities as "an intelligent girl, she is quiet and obedient and we have no trouble with her"(p. 3). Like Kate, she thrives on cleanliness and order; Alice is gratified at having her dream come true of at last being able to wash dishes "with plenty of hot water and soap and stacks of clean towels" (p.17).
In each of these books, the orphan child learns to have fun, to let loose, to try out her imagination—to be more like a child. While "Sensible Kate" learns to accept herself as sensible and to value that trait as highly as "cuteness," she also manages to "change the pattern" and to explore other ways of being. Initially alarmed to learn that Chris is an artist ("Artists were … she believed, highly impractical people";p. 33), Kate soon revels in the Clines' bohemian lifestyle. At first Nora astonishes a disapproving Kate with her whimsy and imagination, but before long Kate realizes that "Something had been added, an inner eye which saw things differently, but which saw them just as clearly and perhaps more truly" (p. 49).
Alice, also a careful child, learns to take chances. Indignant at the idea that she might someday fall out of a tree and give scope to her foster mother's iodine-applying talents, she exclaims: "I never climb trees… and I almost never get hurt because I'm careful"(p. 40). Of course, before long Alice is scrambling up and down trees in her new tomboy dungarees, and there is a use for the iodine bottle after all. Jane, too, learns to play and romp, as she throws off orphanage-induced constraints.
In early-century orphan novels, the child's supposed nature—innocent, spontaneous, life-giving—shines through all societal efforts to quench it. But orphan novels of the war years actively encourage a child's nature to unfold. Kate, Jane, and Alice do not help the adults around them to be more childlike; they are children who need to become more childlike themselves.
The portrait of orphan children in these novels mirrors new attitudes toward child-rearing reflected in Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care (1946).17 This new sensibility emerged as a reaction against the "hygienist" school of child-rearing that dominated the 1920s and 1930s. The hygienist philosophy was the secular, scientific heir of the Evangelical concern to eradicate original sin in the child, "to break the will so the soul will live" (a philosophy of child-rearing which existed side by side with the literary romanticizing of the child's innocence!). The hygienists warned mothers against the dangers of permitting thumb-sucking and infantile masturbation and sternly exhorted them not to indulge in unnecessary cuddling and shows of affection.
But by the 1930s a new philosophy appeared, stressing the importance of encouraging the child's natural development, of allowing children to be children. Educational "liberationists" now cited play as a critical element in child-rearing. As John and Elizabeth Newson conclude in their study of evolving theories of child-rearing, the new philosophy glorified the natural fulfillment of the child's own desires and needs: "Natural play was good—it was also messy and dirty. It was functional—but it was also enjoyed by the child. And if adults were to learn about child development by observing free play, there must also be free communication. At last, the dirty, happy, noisy child could be accepted as a good child."18 That is to say, the child could be accepted as a child. These attitudes are directly reflected in novels about orphaned children who learn to communicate and to play, who regain their childish nature.
Angry, Bitter Orphans
By the late 1960s and 1970s, the "new realism" in children's books that brought grim, unsparing chronicles of divorce, alcoholism, and teen pregnancy produced a third category of orphan novel: the portrait of the orphan as a child badly scarred by his or her experience, suspicious, mistrustful, a "problem child." Typically these children are not literally orphans, but children abandoned or abused by their natural parents and placed in foster care. This change doesn't mark an underlying societal change (fullfledged orphans made up roughly the same percentage of the child population in the 1940s as in the 1960s19), as much as a willingness to reflect an already existing reality. These novels reveal an awareness of the vulnerability of children, coinciding, for example, with a new recognition of the pervasiveness of child abuse.20 The two best known and most successful novels in this group are The Pinballs by Betsy Byars and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. Others that fit within this general framework are Troublemaker by Alberta Armer, Star Island Boy by Louise Dickinson Rich, and Second-Hand Family by Richard Parker.
