Children’s Lit: Call Social Services

When I first started writing, my goal was to be a children’s and YA author. I’m not sure what happened except that my ideas for protagonists became older and older. But this month, I’ve been working on a story for my two daughters for Christmas. The story takes place in a world I’ve been building for over a decade. I’ve also been writing about the four characters involved for over a decade. Years ago, I created the parents to be perfect. I realize now that parents in stories can be mostly good but definitely not perfect. Making the changes got me thinking about great parents in children’s literature, and I made the sad realization that they would most likely be arrested for neglect in today’s society.

I’m not talking about the Dursleys from Harry Potter who everyone loves to hate. Clearly, they are horrible guardians and readers recognize it. I’m talking about parents like the Quimby’s from the Ramona books, who, on first glance, seem like reasonable, middle class parents. But, judging by recent news articles, somebody on Klickatat Street needs to call the cops on them. In the book Beezus and Ramona, the two girls walk to the community recreation center on Friday afternoons. Beezus is nine and Ramona is four. It’s not just a walk down the street either. It’s described as going to the shopping district, by the drugstore, by the radio and phonograph store and on to the park. But I haven’t gotten to the worst part yet: Ramona is left alone to play in the park while Beezus goes to her painting class in the recreation center.

Crap! A four year-old girl is left alone in the sandbox at the park. What about stranger danger? What if she got hurt? What if she got in a fight with one of the other kids? Wait a minute. She does get in a fight with one of the other kids, and does the sensible thing and seeks her sister out in her art class. The art teacher doesn’t even think to call the cops at this obvious neglect and instead sits Ramona down at an easel.

I never thought this was such a crazy story either as a kid or an adult. But in the summer of 2014, a mom was arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at a local park while she worked at McDonalds. The girl not only had a cellphone to call her mom, but also social workers were frequently at the park handing out free breakfasts and lunches. Sounds to me like the mom thought things through. She’s even quoted as saying she thought the park was a better place for her daughter to spend the day than sitting at a booth in McDonalds. But this mom lost her job and had her daughter taken away. They were eventually reunited, but what a horrible event for the daughter.

I’m going to pick on the Quimby’s one more time. Again in Beezus and Ramona, Ramona wanders far from home in search of the end of the rainbow. This time, she is picked up by the police. But the police just bring her home. They don’t arrest Mr. and Mrs. Quimby or anything. That’s not what happened to an Ohio dad whose kid wandered away from the house in the summer of 2014. The child was outside with his two siblings on a Sunday morning. When the church bus arrived to collect them, the kid did something very Tom Sawyerish: he didn’t get on the bus. When the bus left, the eight-year-old took off to the Family Dollar store a mile away. The police brought him home and arrested the dad. The dad also worked at McDonalds and, you guessed it, lost his job over the incident.

I’ll turn away from the Quimby family now and look at another beloved children’s character: Arthur by Mark Brown. Okay, so he’s an aardvark, but clearly he’s supposed to represent your average third grade boy. Arthur has many independent adventures, with his parents often offering him advice before the adventure happens. In one book, he’s asked to babysit two four-year-olds while their grandmother goes to a PTA meeting. They aren’t just any ordinary four-year-olds though. They’re the terrible Tibble twins who are known for eating babysitters alive. Did I mention Arthur is only in the third grade? It’s a rough couple of hours, but in the end, Arthur discovers telling the twins a story is the secret to keeping them calm. The grandma comes home and all is well. But that didn’t happen for two parents in NY who left their twelve-year-old to babysit his two younger siblings. When the dad came home at two in the morning, he realized he didn’t have a key and had to break into his own house. That’s when a neighbor called the cops. When the mom got home, both parents were arrested for leaving their kids home alone. The mom later lost her job as a middle school teacher. What?

Aside from the Quimbys and Arthur books, we have Encyclopedia Brown who is a kid detective solving cases on his own at age ten, How to Eat Fried Worms where the kids have so much time away from parents that they spend all summer betting on eating worms, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing where kids are again left alone in the park, more recently Ivy and Bean where the two girls wander all over Pancake Court with no supervision, The Magic Tree House series where the kids are allowed to run free in a nearby forest and on and on. So are children’s authors horrible people who should never be parents? No. They know the secret to an interesting childhood that encourages maturity: a nurturing home environment where the parents give their kids time to be independent. I think society as a whole needs to read more children’s books.

5 thoughts on “Children’s Lit: Call Social Services

  1. interesting post. There is such a thing as fantasy and reality, though. I hope we as writers are not going to have to second guess all our characters and parental figures’ decisions as to whether an event should happen based on current norms of society. How would any fairy tale have been written if we all wrote that way? Fiction is fiction after all.

  2. It is interesting. Society treats these things differently today than when I was a kid. I don’t think any of the parents, above, would have been arrested or even questioned back then. I often rode my bike several blocks away to a local pharmacy to buy candy and fan magazines. It was near a fairly busy street too. Playing outside, most of us didn’t have to come home until the street lights came on. Even then I could stay out as long as my mom knew where I was and it was only a few houses away. It was normal. Nearly all the kids I knew were allowed to do the same stuff. So I guess I kind of wonder if it’s a generational thing too. Will our grandchildren read these stories and wonder what Mr. & Mrs. Quimby where thinking and that they should be arrested? Or will it seem OK and totally normal because it’s fiction? Society as a whole probably needs to relax a bit. Kids need to explore unsupervised at times, but they also need lessons to help them have the tools they need to make good choices while exploring. Books and stories are ways of helping kids to learn without the need to learn the hard way.

  3. Thanks for your replies Shari and Deb. Pretty soon these stories will be historical fiction, and everyone knows historical people are crazy :)

    Ivy and Bean are current characters who get a fair amount of freedom from their parents though. And I should’ve mentioned that Clementine, another current character, is allowed to go up and down in the apartment elevator unsupervised when she needs to cool off. Also, a neighborhood kid, who I think is eleven, takes her and her baby brother around New York neighborhoods in a stroller. It would’ve been better for me to use those more current examples.

  4. Slight shudder at the thought of Ramona being considered historical fiction. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I can’t possibly be that old!

    There is still a lot of freedom for kids in fictional tales. Plots are going to be somewhat limited if a parent has to be around all the time. I still wonder how that might change as the years go on though. Will stories have to become less realistic or situated in the past so that parents might not be seen as neglecting their children? So many stories are made of daydreams and wishes that it will probably remain OK for the most part, but who knows.

    I have to think there are still some parents in real life who leave their kids alone earlier than others and let them play outside more than others too, but I don’t know any who would let a four year old hang out in a park by herself.

  5. Pingback: The Parents in Children’s Classics Would Be Arrested Today (Looking at You, Beezus and Ramona’s Mom!) : Free Range Kids