When Nick was about five, Mark took him to see Finding Nemo for the first time. Mariah and I were singing in a wedding, and they chose the movie instead. But after about half an hour, they left. Mark and I are frugal enough (OK, cheap enough) that it’s rare that we’ll walk out of a movie, no matter how bad. But Nick was so frightened by the images in the movie, so assaulted by the noise that they had to leave.
At five, Nick was no baby. Mariah, at age two, nearly crawled out of the theatre — over the backs of rows of theatre seats — when I took her to see Beauty and the Beast, and the wolves came out of the screen to attack Maurice and his faithful horse. Nick has had his moments, too — it was pretty hard to get him to sit through either of the first two Harry Potter movies, for instance — but with enough gentle persuasion, he ended up staying and enjoying them both.
And I know he plays “scared” sometimes — whether for fun or attention, I don’t know. Scary music in a soundtrack can send him out of a room where we’re all watching a video together. But just the week before Nemo, he had watched Into the West — a lovely Irish movie about children and a horse — and sat glued to the screen through the whole thing, despite scary images of the horse destroying an apartment, and plenty of threatening music.
So what was it about Nemo? Well, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know for sure, but I’m going to guess anyway. Nemo, like many children’s films and books, begins with the loss of the protagonist’s mother. And in Nemo, unlike in, say Cinderella, Snow White, or Charlotte’s Web, that loss takes place on-screen, in graphic detail. OK, it may just be a fish — and, since I’m encouraging my kids to eat healthy, I actually want them to think it’s OK to eat fish. But nonetheless, the film begins by making the unthinkable — the loss of a parent — real.
When you think about it, parents are pretty disposable in children’s books and movies. One of the reasons I like the old picture books by Ezra Jack Keats is that Peter’s parents turn up in the books. They may not stay there long, but they’re there. Indeed, in a large number of picture books, the basic plot movement is boy leaves house, boy has adventures, boy comes home to loving mother. This describes, to pick three at random, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Snowy Day, and Where the Wild Things Are. The deeply gendered mother-son pairing is essential to these stories; Peter’s sisters, for example, are well-behaved little girls, while he goes off to find adventure in Mr. McGregor’s garden.
But as the stories get longer the parents seem to fade. Where is Wilbur’s mother, in Charlotte’s Web? What has happened to Mary’s parents, in The Secret Garden? (Cholera, actually.) A few years ago I began reading to Nick Rascal by Sterling North, a seemingly innocent tale of a child raising a raccoon. North casually mentions in an early chapter that since his mother had died when he was seven, the neighbor lady had been particularly kind to him. I found myself cringing as I read this to my son, comfortably perched on my lap. I didn’t want him to think it’s normal to lose a parent in your youth — though, of course, it happens. Now that he’s read all six Harry Potter books, however, he’s made it through not only parental death, but even the loss of the grand-parently Dumbledore. So far he seems relatively unscathed by the losses.
Stories require conflict, of course, and the loss of a parent is almost guaranteed to instigate some conflict in a child’s life. Furthermore, while real children rarely –especially in these paranoid times — spend time on their own, children’s books and movies require their protagonists to have a certain amount of freedom, to be able to get into trouble — or at least interesting situations — by themselves. The easiest way to do this is simply to remove the parents — or at least the mother. Fathers sometimes hang around, ineptly or abusively or (as in Nemo) over-protectively, long enough to establish a presence and then — again –disappear.
Although I don’t really like reading about dead mothers, I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. After all, I teach children’s literature, and I love the way that it depicts children as strong, capable, independent actors in an often-confusing world. My students weren’t entirely convinced by E.L. Konigsburg’s novel, Silent to the Bone, in which the main character is on his own for much of the time despite two very present parents. They kept wondering why they would let him ride his bike all over town or go to the juvenile detention center to visit his friend all by himself. So there’s a certain artistic license provided by the death of parents that allows authors to put their protagonists in interesting situations. Konigsburg managed this better in her earlier novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler — but those were less paranoid times.
There are, of course, plenty of important mothers in books for kids, as I’ve noted in previous columns. Mothers are important in our culture, even if we don’t quite know how to value or recognize them. But so is independence — in America, though not everywhere in the world, independence, not interdependence, is a sign of maturity. And in children’s literature one way we force independence is through the death of the mother. Nothing else, I think, so marks one as an adult, or as someone who is going to have to act as an adult.
What troubles me, then, is not so much the content of the stories — though as a mother I do occasionally feel threatened by them — but the mixed message we send to our children. We hover over them, providing security — even surveillance — beyond what any of us grew up with. We strap them into car-seats, make them wear helmets and pads, lock the school doors to keep out intruders (not to mention the parent volunteers), ban physical contact between teachers and students (including the necessary hug after the scraped knee on the playground), watch their soccer games, cut their food, bottle their water. We try, in short, to make them safe — and then try to amuse them with tales of adventure and risk, independence and autonomy. We can’t have it both ways — but in fantasies like Nemo that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.