There is no better way of bringing out the contrast between this category of orphan books and those that went before than by examining in some detail the stock scene of the orphan child journeying to her new home as depicted in Anne of Green Gables, Adopted Jane, and The Great Gilly Hopkins. Anne's horse and buggy ride to Green Gables with Matthew Cuthbert is a nonstop, breathless monologue, in which Anne confides to Matthew her bubbling happiness at coming to Green Gables and her trust that this is indeed going at last to be a home for her—made all the more poignant by the reader's knowledge of the reception that awaits Anne at Green Gables once Marilla realizes the mistake that has been made. Jane's train ride to visit Mrs. Thurman is marked by the same joy in travel, but restrained by Jane's rigid notion of good manners: "Jane longed to stand up in the aisle and look round behind her, but she kept a firm hand on herself. She must remember her manners" (p. 28). She is as excited as Anne by thoughts of her final destination, but adamantly refuses to let herself hope too much: "She was going to visit for a whole month. She was going to live in a house just like other people. Perhaps—but no, she put the thought aside as too daring" (p. 37).
Enter Gilly Hopkins. As Miss Ellis drives Gilly to her new foster home in Thompson Park, Gilly sits sullenly in the back seat of the car, more occupied with her wad of pink bubble-gum than with her surroundings. Told to "get rid of that bubble gum before we get there, Gilly obligingly took the gum out of her mouth while Miss Ellis's eyes were still in the mirror. Then when the social worker turned her attention back to the traffic, Gilly carefully spread the gum under the handle of the left-hand door as a sticky surprise for the next person who might try to open it" (p. 3). Gilly expects nothing from her new foster home but a chance to prove again how unlovable and "difficult" she is: "Nobody wants to tangle with the great Galadriel Hopkins. I am too clever and too hard to manage. Gruesome Gilly, they call me" (p. 3). But her defiance and hostility barely conceal how deeply hurt she has been by her lifetime of rejection and abandonment.
The defining mark of these new orphans is their refusal to hope and trust, a legacy of past hope that ended in disappointment and past trust that ended in betrayal. Larry Scott in Star Island Boy is without illusions that any home will prove permanent: "When he was small he had believed that somewhere there was a place for him. Every time Miss Carr took him to a new foster home, he had been positive that this would be the one that would last forever. Now that he was eleven, he knew better" (p. 3). In past foster homes, Larry had tried to be obedient and helpful; "Well, this time he just wasn't going to try…. He was through knocking himself out for something that he could never have" (pp. 4-5). Giles in Second-Hand Family responds to information about his new foster home with a shrug: "If you haven't got a family of your own, it doesn't matter where you go" (p.3). Giles thinks of himself, not without justification, as "an old unwanted bedstead being dumped in a wood" (p. 4). Joe in Troublemaker, his father in prison, his mother in a mental hospital, walks into his new foster family determined not to love them or to let them love him: "He would give anyone in Dunbury, and in the Murray family, just ten minutes to pick a fight. Then he would show them they'd better not make fun of him" (p. 21).
Early-century orphans compel love from others by giving it freely themselves; late-century orphans are compelled to give love by getting it unstintingly, even undeservedly, from their foster parents. Lovable these children are not and yet, remarkably, they are loved, if not for themselves, in spite of themselves. The most clearly realized instance of this pattern is in The Great Gilly Hopkins, in which unlovable Gilly meets her match in supremely loving Trotter. Gilly is rude, uncooperative, surly; she insults Trotter's other, much-loved ward, William Ernest; she steals money from Trotter's closest friend and uses it to run away, yet, to her astonishment, Trotter will not let her go: "'Never, never never!' Trotter was bellowing like an old cow deprived of its calf…. 'No! I ain't giving her up. Never!'" (p. 94). Gilly overhears Trotter admitting, "Yes, Lord knows I need her… . I like to die when I found her gone" (p. 94). Against love like Trotter's, even Gilly can't hold out.
Likewise, troublemaker Joe, who also steals from his foster family, renounces his hostility toward his foster mother when he finds that her affection for him survives repeated thefts and his running away. He confesses his last theft to her and asks, "What will they do to me?" She answers: "I don't know who you mean by 'they.' 'They' is us—we—the Murrays. Your parents for now. I guess we'll treat you like parents, the way we did over the money from my coin purse. Try to help you grow up to be a responsible boy" (p. 181). Larry, the Star Island boy, learns to feel loved and to give love when his foster parents forgive him a runaway attempt and risk their boat to come after him.
