Thursday, 28 January 2016

Childfree adults in children's literature - Clémentine Beauvais

Recently, I’ve started paying attention, when reading children’s literature, to adult characters who don't have children. This started as I was rereading Matilda last year to write an article on it; it struck me that the Trunchbull and Miss Honey shared one characteristic: their childlessness. But while the formidable headteacher hates children, Miss Honey’s own narrative arc in the story sees her eventually adopting Matilda (spoiler alert) (oops, too late). While Miss Trunchbull is quite clearly childfree (childless by choice), Miss Honey’s happy resolution seemed to entail being finally ‘completed’ by a child. 
‘Childfree’ adults denounce the degree to which adults, in society, are seen as incomplete when they don’t have children; to them, it isn't the case that any adult in possession of a good mortgage must be in want of a child. Children’s books, in this respect, seem to me in general to perpetuate the idea that adults need children. Worse, they often appear to imply that childless adults have a problem that needs to be rectified (= they need a child), and childfree adults, meanwhile, should be either completely in the service of children, or suspicious, monstrous, or dangerous.

Here’s a vague taxonomy of childless and childfree adults I’ve been playing around with in my head. Feel free to add, criticise and nuance! Children’s literature seems to me to categorise childless and childfree adults broadly according to those lines:

The childfree (childless by choice):
- The monstrous and the murderous: Dahl’s Witches, Carroll’s Red Queen, Barrie’s Captain Hook. Ogres and giants. They hate children. But they are also clearly obsessed with children. Their whole raison d’être is to kill a lot of them.

- Cool uncles and aunts, nice godmothers: Those childfree adults are equally obsessed with children, but devote so much time to children who are not their own that presumably they don't need their own; in fact, that would probably come in the way of the affection that the protagonist needs exclusively. Basically, they're surrogate parents, but allow for the necessary fifty shades of authority that are germane to children's books. Godmothers in fairy tales, Rowling’s Sirius Black, Dahl’s BFG, Jules Verne’s many travelling uncles, and my own Sesame Seade’s lazy student boss Jeremy.

- Anthropomorphic animals and picturebook adults: This category of adults who are basically children doing adult jobs, and who mostly appear as protagonists in literature for the very young. Those adults by definition cannot have children, since they are essentially placeholders for children themselves.

The childless: (not by choice)

- Those who are mourning a child, or mourning never having had a child: melancholy figures who, explicitly or implicitly, appear sad to not be parents; or have lost their child, or a child very close to them, and are generally on their own path of mourning and grief. Often, this translates as some emotional investment in the child protagonist of the story. E.g. Lois Lowry’s Giver, Ma Costa in His Dark Materials, and even Dumbledore who lost his younger sister. They are, I think, a sad or more profound variation on the childfree 'in loco parentis' adult described above. 

- Those for whom being childless is fairly unproblematic, but who end up looking for a child for various reasons: E.g. Miss Honey, as mentioned earlier, but also for instance the bizarre Willy Wonka, whose name implies that there might be something wonky with his reproductive organ, leading him, at the age of I have no idea how many years, to have to look for an heir.

Blurry zone: Teachers

Teachers are an interesting, huge category of childfree/ childless adults in children’s literature. To my knowledge, no Hogwarts teacher has children. In fact, many teachers in children’s literature seem mysteriously to have no kids at all. Whether it’s by choice or not, teachers seem to devote their whole time to other people's children. I wonder if it's because teachers' children (who do exist in children's books, but not that many) would distract from the total absorption that child protagonists require from their teachers. It mirrors the narcissistic impossibility, as a young child, to imagine that one's teacher might have a private life, or - horror!- other children than us to look after.

It seems to me that children's literature shows a lot more empathy for the childless than for the childfree; and presents the childfree as being still very invested in children, whether nefariously or positively. In other words, children's literature doesn't really let adults, at least in leading or secondary roles, be indifferent to children.
Of course, indifference towards children couldn't be very frequent among adults in children’s literature, because of clear narrative and generic reasons: this type of text, obviously, is rather centred on children, so adults in children’s literature need to work within that narrative. But as a result, of course, we grow up thinking that adults must be interested in children, by nature and by necessity; and if not, it makes them suspicious. 

Please add your own thoughts! This is a very quick and not very deeply thought-out taxonomy, and I'm sure I've forgotten lots.

Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.


Stroppy Author said...

