Absent parents in children’s literature are commonplace. Come on, you gotta get the gatekeepers out of the way for the action and adventure to begin, right? As Roger Sutton put it in the latest episode of the Horn Book podcast, “a dead parent is traditional.”
On the one hand, you’ve got stories where the parents simply don’t come into play, because they would crimp the style of the fully-realized children’s world the author has created. Think of Kate DiCamillo’s and Alison McGhee’s superb Bink & Gollie books. Parents never enter the picture, nor should they. Last month, Groundwood released the dry-humored Kabungo from Canadian writer, illustrator, and cartoonist Rolli (with illustrations from Milan Pavlovic), the story of a ten-year-old girl named Beverly, whose best friend, the titular Kabungo, lives in a cave on Main Street. Why, of course Kabungo’s parents simply don’t exist. This is part and parcel of the offbeat, absurd premise of the story itself – that a wild girl would live in a cave right by the post office in the middle of town. One just runs with it. And take note if you’re so inclined: Oh my, is this a funny book—and an especially entertaining read-aloud for children. The two girls have a lot of fun: As Beverly (whom Kabungo calls simply “Belly”) puts it at one point, “When you’re best friends with a cavegirl, believe me, you’re not easily surprised.”
But on the other hand, speaking of DiCamillo once again, there are those novels in which the absent parent is a sore spot, to say the least, and the reason the protagonist does what he or she does. DiCamillo’s newest book, Raymie Nightingale, is the story of a girl who has to parent herself for a spell. With her father gone—he left in the middle of the night with a dental hygienist—and her mother still in a mute state of shock, Raymie is (emotionally) on her own and sets out to prove her worth so he will return. She looks to her newfound friends for companionship, while the three of them struggle to make sense of the singular losses in their lives. Louisiana Elefante, who lights up each and every page she appears on, and her grandmother live a life of poverty and can’t manage to fill their fridge. Beverly Tapinski is the victim of abuse at home. DiCamillo never goes into great detail about the pain of these two girls, but it’s all there on the surface for observant readers. The focus, instead, stays on the girls’ camaraderie and what ends up becoming a summer of salvation in many ways.
There are reasons this novel has received starred reviews thus far from every major children’s lit journal/magazine in the field. It is an expertly layered and beautifully crafted story with not a wasted word or moment. The characters are living, breathing humans in whose struggles the reader becomes invested. And it’s a novel that shimmers with hope at its close, even if that absent father never actually pulls through.
I’m jumping the gun a bit to mention Kate Beasley’s Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, as it won’t arrive on shelves until October, but allow me a quick mention, as I’ve read a galley of it. This is another story with an absent parent—this time, a mother who has essentially left her family for another one. And she lives, no less, in the same town. Gertie is another child determined to prove to the parent who ditched her that she’s the best kid in order to convince that parent to return. To call Gertie spunky would be an understatement (she’s already been compared to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona); she’s full of fire, and she will break your heart a little as she tries to make sense of her world and come to terms with her mother’s decision. This is Beasley’s debut, and she’s one to watch. Bonus: The book’s opening line, “The bullfrog was only half dead, which was perfect,” is a keeper, huh? Oh, and second bonus: The book includes illustrations from Caldecott Honor artist Jillian Tamaki.
How about we close on a dependable parent, though? When it comes right down to it, the Mother of the Year award, given to perhaps the most loving parent you’ll read about in children’s lit in 2016, is Roz from The Wild Robot. And she’s not even a human with blood running through her veins; she is a robot with an on/off button.
This is picture book author and illustrator Peter Brown’s debut as a novelist, and he makes you sit up and pay attention. The novel is written in a chummy, inviting style: “Our story begins on the ocean” is how he kicks it all off, making abundantly clear that the story is ours to share, him and all of us. He also peppers the narrative with direct addresses to us as readers.
The short chapters unfold to tell the story of a robot abandoned, post-shipwreck, on an island. She makes it her home, adapting to her environment, befriending the animals, and becoming the adoptive parent to Brightbill, a gosling. There are larger questions seamlessly and subtly posed to readers about technology and environmental destruction. But the heart of the story is Roz’s metamorphosis; she discovers, chapter by chapter, what it means to behave as a feeling, responsible creature in the world, and Brown punctuates the narrative with a lot of humor as well. (I’d gladly read a spin-off about Chitchat, the squirrel.) The ending strongly suggests a sequel, and I hope that is indeed the case, since I missed Roz once the story ended. A lot of child readers, I would guess, are going to feel the same. Roz may consist of circuits and not flesh, but she’s still a pretty incredible parent to have.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.