Love in all these cases involves a willingness to administer parental discipline. While Gilly and Joe are loved and accepted despite the thefts they committed, they are punished for them as well and made to make restitution. At the end of Star Island Boy Larry goes to face his foster mother's well-justified anger after his runaway attempt, saying stalwartly, "She can't more than half kill me." To himself he adds "how nice it was to know that someone cared enough about him to half kill him" (p. 154). The child comes to recognize that discipline is linked with love and a commitment to his or her future. Discipline is directed toward the child's moral growth, and moral growth is a critical component of maturity.
Here, for the first time in twentieth-century orphan novels, we see not a glorification of childhood, but an acceptance that every child must and should grow up. In each of these more recent orphan novels the protagonist takes some decisive step toward maturity. Often this involves a willingness to face and accept reality—in particular, to relinquish illusions about the role the foster child's biological parents can play in his or her future. In some cases the children learn not to count on their natural parents at all, but to make a new life for themselves on their own; in others they return to their natural parents, but are now able to accept them with their flaws. Gilly's illusions about her mother are shattered forever when she meets Courtney for the first time and finds in the place of her beautiful, magical idol a washed-up, burned-out, irresponsible hippie. Harvey in The Pinballs is devastated to learn that his mother has taken no interest in him in the years since she abandoned the family; having let himself believe that his father had wantonly destroyed all her letters to him, he finds out instead that no letters were ever sent. Gilly and Harvey don't end up happily settled in new families, but they learn that they can take charge of their own lives, whatever these may hold. Carlie's realization in The Pinballs is that she and the other foster children aren't "pinballs" buffeted about helplessly by fate, but can take some control over their destiny: "pinballs can't help what happens to them, and you and me can" (p. 136).
In early-century orphan novels, adults learn to become more childlike; in 1940s novels, children learn to become more childlike; in the novels of the 1970s, children learn to grow up. In The Rise and Fall of Childhood, C. John Sommerville identifies ours as a time in which the near-worship of youth, which gave birth to the 1960s' counterculture, has given way to a profound disillusionment with youth in the wake of the Woodstock Nation's collapse.21 Hippie culture, based on the uninhibited expression of a childish nature uncorrupted by the trammels of society, proved ultimately vacuous. Among its casualties, ironically, have been the Hippies' own children. It is telling that both Gilly and Harvey are the children of counterculture mothers, too busy being Flower Children to take responsibility for the care and nurture of any real child. Gilly's and Harvey's parents refuse to grow up, but the children themselves—painfully, triumphantly—do. Once again, novels about orphan children reveal some deeper truth about how our society views children and how it views itself.
Acknowledgments: For helpful comments throughout I am indebted to Anne Scott Macleod and Anita Moss.
- For discussions of the emergence of the child figure in literature, see Coveney, Pattison, and Kuhn. For a discussion of the orphan child in literature, see Simpson, chap. 12.
- Peter Coveney, Poor Monkey, p. xi.
- For the most sweeping exploration of the thematic uses of the child in literature, see Pattison.
- I focus here on novels that take as their subject an orphan child in search of a family, setting aside, for example, another popular subgenre of orphan novels: novels about orphan children banding together not to find a family but to preserve a family in the face of forces that would separate brothers and sisters from one another.
- Rebecca, though not a full orphan, lives in what might be taken as a precursor of a contemporary foster home: her widowed mother, burdened with the care of a large family, sends Rebecca to live with her aunts to get the education that is to be "the making of her."
- For a discussion of the actual psychological effects of orphanhood, see Simpson.
- L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, p. 117.
- Jean Webster, Daddy Long-Legs.
- Kate Douglas Wiggin, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
- Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna.
- For example, in You're a Brick, Angela! (London: Victor Gollancz, 1976), Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig lambaste Anne's metamorphosis into a "droopy fifteen-year-old" and charge that "Logically, after the first half of Anne of Green Gables, it can, or should, please no one" (pp. 97-98).