An interesting distinction, Clem. Of course, children's literature (at least that which children like) tends to reflect children's view of the world which is naturally centred around children and they would have no interest in a person who didn't have some kind of either positive or negative relation to children, just as they wouldn't have much of a narrative role, as you say. I wonder, though, if there has also been a change in the portrayal, or is about to be, that might reflect the actuality of being child-free or childless? It's probably too early to tell. But when I was growing up, there were still hoards of old ladies who were the thwarted brides of the First World War, and there were quite a lot of grouchy and hostile (to a child, but clearly damaged) old men. Miss Honey is young and could fit into a pre-child category, but sinister, bitter and twisted older people were legion - including most of my relatives. (Again, that's how I saw them as a child; they were probably perfectly nice really, just sad.) Growing up, I knew a lot of childfree/childless adults but I wonder how many most children know now? We are post war widows (on a large scale), post fertility treatment and post a lot of child mortality. I wonder if the pattern will change once your generation of writers outnumbers mine. How many childfree/less couples are there in children's literature? It's a really interesting topic - thank you for raising it.

Emma Barnes said...

An interesting post, although Matilda aside, I think the distinction between "childfree" and "childless" is a bit of a false one.

I think there are many adult, childless characters who play an important part through being a "mentor" character - i.e. they guide the child in some way, and often pass on some kind of skill. Mentor type characters might include Dumbledore/Sirius Black and many of the HP characters, Gandalf, Merriman (Dark is Rising) - many, many fantasy characters - but also the many ballet/music practitioners of books like Noel Streatfeild's, who help the child characters develop their talents and navigate the world of the stage. They are not at all "obsessed" with the child or involved in parental-type emotional nurturing (or day-to-day drudgery). They very much have their own lives and talents and are positive characters. Whether or not these adults have chosen their childless status doesn't seem relevant to their role, that I can see.

Taking up Stroppy's point about changes over time, I wonder if one thing we will see will be a reduction in the number of bachelor male childless quasi uncle-types who turn up in children's books - characters like Bill (Enid Blyton's "Adventure"s stories) Uncle Jim (Swallows and Amazons) Mr Carter (Jennings books) or even Puddleglum (Narnia), because of an increased suspicion of adult males who want to hang out with children who aren't their own. That would be rather sad I think.

Emma Barnes said...

Following up on Miss Honey, it's maybe interesting to look at the foster mother in Jacqueline Wilson's Tracey Beaker books. Like Miss Honey, she takes on a child who is not her own, but it's much less sugar-coated - in fact, the second book (the Dare Game) is very much about their problems adapting to each other, and it is clear that the foster mum (who is a journalist) has her own life and friends, and is having problems relinquishing some of her independence - just as the foster child, Tracey, is struggling to adapt to the idea that everything isn't going to be perfect, and that her foster mother has a life beyond nurturing her! It's very realistic, and very different from the extreme archetypes you get in a writer like Dahl, but obviously chimes with child readers.

Again, in the realist tradition, there is the character of Ole Golly, the nanny, in Harriet the Spy. Old Golly is a bit of a "mentor" figure - she is well read, and a source of wisdom - but she leaves Harriet in order to make her own life, and part of Harriet's growing maturity is the realisation that Old Golly does have aspirations of her own (and whether those will include her own children or not, is never specified, and doesn't really seem to be important).

Catherine Butler said...

Interesting post as ever, Clementine! Two sidelong thoughts. When it comes to adults being seen as somehow lacking if they don't have children, I wonder how much more this is the case for women than for men? All the examples you cite in this category are female apart from Captain Hook, and he seems to have led a fulfilling life as a pirate for many years before anchoring at Neverland. No one looks at a pirate ship normally and asks where all the children are.

As for teachers, I assume this is (like the custom of addressing female teachers as 'Miss') in part a left-over from the time when female teachers were expected to give up work on marriage. Like the wearing of mortar-boards, this seems to be part of the teacherly iconography that has long outlived actual usage.

Nick Green said...

You seem to imply an agenda or a conspiracy (let's make all childfree people look evil or sad) but as you also say, it's a narrative necessity. In a book about children, every character has to have an attitude towards the child protagonist. As in a world war, true neutrality is not possible. You can't be totally indifferent to another human being, can you?

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Graaah of course I didn't get a chance to look at the comments yesterday - thank you! I don't really imply an agenda or conspiracy (not this time), more like a set of narrative or generic conventions that lead to specific characters being characterised in similar ways. But I agree entirely about the gender aspects, which clearly must be of capital importance there.

Very interesting point too about the changes over time and the suspicious nature of grown men being alone with young ones - something that struck me recently when rereading Kensuke's Kingdom. Sad indeed, of course...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Fantastic post. Thank you! Having just finished "All the Light You Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr, I was immediately struck by the fact that Marie-Laure is left alone in Saint Malo with two childless people - the old housekeeper Madam Manec and her great uncle Etienne, who isn't at all creepy, as in little girl/ older man scenario. And though he's sad, he is a huge source of inspiration. And then the marvellous and pragmatic Madam Manec ... too wonderful. This doesn't add anything to what you've said but as I'm fresh from the book I felt it was a great example of childlessness in an adult/child relationship.