Sunday, 17 January 2016

Getting Rid of Mum: Books With Single Parent Dads in Children's Fiction - Emma Barnes

I wasn't sure why I created a family without a mother when I wrote Wild Thing. I've nothing against mothers. I've a very nice one of my own. Many of my best friends are mothers. Not to put too fine a point on it, I AM a mother. It wasn't something I thought about at the time. Kate and Wild Thing just didn't happen to have a mum. They had a dad looking after them instead.
interior from Wild Thing Gets A Dog - copyright Jamie Littler

I think a lot of the reasons writers choose something are unconscious. Afterwards, bringing a more deliberate analysis to bear, the reasons become clearer. So now I've no doubt that the reason I got rid of Kate and Wild Thing's mother was because I wanted as much mayhem as possible. I planned these to be funny, chaotic books. Although I hate to admit it, I suspect that's easier without Mum.

Single Parent Families featuring Dad have a lot of advantages to a writer. Somehow, it seems entirely natural for dad to be fun and quirky, to be a lousy cook, and to forget about things like the start of term, or a child's need for new socks. Of course, mothers are quite capable of forgetting these things too. (Well, I am.) But it strains the credulity of a reader more. (Or it's just harder as a writer to break that “responsible, boring Mum,” stereotype.) So maybe writing about a Single Dad is the best way of writing about the chaos and mishaps which are, if truth be told, absolutely normal in all families everywhere.

Here are some children's books featuring single dads.

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Danny adores his dad, and together they have crazy adventures – would a fictional mother have been allowed to be so irresponsible, and yet so loveable?

The Summer House Loon by Anne Fine

Ione's dad Professor Muffett is an absent-minded academic, preoccupied with his research into “Early Sardinian trade routes”. He is also blind. An entirely sympathetic character, it is not surprising that a certain amount of chaos flourishes in their household in this witty, sophisticated book. A really fun read for a certain kind of teenager – the kind that doesn't want angst, but some comedy instead.

The Penderwicks  by Jeanne Birdsall

Another absent-minded professor, Mr Penderwick is left to bring up his four daughters when his wife dies, in a book which is a bit like a more modern version of Little Women, but with a dad replacing “Marmee”.

Rooftoppers by Katharine Randell

This prize-winning book features...another academic single dad. (Hmm, beginning to detect a bit of a trend.)   Charles is the foster father to Sophie, who is an orphan from a shipwreck. He is absent-minded and eccentric and he and Sophie eat off books rather than plates, their bizarre house-keeping getting them into trouble with social services. It's rather whimsical but also very appealing.

The Longest Whale Song by Jacqueline Wilson

And can rely on Jacqueline Wilson to be a bit more down-to-earth, and although she's written several books with single dads, I don't think any of them are absent-minded academics. What is especially nice about this one, is that it features the relationship between a girl and her stepfather, forced to work as a team when the mother enters a dangerous coma after her baby's birth. Ella's stepfather is far kinder and more responsible than her biological father, and once again Wilson shows that a successful family can come in all shapes and sizes.

Please tell me your favourite single dad stories...with or without absent-minded professors.


Emma's Website
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Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite

Emma's Wild Thing series for 8+ about the naughtiest little sister ever. (Illustrated by Jamie Littler)
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is a story of wolves, magic and snowy woods...
(Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark)
"Funny, clever and satisfying..." Books for Keeps


Joan Lennon said...

Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" has a single dad, for the first part anyway. I remember being so sorry for him when the boy goes off him completely.

Rosy said...

My favourite book with maybe not a single Dad but a widower Dad who remarries - is The Ogre Downstairs and I think it is a thoroughly original and very insightful kind of book too as the Dad is quite misunderstood and the book shows you everything through the eyes of his new step-family - until closer to the end. He is a single Dad of two sons who marries the mother of the main protagonists - three children called Caspar, Johnny and Guinny - who hate him, basically. So I suppose he's not single for most of the book - but the two parents struggle to present a unit. Which is quite revealing and clever of Diana Wynn Jones too. He's not terribly sympathetic for the most of the book - but he struggles to connect with his new family and can't abide all the chaos around him. So rather than the stereotypical absent-minded prof - he's trying to bring order to a world he doesn't emotionally understand. And it is a REALLY chaotic world and bunch of kids he has to deal with! I think it's brilliant. And funny. I also love the way the kids are all really selfish and don't at all consider how their parent might want or need another adult in their lives. Again - a bit of understanding about this comes out at the end from the older boy. But not in a soppy way. It's a book that is really good at making you see the prejudices and resentments all the characters hold - and also allows you to see the other point of view, but not in a soppy way. I loved it as a kid.

Emma Barnes said...

Joan - strangely I'd forgotten the dad in Curious Incident. Time for a reread...

Rosy - I love that book too. It's an interesting example - although most of the book the mother is present, in some ways it fits what I've said about single dads in that the mother tends to keep the household on an even keel, but when she walks out and the dad is left alone everything really goes haywire! (A couple of attempted murders as I recall. Wonderfully comic ones.) Yes, and in some ways the dad is much more realistic than the gentler out-to-lunch variety. A work of genius, really.

Sue Purkiss said...

Also love Rooftoppers and Danny. Hm - there must be others... Birdman, by David Almond? Doesn't that have a single dad?

Catherine Butler said...

There are quite a few mumless children in 'classic' children's books, too - e.g. the Bastables in The Treasure Seekers and Colin in The Secret Garden.