- Reinhard Kuhn, Corruption in Paradise, p. 44.
- Joanna Spyri's Heidi gives another famous example of a redemptive orphan child, whose outpoured love and simple childhood faith restore the embittered Alm Uncle to the society of men and the society of God.
- Other passive, polite orphans of the period are Mark Herron, in Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright; Eric in Enright's Thimble Summer, and Peter in Carolyn Haywood's Here's a Penny.
- Adopted Jane.
- Sensible Kate.
- The evolution of child-rearing philosophies is traced in Newson and Newson; Somerville, chaps. 18 and 19; and Martha Wolfenstein, "Fun Morality: An Analysis of Recent American Child-training Literature," in Childhood in Contemporary Cultures, edited by Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfenstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).
- Newson and Newson, "Cultural Aspects of Childrearing," p. 331.
- In 1930, the percentage in the child population of full orphans was 1.1 percent; in 1965, the percentage was 0.1 percent. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 1970, 91st ed. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1970), p. 303.
- David Bakan, Slaughter of the Innocents.
- See chapter 20, "The Identity Crisis of Our Civilization."
Armer, Alberta, Troublemaker. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1966.
Bakan, David, Slaughter of the Innocents: A Study of the Battered Child Phenomenon. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1971.
Byars, Betsy, The Pinballs. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Conveney, Peter, Poor Monkey: The Child in Literature. London: Rockliff, 1957.
Newson, John, and Newson, Elizabeth, "Cultural Aspects of Childrearing in the English-Speaking World," in Rethinking Childhood: Perspectives on Development and Society, Arlene Skolnick, ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.
Parker, Richard, Second-Hand Family. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.
Paterson, Katherine, The Great Gilly Hopkins. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978.
Pattison, Robert, The Child Figure in English Literature. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1978.
Porter, Eleanor H. Pollyanna. New York: Dell, 1986. (First published, 1913).
Rich, Louise Dickinson, Star Island Boy. New York: Franklin Watts, 1968.
Simpson, Eileen, Orphans: Real and Imaginary. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.
Sommerville, C. John, The Rise and Fall of Childhood. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1982.
Virginia L. Wolf (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Wolf, Virginia L. "The Gay Family in Literature for Young People." Children's Literature in Education 20, no. 1 (1989): 51-8.
[In the following essay, Wolf examines the current children's literature canon focusing on gay and lesbian families, noting the dearth of positive fiction on the subject, despite the fact that gay families are frequently "happy and… healthy environment[s] for children."]
Recently, the Children's Literature Association held its annual conference on the theme of the child and family. Thinking about this theme and about my own family made me curious about how literature for young people portrays the gay family. I am amazed by the tardiness of my curiosity. For over twelve years now, Carol and I have lived together and parented our two children. Yet never before did it occur to me to look for books about families like ours. I merely assumed that there would be none. Although we knew about many gay families, I think Carol and I and the children felt very much like one of a kind. Indeed, rather than seek to identify with other gay families, we all worked to fit into the middle-class suburb of the small city where we live. We knew that to function as a healthy family we had to find our places within our community. But most importantly, like the members of any minority, we lived in a mental, if not a physical, ghetto. We simply did not expect to see ourselves reflected in the world around us.
Perhaps it is because many of our lesbian friends have recently begun families that this conference's theme finally led me to look for books about the gay family. My joy in Rickie and Ginny's Zachary and Katherine and in Lori and Janie's expected child was certainly in the back of my mind as I thought about and researched this topic. I am now seeing my gay family reflected in others, and finally it occurs to me to wonder what children of gay parents find to read that validates their family lives.
Wondering led to two discoveries: first, there are few books about gay families, and second, such books are very hard to find. As Sanford Berman points out in "Homophobia and Education," an issue of Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (pp. 31-32), there are no library subject headings that lead one to books about this subject, especially to fiction. So, after having little success at several libraries, I spent much time looking in gay book stores in several cities, reading books by authors of young adult fiction who are known for writing about the gay experience, and questioning gay adults interested in literature for young people. But I found only eleven books, in two cases only small parts of a book. This small number, of course, reflects the general public's lack of awareness. Only recently have members of gay families been willing to talk about their experiences. Indeed, homophobia—or fear, dislike, or hatred of gay men and lesbians—still keeps most gay families hidden and accounts for the absence of information about them. It also keeps what information there is out of the library, especially the children's room, and makes it difficult to locate through conventional research strategies.
