MIDDLE GRADE KNOWHOW Removing the parents

Lion Witch and Wardrobe

Everyone knows that real adventures never happen when there are parents around. So how to get rid of them? Huw Powell has a few ideas.

Why do so many children’s books feature orphans? Peter Pan, Dorothy Gale, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Cassie Sullivan, Mowgli and Paddington Bear are just a few. It’s the same in comics with Captain America, Ironman, Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and Robin all running riot without parents in tow. 

In fact, there are very few middle-grade novels with prominent parental characters. The Swiss Family Robinson and The Borrowers are rare examples of families working together.

Is the removal of parents a cliché or a necessity? In my own Spacejackers novels, I have Jake Cutler abandoned on a remote planet and raised by cyber-monks. Why? In short, a child character would struggle to act freely in front of their parents, who usually represent rules and order. It’s only when the parents are removed that a child is able to step up and make their own decisions. This is important, because a main character needs to take control. JK Rowling once said: “Harry's status as orphan gives him a freedom other children can only dream about.” This is made clear in The Half-Blood Prince, when Harry reflects on how different his life would have been if his parents had lived. But would that have made such a thrilling story? It’s unlikely he would have experienced such dangerous adventures under the protection of Mr and Mrs Potter.

So how to get the parents out of the way and let the adventures begin? If you don't kill them off, you'll need to find other ways to remove them. Parents might simply leave their child behind as happens to Joe in Joe All Alone, or they might abandon them like Tracy Beaker's did. Perhaps you could relocate the children like the evacuees in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Oliver Twist, James Mahoney
Oliver Twist
Photo credit: James Mahoney 1879
It's important to consider what the implications for your character are. This freedom comes at a price - if a family offers comfort and support, a parentless character is likely to feel unanchored and exposed. This is taken to the extreme in Lord of the Flies. Whatever their circumstance, a main character must be allowed to experience their own adventure and fight their own battles, which is not always possible with the parents present. It’s not essential to ‘kill’ them off, however their removal can enable a child character to stand on their own feet and become the hero of their own story.

Huw Powell is the author of the middle-grade Spacejackers trilogy, published by Bloomsbury and W F Howes. His first novel was Literature Works’ 'Book of the Month' and was shortlisted for the Teach Primary 'New Children's Fiction Award'. Huw is an active supporter of initiatives that encourage children to read. He lives with his wife and two sons in Portishead, North Somerset.

Helen Liston is KnowHow Editor. If you have any ideas for KnowHow topics, get in touch at knowhow@britishscbwi.org.

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