Beverly Cleary’s recent death has prompted a lot of people to revisit her wonderful novels. I picked up Ramona the Pest the other day and was immediately struck by how thoroughly five-year-old Ramona takes control of the action.
Ramona is headed to her first day of kindergarten, but does Ramona the Pest open with her kindly mother sitting Ramona down and telling her what to expect or asking her to get ready for school and telling her how she’s going to get there?
No, it focuses on Ramona hurrying her mother along and Ramona deciding who she wants to take her to school. After shooting down her older sister’s friend Mary Jane, who Ramona fears will treat her like a baby, she opts for a genuine grown-up, thank you very much.
Ramona is a very active protagonist. Even though she’s “just” a kindergartener, she’s the one making choices and driving the action. This is the best way to think about protagonists in all fiction, but particularly in children’s fiction.
Adults often view kids as largely powerless and subject to a wide array of forces outside of their control, but children’s literature is nearly always about kids’ agency. One of the oldest cliches in middle grade is to immediately get rid of the parents like the rhinoceroses in James and the Giant Peach so the kids can run around on their own and make their own decisions.
So what’s the role of adults in children’s literature?
It’s not about the adults
As Annie Barrows writes in her excellent essay on Beverly Cleary, adults have a tendency to insert kind and wise and cool adults into children’s books in order to make themselves feel better.
Now, this isn’t to say that there can’t be wise and cool adults in a children’s book, but remember: you’re writing for children. The novel should genuinely be about the kids, not about how kids are surrounded by cool adults.
Writing for children means writing about children. Chapter books are often about kids learning how to navigate conflict with peers and adults, middle grade is often about exploration and imagining a world where you’re making decisions without your parents, and young adult fiction is often about navigating emotional complexity.
But they’re all about kids navigating their worlds and trying to get the things they want. Sometimes that needs to involve adults, sometimes it doesn’t.
Keep the kid protagonists active. Make sure the novels are flowing from their motivations and children going after their goals.
The types of adults in children’s novels
The good adult characters in children’s literature tend to fall into three essential buckets. (Sometimes the same adult can occupy more than one category at different stages in the novel).
The key thing about these categories is that they are defined in relation to the child protagonist’s motivations and whether the adult helps or obstructs them.
Rather than putting the adults wholly in charge and dictating motivations to the children, try as much as possible to put the adults in service of the kids.
In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel’s parents aren’t the ones who decide Hazel should go to Amsterdam. Instead that originates with Hazel and Augustus. After putting up the barest bit of resistance, Hazel’s mom gears up to help them make it happen.
Other times, adults may well be obstacles kids have to overcome and navigate. It’s true that kids don’t tend to have the same freedom and liberties as adults. Sometimes adults may crop up with restrictions, like curfews, detentions and, you know, rules, which constrain a child and make it more difficult for them to get the things they want.
Still, while adults can absolutely constrain a child protagonist, remember that these are obstacles in the characters’ way. Snape is a classic obstacle adult for most of the Harry Potter novels.
This is a specific variation on a helper. Sometimes adult characters may be a bit more deeply aligned with the children throughout a novel, whether it’s a Gandalf-type figure on a quest or a teacher or parent who helps a child over the course of the novel, like Miss Honey in Matilda.
Here’s the key thing about mentors: they don’t tell the protagonist precisely what to do.
They may provide tools, powers, knowledge, or general guidance that aids the child in overcoming obstacles, but it should still remain up to the child to figure out the exact steps they need to take, and for kids to learn the ultimate lessons on their own.
Think of it like Obi-Wan teaching Luke some of the basics of the Force and serving as a spiritual mentor, but Luke still has to figure out how to blow up the Death Star himself.
Keep decision-making in kids’ hands whenever possible
Sure, kids’ lives are constrained by quite a lot of forces outside of their control. But they also retain quite a bit of power to shape and influence their own destiny. And that’s really what children’s literature is about.
Take decision-making out of adults’ hands and give it to the kids, like Ramona deciding for herself how she’s going to get to kindergarten.
Let kids be the active ones, let kids learn the lessons through trial and error, let kids be the true protagonists and the true decision-makers. Try as much as possible to let the kids learn their own lessons rather than having them bestowed in a heavy-handed way by benevolent and kindly adults.
Do you have any tips for writing adults in children’s novels and any favorites? Take to the comments!
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Art: Garden Scene in Brittany by Pierre-Auguste Renoir