No matter what an adult may feel or believe about homosexuality, the lack of information readily available to young people about the gay family is an injustice. Llana Lloyd, founder of Children of Gays, estimates that there are over six million children of gay parents.1 For the same reasons that minority children of all kinds need books with positive or at least realistic or neutral images of themselves, these children do, too. They need to know that being different from the majority does not make them bad or worthless, but rather special and valuable in their own way. But children of gay parents are not the only ones who need books about gay families. So do all children. Homophobia would not be such a problem for children with gay parents if there were not so many homophobic people, and because books can provide readers with the experience of gay families and thereby extend their understanding, they can be one way to combat homophobia. It is, therefore, doubly an injustice that there are only a few, largely inaccessible books. They cannot begin to do the job of education needed, and, indeed, they do not.
One feature of the majority of these books that makes their educational value questionable is their failure to identify parents as gay. If I limited myself to books in which gay parents are definitely identified as such, I would be reduced to five books. Instead, I chose to include any book in which a parent might be gay.
Such is the case with four of the five picture books. Joan Drescher's Your Family, My Family, in its portrait of all kinds of families, includes Margo and Rita as Peggy's family and the statement, "Although Margo is her real mother, Peggy feels as if she has two mothers." Similarly, Meredith Tax's Families includes Susie, who "lives with her mother and godmother," and Jane Severance's Lots of Mommies is about Emily, who lives with her mother and three other women. Nothing in any of these three books proves that any or all of the women are lesbians, although clearly their living arrangements raise the possibility. Children ignorant of homosexuality might also fail to realize that Shannon's mother is a lesbian in Jane Severance's When Megan Went Away. But the adult reader knows that Shannon's mother and Megan are gay parents because the story is dedicated to "all children of lesbian mothers." Also, for the reader who recognizes them, the pictures are full of bits of lesbian culture, such as a Willie Tyson album resting by the couch.
Two of the young adult novels also fail to identify parents as gay. I first read Norma Klein's Taking Sides at my daughter's insistence. Without explanation, Nell and Hugo's mother and Greta live in Greta's large house and share a room. When I first read the book, like my fourteen-year-old daughter, I assumed that Nell and Hugo's mother and Greta are lesbians, but obviously many readers might not make that assumption, especially since the women are background characters, and the children spend most of their time with their father. Quite differently, the possibility that Elliott might be gay is important to Carolyn Meyer's Elliott & Win, even though we never know whether or not he is. Elliott is not Win's father, but in many ways, he fathers Win. They do not live together, but in the abundant time they spend together, Elliott teaches Win about life and clearly comes to care for him. At the end of the book, it is to Elliott, a middle-aged, wealthy, cultured, fussy bachelor, that Win turns with his despair over the rape of his girlfriend. Paul, Win's friend, first raises the possibility that Elliott might be gay and then torments Win with that possibility. Ironically, Paul later finds out that his father is gay. His short visit with his father is a disaster because of Paul's intolerance, but not because his father is a bad parent.
To some extent, I find these books' failure to make homosexuality an issue refreshing. It is pleasant simply to be presented with female couples and with a man who fulfills some of the stereotypes about gay men and not to have their being gay be the focus of the books. I always have trouble with issue-driven books and prefer that consciousness raising be done indirectly and incidentally. Whenever the issue takes over, no matter what it is, it tends to seem a problem rather than just the way things are. In five of these eleven books, parents who might very well be gay are not the problem; they are simply important in their children's lives and, therefore, positively portrayed. Even in Elliott & Win, as Win learns to care for and value Elliott as a person, it eventually becomes apparent that homosexuality is Paul's issue and not Win's or Elliott's or the author's or the reader's, because Paul, even though we come to empathize with him, is not someone with whom anyone wishes to identify.
