Children’s Literature covers many different themes; war, fantasy, mystery, etc. Many themes are apparent to the younger reader, whereas some are more likely to be noticed by an adult reader. This means that children’s literature is accessible to all ages, with different pieces of information within the text becoming clear each time it is read. After studying various children’s texts, a key theme, that most, if not all books shared, was noticed. In these texts the theme of ‘missing parents’ was prominent, though in some texts it has been modified to a more general, ‘missing adults’.
Often the first thing a story does is to remove the adult influence, leaving the child to solve problems on their own. This is regarded as important in most cases, as these stories are usually about the child’s transition into adulthood. The Secret Garden is a prime example of a children’s text that centre’s around the theme of ‘the missing parents’. Mary Lennox is a sour faced, sickly child who was born in India to wealthy British parents. Unwanted by her parents, Mary is left in the care of a servant, Ayah; after an outbreak of cholera, Mary loses her parents and is shipped to England.
Once at Mistlethwaite Mary is left to her own devices, she is told of her Uncle who is still grieving his Wife that died a decade earlier. So grieved is Lord Craven that he constantly travels in a hope to avoid the painful memories that haunt him. Mary discovers her Aunts garden that was locked forever by her Uncle; after hearing wails in the night she finds her cousin Colin, also neglected by his father. Colin believes that he is unwanted as Lord Craven will not get close to him for fear that like his wife, Colin will die too.
The story ends with Mary having tended the garden, rejuvenating the plants and flowers, and also Mistlethwaite itself. When Mary arrives in England she is incapable if doing the most basic of tasks, she quickly has to adapt to the changes around her. Once in the care of a servant, now she is alone with only Martha taking an interest in her. The Secret Garden then, is about Mary’s transition from a spoilt, unwanted child, to an accepted niece and cousin, who during her transition has managed to restore life to the garden, the Manor and her remaining family.
The ‘missing parent’ theme is very prominent within this text, not only does Mary lose her parents, but on arriving in England, she is also abandoned by her Uncle and the servants, left to her own devices with very little adult contact. Another children’s classic that famously explores this theme is Enid Blyton’s ‘The Famous Five. ‘ Three of the children Julian, Dick and Anne are siblings, who during their holidays are sent to their Aunt Fannys and Uncle Quentins. George is the tom boy daughter of Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin, whom has a dog called Timmy.
The five (four children and the dog) spend their holidays, from their boarding schools, having picnics, ginger beer and adventures. Each character has a different personality, this enables the books to more accessible to a wider audience as a child reader can associate with at least one of the characters. Although the locations in each book varies there is always some kind of mystery for the five to solve. Julian, Dick and Anne are without their parents, and George and the others, though being surrounded by adults, only use the adult interaction to gather information or to collect food for their never ending picnics.
In each adventure, each character uses their individual skills to contribute towards solving the mystery, with a certain level of development taking place by the end. George (Georgina) is headstrong, and likes to be referred to as a boy; Dick is the younger of the boys, and is kind by nature; Anne is the youngest, and likes to ‘mother’ the group whilst disliking the adventures that the five find themselves involved in; and Julian, who is the oldest, is taller, stronger, and smarter than the rest. He is a natural leader and always knows the right thing to do, and when to do it.
At the end of each tale, the group is reconciled with each character being praised for their individual skills. Put another way, the children, through their endeavours, learn to value their skills and become accepted by the adults for who they are. The ‘famous five’ stories then, are about growth and maturity. In Anthony Horrowitz’s ‘Storm Breaker’ Northern Lights In Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’ the ‘missing parents’ theme is adapted slightly and coupled with danger and adventure. Lyra lives at the College in Oxford, watched over by the scholars and her Uncle when he returns from his work.
When children start to disappear, Lyra and her daemon are taken on a journey of a life time, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Coulter. Lyra soon discovers that Mrs. Coulter is involved in the disappearances of the children, so Lyra escapes. She is then involved in a whirlwind adventure where hers and her daemons lives are at stake. By the end of the book as a reader it becomes apparent that rather than the orphan we are introduced to, Lyra has parents. Lord Asriel (her Uncle) is in fact her Father, whilst Mrs. Coulter is her Mother.
