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The representation of fathers in children’s fiction

There aren’t many areas in literature where men are under-represented, but it’s safe to say that in children’s fiction, men – and fathers in particular – have been largely overlooked.

And deliberately so. Adult carers with a sense of responsibility have been ousted from the action because of their exasperating tendency to step in and take control. Children’s authors don’t want competent adults interfering and solving problems all over the place. Heavens! When it comes to annoying plot-stoppers they can prove even trickier than mobile phones.

No. Fathers were much better mown down early on by rhinos (James and the Giant Peach), staying in London and evacuating their children to the sketchy care of absent-minded professors (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), or dying in India, leaving their only daughter destitute at an expensive boarding school run by the most heartless of headmistresses (A Little Princess).

Even where the father was of more focus it was preferable to keep him at a safe distance, languishing in prison, say, his offspring banished to the countryside and tasked with clearing his name. Only at the very end of The Railway Children does Bobbie get her “Daddy! My daddy!” moment, when through their own magnificent efforts, the children have caused the smoke and steam to clear and it’s safe to reveal their exonerated father.

But recently we’ve seen a surge in stories where fathers are much more central to the action. I think one reason for this is the change in approaches to parenting. There’s much less of a ‘them and us’ feel in the way we parent now. In fact, there’s a tendency for parents to cast themselves as their children’s friends rather than simply as authority figures – however loving – from the distant race of Adults. This lessening of formality, perhaps particularly where fathers are concerned, encourages children to see their parents as complete people with their individual character traits more on show, both qualities and failings. And they’re more likely to allow them that bit further into their own worlds.

Trends in writing style have also allowed dads to be drawn more to the centre stage. Where the narrator was once omniscient and had an almost tangible presence, the telling of more and more stories has been handed over fully to their child protagonists. Narratives are often in the first person and even when they’re not, events are recounted in ‘up close’ third person, whereby the reader sees everything from the main character’s point of view, and rarely, if ever, seeing further than the hero sees themselves.

Recently we’ve seen a surge in stories where fathers are much more central to the action. I think one reason for this is the change in approaches to parenting.

With this child’s microscopic eye turned onto fathers we have a chance to explore their characters in depth; there are new opportunities to create genuine, realistic relationships between father and child. And the joy of realistic characters who, like real people, make mistakes and can’t solve problems immediately – thus putting the dampers on vital jeopardy – is that they can be allowed to stay central to the story. This is so from picture books like The Dressing-Up Dad where Danny’s playful dad unwittingly takes his enthusiasm for dressing-up games a little too far – and all the way up through early readers, middle grade, teenage and young adult fiction.

And there are some fabulous dads to discover.

Timothy Knapman and Joe Berger’s colourful Superhero Dad wears his pants outside his trousers in time-honoured superhero fashion, but that’s where the similarity with such fantasy characters ends. The feats he carries out are described in bold rhyme and splashy primary colours, but they are all reassuringly everyday. Superhero Dad is truly super rather than truly heroic.

Bob Graham’s picture book dads, like those in Jethro Byrde, Fairy Child, are delightfully woolly and fallible, whether they are human, homely ones struggling with deck chairs, or slightly scruffy fairy ones, crash-landing their tiny battered ice cream vans. These are picture book celebrations of today’s modern, hands-on dads.

From Sarah Ogilvie’s vibrant cover illustration for The Demolition Dad we might expect a two dimensional character in the amateur wrestler, big bellied, wrecking ball-swinging George Biggs, but George’s appearance belies his nature. This is what Jake has to learn about his gentle, sometimes anxious dad, and Phil Earle’s middle grade tale is beautifully balanced between the loyal, sensitive, and ultimately very brave father and the extravagant ideas his adoring son has about him.

David Almond (My Dad’s a Bird Man), Simon Mason (Moon Pie), and Horatio Clare (Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot) have been able to delve further with stories which, while still child-led, manage to explore the impact of, respectively, a father’s grief, alcoholism, and depression. Almost anything can be examined in children’s fiction, provided it is told from the point of view of a child. Adults can step into the spotlight at any time, but in modern storytelling it is the child who is in charge of directing the light.

It’s good to see so many real dads: Not just stay-at-home dads, but also estranged dads like Anne Fine’s Daniel alias Madam Doubtfire, and adoptive dads like Osh in Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea. We’re seeing step-dads too: good, reliable ones such as Uncle Derek in Fleur Hitchcock’s Dear Scarlett, terrible, terrifying ones like Dean in Joanna Nadin’s Joe All Alone and would-be new ones, like Rob in Anna Wilson’s The Family Fiasco – men-next-door types doing their best and bumbling along like the rest of us.

So turn around Dad. Step out of the steam and show us who you really are, flaws and foibles, warts and wishes, dreams and all.

Oh yes, and it’s Father’s Day, so do enjoy your day in the spotlight.

Featured image credit: reading school education by laterjay. Public domain via Pixabay.

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