On the other hand, if these parents are not identified as gay, then readers are not being educated about the gay family. I think the labels are necessary if reading is to challenge the reader's homophobia, as do the remaining five books. The two works of fiction, Norma Klein's Breaking Up and Susanne Bösche's Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, translated from the Danish by Louis MacKay, are explicit about the parents' homosexuality.
Breaking Up closely resembles Taking Sides. The differences between them, however, indicate a shift in focus. The mother has custody of the children, and the father has remarried. The father has never really tried to parent his children, Ali and Martin. Nevertheless, on the basis of the children's living arrangements with their mother and Peggy, and of Martin's opinion that his mother is gay, their father decides to pursue custody. Thus, their mother's right to parent as a lesbian becomes the central problem of the book. But their father does not really believe that his ex-wife is an unfit mother. He simply does what he sees as his duty and misguidedly expresses a desire for what he vaguely recognizes he has missed, having his children live with him. Ali clearly prefers her mom as a parent even after her mother has confirmed that she is a lesbian. For a while her father makes her doubt her mother. But, finally, she chooses to live with her mother anyway, concluding about her lesbianism:
It did seem strange in a way, but not that strange. Maybe it was because Mom is such a regular sort of person, not that far-out or weird in any way, so it seems like anything she would do would be okay. I wonder if Mom loves Peggy more than she used to love Daddy when she loved him.2
What is evident here is that a gay family is not really a problem for either Martin or Ali. In fact, they are less concerned about their parents' lives than they are about their own. Ali might have stayed with her father had her new boyfriend not been going to college near her mother's home, and Martin does stay, but only because he wishes to be near his girlfriend.
The focus on the gay family is sharper in Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin than in Breaking Up because as a small child, Jenny has very little life of her own apart from her family, Eric and Martin. The story of their weekend seems very like a photographic documentary rather than fiction. It simply follows Jenny through what might by any other five-year-old's weekend activities, except that Jenny's parents are gay men. The assumption clearly determining both text and pictures is that there is nothing problematic about Jenny's family. That Eric and Martin are gay results in a slight disturbance near the end of the book. Goofing around as they walk home from the launderette, they fail to see Mrs. Andrews and nearly knock her down. They apologize, but she responds, "Sorry! You gays! Why don't you stay at home so the rest of us don't have to see you? Ugh!" (38). This is apparently Jenny's first experience of homophobia.
Her fathers comfort her, but explain that they can do little to change Mrs. Andrew's mind because they don't know her very well. They also draw Jenny a story about Bill and Fred and grumpy Mrs. Jones, an obviously fictionalized Mrs. Andrews. This story ends happily with Mr. Jones making his wife understand that there is nothing wrong with one man's loving another. Then Jenny tells her friend Danny the story of Bill and Fred and expresses her fear of Mrs. Andrews. Because his mother is friends with Mrs. Andrews and with Jenny's parents, Danny volunteers to ask his mom to speak to Mrs. Andrews. The book then quickly concludes with Jenny's fear sufficiently relieved that she can go on to drawing new stories.
Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin is truly an amazing little book, one I cannot imagine being written in the United States. The treatment of the gay family is so matter-of-fact that it is startling. Everything seems natural, yet for most of us the images are clearly out of the ordinary. Most of us do not know any gay fathers. Even children not living with their mother are uncommon, and yet here Jenny does not, and the book provides no explanation as to why. Also the book minimizes homophobia. It discounts the importance of Mrs. Andrews's homophobia by identifying it as her problem and suggests how she might come to change her mind. What's more, it is clearly Mrs. Andrews's anger, not her homophobia, that worries Jenny. Thus, the book is one of a kind, the only book available that provides very young children with a valuable experience of a gay family.
Two of the remaining books, The Kids' Book of Divorce and Loving Someone Gay, are for different audiences. The first is for elementary school children; the second, for children or adolescents who read well and for adults. Actually, only a small section of each book deals with having gay parents, but in both cases, the information is a positive introduction to the subject. Both briefly define homosexuality and give reasons why people use homophobic language and react negatively to homosexual parents. They also suggest how to live with a gay parent and how to deal with other people's objections and misunderstanding. Finally, both discuss how gay family life will affect the children, indicating that it will not make them gay and that it can teach them to appreciate differences in people.