Although both abandoned Lyra in infancy, they display their love for her at varying points in the story. At a key point, Lyra is about to be separated from her Daemon, a separation that will almost certainly kill her. At the last moment Mrs. Coulter comes in and, though she has ordered this procedure done to other children, she cannot allow it to happen to Lyra. Despite this affection, Lyra is interfering with Mrs. Coulter’s plans and so is a risk to the whole organisation. Also at the end, Lyra turns up at Lord Asriel’s cottage, he is outraged.
He intends to sacrifice a child at the Northern Lights, but he is unwilling to sacrifice Lyra. Again this display of affection does not change the fact that Lyra is in the way, and knows too much. As Lyra was abandoned by her parents and left at the College, she plays with the children of the area. We learn of her connection to the Gyptians that live on the river, they look out for Lyra, rescuing her from dangerous situations. It is a Gyptian that helps Lyra find Iorek Byrnison, an exiled armoured bear. Iorek becomes a close companion and protector of Lyra, he helps her free Lord Asriel from Svalbard.
Despite the fact Lord Asriel is locked up, he has gathered the scientific equipment needed, he explains dust to Lyra and then takes Roger to complete hi work. Lyra follows and witnesses Roger dying when he is separated from his Daemon. The release of dust from Roger opens a hole in the sky into an alternate realm; Lord Asriel steps through, and on the advise of her Daemon, Lyra follows. It becomes apparent throughout the text that Lyra is an important character. She goes on a voyage of self discovery with her Daemon as her guide, she pushes many boundaries and matures as a character.
Another key point is that of dust itself; before a child becomes an adult their daemon changes, once matured their daemon takes an animal and is stuck like that. Dust is collected when a child is separated from their daemon before transition to adulthood. This can be seen as removing the innocence of childhood, making the child grow up before their time. Although Lyra is not separated from her daemon she is made to grow up quickly, when faced with saving the children in the camp and Lord Asriel. Northern Lights is a complex novel, with many of its themes lost on children.
On a more basic level it is an action packed adventure that it is based upon a young heroine that starts upon her journey to maturity and adulthood. The final example is J. K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter. ‘ Harry is an orphan after losing his parents when he was still a baby, he now lives with his Aunt and Uncle who detest him. He is treated very badly by everyone, and is totally oblivious to his identity. It soon changes when he receives a letter from Hogwarts school of magic; suddenly Harry is swept into a magical world, where he is not only accepted, but he is also a celebrity.
It emerges that Harry is a gifted wizard who, like the famous five, gets involved in adult matters that take him on an adventure beyond his years. Harry does not fit in at home with his Aunt, Uncle and Cousin Dudley; once at Hogwarts, with his friends, Ronald and Hermione, he finally feels accepted. Within this new environment Harry flourishes into a confident, competent wizard. For a young reader the transition into adulthood that Harry and his friends embark on, may be lost to a certain extent. The young reader is captivated by the magical aspects to the text, being gripped by the action surrounding Harry’s escapades.
Harry’s friends and teachers at Hogwarts become his family, as they link him with his parents and their tragic end. In this sense though Harry is missing his parents, he is not without adult guidance. This is a variant on the tradition ‘missing parent’ theme, also throughout the series Harry has contact with his deceased parents, thus changing the theme again. From the above examples, it is clear to see that ‘the missing parent’ theme is very prominent within childrens literature. There are many other examples, ‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’, ‘ Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘Little Women’, to name but a few.
Each Author takes a different spin on the traditional theme, taking away just one parent, or both. Maybe they die, or are absent due to war, or the child is alone only for the duration of their adventure. In conclusion, with so many childrens texts containing this theme of ‘missing parents’, it seems that this theme is necessary in some way to these texts. The centralisation of this theme perhaps adds a level of reality to these stories; on the transition to adulthood a child normally has experiences that are devoid of adult guidance, that though scary, change the child in the long run.
This transitional period is often missed by a younger child, and is instead picked up on a later reading of the text. Furthermore, it is perhaps time to ask, ‘is this theme what defines a children’s book? ‘ On the evidence above, and close reading of many other texts as a child, i argue that although it may not conclusively define a childrens book, it is an important aspect of a childrens book. There are many examples where this theme strengthens the plot of the story, involving the reader more than the author would otherwise have been able.