Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Middle Grade Fiction: Giving Kids Autonomy

As I have mentioned (since it sparked several reviews), there's been some discussion lately about missing and dead parents in Middle Grade fiction. I also recently did a post on books about boarding schools, and all this together has made me think about the importance of giving kids autonomy, both in books and in reality.

So this week I'm going to start a discussion about ways that authors give kids autonomy.  Next week I'll continue it with a discussion of what we parents do or should do to help our kids achieve some fraction of the level of self-sufficiency that the heroes of their books have.

 An obvious literary approach to getting parents out of the way is the orphan story.  That's easy.  No parents, lots of need to fend for yourself, especially in a historical or fantasy setting where there's no state structure to step in and offer substitutes (though given what I know of the foster system in my state, anyway, any kid who comes out of that with their head on straight and going in the right direction has plenty of gumption and self-sufficiency).

So if you don't want to kill off the parents, how else do you get the kids on their own?  There's boarding school (see last week's discussion, to which I now suddenly realize I should add Tamora Pierce's Tortall novels of Alanna and Keladry going through page training--if that isn't boarding school, I don't know what is.  Complete with strict adults who must be circumvented).  In many of the books I loved as a kid, parents simply gave kids carte blanche to roam, and they then could fall into adventures (think of Enid Blighton's "Famous Five).  This wasn't so far off reality back then; my brothers and I ran around in the woods and on the beach for hours at a time without checking in with parents.  In essence, the author (and the kids) can then just ignore the parents.

Historical fiction often makes more room for kids to be proactive and self-sufficient, as well.  That seems to have been reality.  Even little kids had chores and had to learn fast to do them themselves.

In one of my works in progress, I just made the main characters 16 or so, and put them on their own. Old enough to make it plausible, young enough that they don't have to do the adult love stuff (which I don't seem to want to write, and certainly not in a book aimed at kids).

And, of course, ultimately every kid is to some degree on her own in working out life's issues.  The bigger the issues, the more likely kids seem to be to keep them inside and try to go it alone.  So the parents can be right there and still the kids have to deal on their own.

Can you come up with any more approaches that writers use to make it plausible to have kids doing major (often adult-like) things?


  1. Oh you know, not sure I have any great ideas to add, but am fascinated by this topic. It never occurred to me that the kids were reading parentless-child stories, nor did it dawn on me to care if they were. But a very interesting discussion and from a literary standpoint-- setting the kids up to handle things on their own-- I totally get it.

    1. I'm not sure I care (in the sense of it worrying me) about the kids reading orphan stories. Though actually my boys didn't, since they aren't huge fiction sorts anyway (and pretty much jumped over middle-grade fiction to adult SF). But I know how much I loved those books, and it seems a little weird in some ways. I had just a secure childhood, with two parents who clearly loved us and each other. Maybe that's what makes it okay to explore the "advantages" of not having parents.


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