The last book is also nonfiction. Joe Gantz's Whose Child Cries: Children of Gay Parents Talk about Their Lives, although written for adults, is entirely appropriate for young adults. It deals with the children in five families. In essence, each section is like Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin but covering a longer period of time, children of different ages (many of them adolescents), and a multiplicity of experiences—both positive and negative. Also the parents are not always gay men. In one family, they are lesbians, and in two both the biological parents are gay so that the children have three or four gay parents.
This book, unfortunately, is not representative of gay families. Most children living in gay families have lesbian parents. Very few have parents who were married and who both later realized they were gay. Also Gantz selected these families from the twenty-three he interviewed "because of the children's tremendous amount of feeling for what was going on in their lives." (xix). In doing so, he eliminated all of the children who view their parents' homosexuality as not all that important. Gantz thereby emphasizes the problematic—mainly, the children's sense of isolation, especially from their peers.
On the other hand, all of these families are functioning and caring. Although there are problems, there are also many strong individuals who are, for the most part, happy. Also the children make it clear that it is the upheaval in their family arrangements—often in the form of divorce and separation from a parent or the introduction of a stepparent—that is largely responsible for their emotional difficulties. Then, too, five of the eight children interviewed are going through adolescence, which, of course, tends to be a stressful time, no matter who one's parents are, and seems to be especially so for children of gay parents because of their worry over their own sexuality. It is, in fact, the case that in the update letters following each section and written some years after the interview, all of the adolescents are much more positive about themselves and their parents than they were earlier.
In any case, I think that adolescents in gay families would find this book extremely valuable for a number of reasons. It dispels the myth that gay parents produce more gay children than do heterosexual parents. It confirms the difficulties of living in a homophobic culture and provides examples of how actual children have decided to deal with homophobia to minimize its effects. Most importantly, it shows that other real children have gay parents and grow up to be happy, healthy adults, despite the very real pain and suffering homophobia may have caused them as children.
Despite this book's educational value, it, like all the rest, lacks artistic quality. Not one of these books has great literary merit; even the best is too obviously issue-driven. Klein's and Meyer's books are good reads, which is more than can be said for any of the five picture books. The illustrations of the picture books are also mediocre, and those in the two Severance books are especially poor. I found Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin and Whose Child Cries to be the best treatments of the subject, but I cannot imagine anyone reading them for their stories. Indeed, only someone interested in the subject would find them as fascinating as I did, and even I at times groaned over flat prose or obvious contrivance, especially in the Gantz book.
Also disturbing is that there is not one book about children of gay parents who chose to have children after they had become a couple. To be sure, the biological parents of most children living in gay families are divorced. But the lesbian mothers of some children were artificially inseminated, and some children of gay parents were adopted. There are, in fact, a number of other possibilities, but my point is that the diversity of gay families in our culture is not accurately represented by these eleven books for young people. Neither do the books accurately represent their well-being. The books all, to varying degrees, focus on problems of the gay family, if only, as in the two picture books on families, on what a child is to call the partner of a gay parent. Fiction, of course, requires conflict, and nonfiction require attention to the unusual, which may be perceived as the abnormal. So books seldom focus on the normal and the ordinary, and in any case, the gay family is neither, although it may be a happy and a healthy environment for children.
Young people need books about the gay family, but books are no substitute for firsthand experience. Quite obviously, children living in gay families, like all children, mostly need stable, loving parents and a community of peers and significant adults who recognize their parents for who they truly are. They and children all over the world need to be free of homophobia. If they ever are, the gay family, rather than being problematic, may become normal and ordinary in literature for young people. For the sake of the children, I hope one day it does.
- Joy Schulenberg, Gay Parenting, pp. 16, 42,149.
- Breaking Up, pp. 180-181.
Bösche, Susanne, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, trans. Louis Mackay. Photos by Andreas Hansen. London: Gay Men's Press, 1983.
