At Obit Magazine, Joyce Gemperlein ponders a mystery of classic juvenile literature: Why doesn’t plucky girl detective Nancy Drew seem to care that her mother has died and abandoned her to a life of nearly constant tribulation and physical danger?
I realize now, though I didn’t as a child reader, that Nancy never mourns for her mother or has what we now call “issues” of being abandoned through death. She does not, a la Harry Potter, a modern parentless protagonist, yearn for her mother or imagine that she sees her.
“Mourning can be sentimental and there’s no place for sentimentality in a child’s life. Children are too young to appreciate the business of sentimentality. That’s why The Giving Tree is an adult book, not a kids’ book. That’s why The Velveteen Rabbit is an adult book, not a kids’ book. I go crazy,” says [University of Tennessee communications prof Jinx Stapleton] Watson, “when I see teachers and librarians and parents pushing those books on kids.”
She argues that children just don’t get the beautiful sadness that adults see in the rabbit’s plight.
The children “sit there wondering, ‘What the h---?’” Watson says.
Even children who share tears after the death of the spider hero in Charlotte’s Web don’t mourn her death. “They move on,” says Watson.
Watson thinks that the way children grasp a parent’s death in literature hasn’t changed over the years. She does, however, believe that our culture has changed and that’s why we read the old Nancy Drew mysteries now and wonder “how come no tears for her old mom?”
“Why doesn’t Nancy mourn? No time! She’s an action girl. She’s got a life to live,” says Watson.
That Harry Potter’s moping around didn’t prevent those books from selling many copies would seem to put a hole in the professor’s logic. (Though it’s true that a big part of the readership consisted of age-appropriateness-flouting grownups.) It’s also worth noting that Harry can afford self-pity because the practical problems we would usually associate with having absent or useless parents – penury, social isolation, lack of access to school and career opportunities, impaired moral development – are solved almost as soon as the story starts, after which point Harry is rich, popular and consistently fast-tracked to success.
But it’s true that the publishing titan Edward Stratemeyer (who in one way or another minimized the parental involvement throughout his impressive catalogue of young adult series) understood the audience’s impatience with emotional depth.
There’s a kind of autism at work in good storytelling that is not so easy to pull off. Movie producers are always talking about relatability and character arcs and establishing rooting interest and so forth, and the reason for that seems pretty obvious: If you lack the ability to invent jokes and insane action and suspense and all the other things that bring people out to the theater, characterological mumbo jumbo is a good way of keeping the conversation on a topic you can control. What gets people interested in orphans or waifs or wild teenagers is not sentimental attachment. It's wish fulfillment based on wild situations and awesome accoutrements. In the end, the audience roots for whoever has the best hair.
They showed us a movie of the Velveteen Rabbit when I was in first or second grade, and while I was – just as Watson says – not terribly interested in the love story between the boy and the stuffed animal or the magically transformed rabbit or whatever it was, there was one aspect of the story that was fascinating: the idea that a stuffed toy could be so infected with deadly germs that it had to be incinerated. That stuck with me.