Dads in Middle-grade Books

A few weeks ago I caught myself staring at the JC Penney Father’s Day advertisement. It shows a happy family: Two playful kids and their proud, smiling dads. I thought, wow, wouldn’t this family make a great story? Having two dads can create interesting complications, especially if the story takes place long ago or in a contemporary setting where people aren’t so open minded. And even though the story wouldn’t be about the dads, their presence would add a unique element to our main characters’ lives.

Authors of middle-grade novels often struggle with how to get the parents out of the picture so that the main characters, the kids, can go have their adventure without being bothered by finger-wagging, bossy adults. Roald Dahl said, “Kill the parents!” But, we don’t always want our parents to be eaten by rhinos in broad daylight, do we? So, in light of Father’s Day coming up, I thought I’d write about how parents, especially dads, play an important role in some of my own favorite books in children’s literature. These stories would be completely different without the dads.

1. One of my all-time favorite middle-grade novels is Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect. I adore Zoe’s sweet and loving
dad in spite of his quirky fears and inhibitions about leaving the house. Zoe, who dreams of someday performing in Carnegie Hall, asks for a piano. But to her horror, her dad buys her an organ instead. I felt Zoe’s pain, but I also appreciated and admired the way she protected her father’s feelings and never let on that learning to play the organ was making her miserable. She understood her father’s fragility and left her dream and ambition by the wayside to keep from hurting him. Seeing this side of our protagonist made my heart go out to her from the very beginning of the story.

2. Opal Buloni in Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie also has one of the kindest and gentlest dads in children’s literature. But he’s no
Atticus Finch; in fact, Opal refers to him as a turtle retreating into his shell. He’s deeply saddened and scarred by the loss of Opal’s mother and he doesn’t seem to want to deal with his emotions. We see the strength in Opal as she moves forward with her life and the ending scene with her father is absolutely heart wrenching. The novel works so beautifully because of Winn-Dixie, yes, but also because of Opal’s father.

3. Then there are the scary dads.
I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett many times as a child and then I read it to my own kids several years ago. Every time I read it I was creeped out by Archibald Craven, the father of “sick” and bed-ridden Colin. I could understand Craven’s pain and I could sympathize with his hollowness after the death of his wife, but still, I was like, “Dude! You’ve got a kid! And for years he’s been lying in a dark room day and night, screaming in pain, and the only time you ever go near him is when he’s asleep!” Thank goodness Mary Lennox comes along and saves poor little Colin or I would have had to call social services.

4. The abusive fathers in children’s literature make us love our main character more than ever. We want to protect the kids from harm and see
them get the happy ending they deserve. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that the father and child walk off into the sunset hand in hand. Pap Finn never does a good thing for poor ol’ Huckleberry. And there’s Doug Swieteck’s dad in Gary Schmidt’s beautifully written Okay For Now. I just have to hang all my hopes on the title and believe that Doug will indeed be okay.

5. I don’t want to end this post on a sad note, it is almost Father’s Day, after all. So let’s make a list of the dads we love. I’ll start, and you can add to the list by way of the comments section. Here are just a few:

Pa – Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Mr. Quimby – Ramona and Her Dad by Beverly Cleary

Moses’ dad – Crow by Barbara Wright

Mr. Krupnik – Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry

William – Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Mr. Watson – The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

 

Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of The Secret of Ferrell Savage and Mary Vittles, Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), 2014.

 

 

 

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