Clark, Don, Loving Someone Gay. New York: Signet, 1977.
Drescher, Joan, Your Family, My Family. New York: Walker, 1980.
Gantz, Joe, Whose Child Cries: Children of Gay Parents Talk about Their Lives. Rolling Hills Estate, CA: Jalmar Press, 1983.
Gordon, Lenore, ed., "Homophobia and Education." Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1983, 14 (3 & 4).
Klein, Norma, Breaking Up. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
——, Taking Sides. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
Meyer, Carolyn, Elliott & Win. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
Rofes, Eric, ed., The Kids' Book of Divorce. New York: Vintage, 1981.
Schulenberg, Joy, Gay Parenting. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1985.
Severance, Jane, Lots of Mommies, illus. Jan Jones. Chapel Hill, NC: Lollipop Power, 1983.
——, When Megan Went Away, illus. Tea Schook. Chapel Hill, NC: Lollipop Power, 1979.
Tax, Meredith, Families, illus. Marilyn Hafner. Boston: Little Brown, 1981.
Bordo, Susan. "All of Us Are Real: Old Images in a New World of Adoption." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 21, no. 2 (fall 2002): 319-31.
Personal account of how fictional material can present unrealistic expectations about the adoption process.
Egoff, Sheila, and Judith Saltman. "Stories of Child and Family Life." In The New Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English, pp. 34-60. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Traces the evolution and presentation of the family structure in children's literature.
Fincke, Kate. "The Breakdown of the Family: Fictional Case Studies in Contemporary Novels for Young People." Lion and the Unicorn 3, no. 2 (1980): 86-95.
Details how several young adult novels are more focused on failures in adult leadership than problems with the nuclear family.
Huskey, Melynda. "Queering the Picture Book." Lion and the Unicorn 26, no. 1 (January 2002): 66-77.
Discusses how gay and lesbian families are developing more prevalent representations in children's literature.
Labbo, Linda D., and Sherry L. Field. "Celebrating Culturally Diverse Families." Language Arts 73, no. 1 (January 1996): 54-62.
Reviews a selection of available books focusing on culturally diverse, extended, nontraditional, and cross-cultural families.
Lystad, Mary. "Social Change and the Family." In At Home in America: As Seen through Its Books for Children, pp. 127-39. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1984.
Assesses how the radical social changes of the 1960s affected the portrayal of the American family in children's books.
MacLeod, Anne Scott, and Judith Saltman. "Family Stories, 1920-1940." In American Childhood: Essays on Children's Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, pp. 157-72. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Examines how family stories in children's literature have evolved since the first half of the twentieth century.
Nelson, Claudia. "Nontraditional Adoptions in Progressive-Era Orphan Narratives." Mosaic 34, no. 2 (June 2001): 181-97.
Considers how early twentieth-century children's literature portrayed adoptions by single women.
Nodelman, Perry. "Progressive Utopia, Or How to Grow Up without Growing Up." In Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, edited by Sheila Egoff, Gordon Stubbs, Ralph Ashley, and Wendy Sutton, pp. 74-82. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Illustrates how the heroines of orphan narrative books spread a positive, childlike perspective on life to those around them.
Sands-O'Connor, Karen. "Why Are People Different? Multiracial Families in Picture Books and the Dialogues of Differences." Lion and the Unicorn 25, no. 3 (September 2001): 412-26.
Examination of picture books that feature families of multiracial backgrounds.
Thompson, Deborah. "Family Values and Kinship Bonds: An Examination of African American Families in Selected Picture Books, 1974-1993." In Battling Dragons: Issues and Controversy in Children's Literature, edited by Susan Lehr, pp. 87-104. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995.
Explores the state of picture books focusing on African American families since the 1960s, paying particular attention to the increase of books about single-parent families.
Warner, Marina. "The Absent Mother: Women against Women in Old Wives' Tales." In Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, edited by Sheila Egoff, Gordon Stubbs, Ralph Ashley, and Wendy Sutton, pp. 278-87. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Evaluates the image of the missing mother figure in traditional fairy tales.