I spent a surprising amount of my childhood hoping to be my dad when I grew up. Oh, I didn’t want to be a boy or anything — having two brothers pretty much dispelled any mystique of masculine superiority — but I did want my dad’s job. It looked like a pretty sweet deal to me: a little telling people what to do, a little dressing up, a little singing, and a lot of reading, writing, and being at home when other people’s dads weren’t. Yes, he did have to work on Sundays, but then again he was home at least one day during the week to make up for it. That women were barred from the Episcopal priesthood was no particular impediment; I’d been the first girl acolyte in two different churches, and I figured I could just be the first woman priest, too.
Well, the church got there before me, and with age came a more nuanced understanding of my dad’s job. But I never gave up the notion that a job that allows a dad (or a mom) to be at home during the week is a pretty sweet deal. In children’s literature, that job usually goes to a writer, not an Episcopal priest. And in some of my favorite children’s books, a father-writer is a central figure.
In Movie Shoes (by Noel Streatfeild, published in 1948 as The Painted Garden and now sadly out of print), the father-writer is blocked — depressed by a car wreck in which he accidentally killed a child. That back-story is quickly dispensed with to make room for the more exciting action of the plot, which takes the Winter family to California for six months to help him deal with his depression (and, not incidentally, his writer’s block). Streatfeild is best known for her “Shoes” books, all of which take up professional training for children — in Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, and Tennis Shoes, for example, her main characters are already becoming what they will be when they grow up. But Jane Winter, the main character in Movie Shoes, has no plans to act, although she somewhat surprisingly wins the role of Mary Lennox in a movie adaptation of The Secret Garden. While she fantasizes about becoming a world-famous dog trainer, what she really is is a readerly middle child with few real-world career options yet.
Like my own child self, she cavils at editorial changes between book and movie. Jane complains when she’s asked to cry on first entering the secret garden, claiming that “Mary wasn’t the sort of silly fool who’d . . . I mean, getting into a garden you wanted to get into seems to me a funny thing to cry about.” (The director reminds her that it’s his movie, and if he says Mary cries, she’ll cry.) Jane’s investment in the book (along with her bad temper) is what makes her a good Mary in the movie; there’s no suggestion that she’ll go on to act in other movies, though, only that she’ll keep reading. And as the California sunshine works its magic, her father starts writing again, and the family returns home healed after their six months in the sun. Her father’s role in the story is small, but made a big impression on me — that a dad could actually need help himself, and that this dad, once he gets help, is always around to provide it to his three kids, were powerful and convincing notions.
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith, also 1948) might almost be about the Winter family, some years older. There’s the beautiful eldest sister, the readerly/writerly second sister, and the somewhat sketchily presented younger brother, as well as the blocked writer father. The “event” in this father’s past is a brief sojourn in prison rather than a tragic accident, and the Mortmain children have a loving stepmother rather than the somewhat ineffectual mother in Movie Shoes. And Castle‘s Cassandra is far more appealing than Jane Winters — as the novel’s narrator, she begins her story with the words, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” and her self-awareness and love of reading and writing are the essential tools she carries with her throughout the novel.
Her father, like Mr. Winters, is a somewhat damaged writer — highly acclaimed for his first novel and blocked since then, seemingly by its unexpected success. Late in the novel his two younger children literally imprison him with a typewriter and some blank paper, in hopes that he’ll return to his writing. (He does, though not quite as they had hoped.) As in Movie Shoes, the damaged dad is central to the story, though he spends much of it off-stage. His writerly self, though, stands as a powerful model to his middle child, his writer-daughter, who nonetheless forges a very different kind of writer-persona for herself. More Jane Austen than James Joyce (an obvious precursor to her father), she struggles simply to capture daily life on paper, berating herself for overdramatizing, enjoying the well-turned phrase.
My own father never seemed to suffer writer’s block, though he may on occasion have thrown a noisy child out of his study. (Truly, though, he may not have: when my daughter was small she stood at his elbow as he typed, begging him to make his “fingers dance” again whenever he stopped.) His weekly sermons, as far as I could tell, simply appeared on schedule, typed out on a manual typewriter in my early childhood, an electric typewriter in the office, and later on a series of personal computers. So what I saw in these books was not a reflection of my own life so much as a confirmation — that other kids were also readers, and that other dads wrote, often at home, and were involved in the lives of their children. This may have been more radical in 1948 than it was when I was reading the books in the seventies, and certainly more than it should be today, but old patterns die hard, and involved dads are still rare in children’s literature. Cassandra and Jane weren’t me, by a long shot, but they gave me something to shoot for, something to think about outside my own experience. I didn’t expect to star in a movie, but I could — and did — inhabit the books I read, like Jane, and fill notebooks with my writing, like Cassandra. And their fathers, damaged though they were, were a big part of their lives, as was my own — home at odd hours, pecking away on the keyboard, and working on Sundays. Dad retired from active parish ministry soon after I started my first academic job, and, freed from the tyranny of the weekly sermon, promptly began turning out books. I certainly didn’t follow him into the priesthood, but as I look at that early job description — a little telling people what to do, a little dressing up, a little singing, and a lot of reading, writing, and being at home when other people’s moms and dads aren’t — I find I’m doing a lot of it anyway.