I've been thinking recently about two well-known traditions in children's literature. One involves including "improving messages." This goes back to the day when children's literature was seen as an opportunity to educate rather than entertain. You still see books that are meant to instruct or to improve values, particularly in what are known as problem books. The second tradition involves orphaned protagonists, or at least protagonists who are as good as orphans because the adults in their lives are neglectful, uncaring, or absent for some reason. Yes, you see a lot of that in problem books, too, but you also see it in adventures. I can recall jokes in my suburban mommy crowd about dead moms in Disney movies. Children were, and are, "orphaned" in children's books so that there are no parental figures to keep them from doing things. If Harry Potter had had a strong, caring guardian, things would have been very, very different for him.
Two bloggers have raised questions for me about how child readers feel about these scenarios.
In one of my Old-Fashioned Girl posts last month, I talked about the book being " hardcore nineteenth century instructive, improving literature for the young" and wondered if "children can tolerate preaching a lot better than adults can." In a comment, Beth from Library Chicken said, "As a kid who liked old books, I had tons of experience with navigating past shoals of instruction while reading...I think any kid who reads widely soon learns to ignore chunks of message."
And I think that's probably very true. If you read a great deal, at any age, you recognize that if you get through this yammering stuff, you'll get to something good later on. You know that because you've been there before.
Then just yesterday I saw a post from last month at The Spectacle relating to those orphaned main characters I was discussing above. Parker Peevyhouse asked, "How is a young reader affected by reading a story in which all of the adults are missing, incompetent, or antagonistic?"
I immediately thought of Beth who had said, "I think any kid who reads widely soon learns to ignore chunks of message." I'm guessing the same is true for the orphaned main character cliche. Experienced child readers probably know that the good stuff will be coming up later and just blow past the dead/lost/lousy adult set-up.
Reading is an independent, free-wheeling activity for anyone. I'm particularly loving the idea of adults putting all this effort into creating moral tales or carefully beginning a plot with another funeral and child readers just ignoring the same old, same old and sucking up the juicy stuff.