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In praise of incompetent adults - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
In praise of incompetent adults
I want to sing the praises of incompetent adults today.

Well, not, like, real life incompetent adults, but literary ones in books about children. We complain about the incompetence of the Order in Order of the Phoenix (I am not without sin here) and of course the adults surrounding active children in Stephen King books are simply abysmal. How could adults end up leaving things to little Anakin in The Phantom Menace? And what's with everyone in Sunnydale over the age of thirty? (Except Giles.)

There's a certain claim of logic in that. In the real world, we'd quite rightly prosecute adults who put kids in such positions.

Here's the thing, though:

I just read a book about a child heroine who was surrounded by competent adults who kept her out of danger as much as they could. It was deadly dull.

This was another pre-pub galley, the second book in the World of Elyon stories. It features a character named Alexa who comes into possession of a stone called a Jocasta which allows her to speak to animals. She has a giant as a companion, an adult convict, a little person (adult), a squirrel (adult), and a wolf (adult). Along the way, she picks up a peasant woman, an old mentor, the old mentor's brother, and the leader of a town.

It opens promisingly enough, with a restless Alexa in conflict with her father's wish for her to stay out of trouble... except she obeys the wish, only kind of regretting that there's nothing to do. The little man drags her into adventure via a letter from the mentor, which promises that her father won't mind when he reads the details (her father's reaction to her departure is never addressed, leading me to assume that, like everything else in the mentor's letters, it is entirely accurate information which erases the initial conflict completely). The mentor provides a map with exact directions to the first point. They reach the first point, where they pick up an adult, who guides them through the next leg of the journey, warns them accurately about dangers, and knows where a good shelter is. They find another letter from the mentor, who explains in detail what needs to be done, and the group goes forward. They come across a valley full of malformed giants who they re-christen "ogres," and are dithering around trying to figure out what to do, hiding in an obvious spot when... they are conveniently rescued by another adult figure.

Seeing the pattern?

Alexa is a passenger in her own story. Adults make all the plans, adults provide all the resources, and any time she's in a jam, some adult somewhere gets her out of it, even if it is "in the nick of time." There's one point when she actually participates in a raid, but despite her status as a first person narrator, we don't see her in action, as she doesn't want to bore us with the details. Later, she hears the voice of Elyon (and yes, "Elyon" is the name of the Creator and there's a whole Paradise Lost backstory) and obeys that, though she needs her friend the giant to clear the way (she is not once left to solve a problem on her own) and ends up trapped with a villain until adults come along and get her out. The only reason she's there is that she is the only one who can carry the Jocasta... but I'll be damned if I can figure out what's so special about her that would lead her to be chosen for such a high destiny.

So please, give me secretive Dumbledore, never-there Remus, unstable Sirius. Give me destiny-minded Qui-Gon and I'll-just-sit-around-the-ship Obi-Wan. Give me the profoundly stupid Sunnydale Police Department, and the disbelieving adults of Derry, Maine.

If you're going to write kids in adventures, then they have to take the action, make the decisions, and gamble for high stakes. That's the protagonist's job. If it means making adults a little less competent than we like to see ourselves, so be it. If you're determined to have adults hold the reins, then just write about adults in the first place... we can have adventures. Just ask Frodo and Bilbo.

End rant.


39 comments or Leave a comment
agnes_bean From: agnes_bean Date: October 28th, 2005 06:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow. Wonderful rant, and so true. If the book is about kids, the adults have to be either incompetent, oblivious, not trustable or somehow removed from the picture. But how ever it's don they can't have/give all the answers, or what's the point?
sophonax From: sophonax Date: October 28th, 2005 06:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Have you read Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy? You might have some issues with it theologically, to say the least, but it's a great example of a book where the kids are the heroes and truly make their own decisions, but adults are also fully part of the story, and far from incompetent. (Of course, nearly every adult in the book is opposed to the kids' goal, in some way or another, but they're not all antagonists in the formal sense, and many are allies, if murkily-motivated ones.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 28th, 2005 08:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've tried a couple of times--it does sound like the sort of thing I should like--but I can't seem to connect to it and tend to put it down fairly quickly. It's just one of those things.
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: October 28th, 2005 08:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
HDM is a slog at the start; Pullman is a good writer as far as mechanics are concerned but he's just not a compelling world-builder. Which isn't to say that the worlds he builds aren't compelling; the way he does it is simply as interesting as reading a prose-version of a set of blueprints for a really complicated skyscraper. The AU we're plunged into at the start of the first book is too dark and too boring, IMO, and I only slogged through because I had heard so many good things about the third installment. The second installment is far superior to the first and the reason that the world-building stands out as a problem for me is that the second one does NOT start in an AU; it starts in THIS world, and as such Pullman is able to begin with some compelling action and drama that draws the reader in immediately, unimpeded by his clunky attempts to describe a new world to us. His other books taking place in the "real" world are also good, especially The Broken Bridge, which I think would make a lovely little film. But The Golden Compass and his inability to describe his AU in a non-boring way is a major impediment to many people entering the HDM universe.
lareinenoire From: lareinenoire Date: October 28th, 2005 08:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm actually a huge fan of Pullman's historical fiction as well--I only recently read HDM, but I'd read the Sally Lockhart books a good seven or eight years ago.
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: October 28th, 2005 08:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, I like his Sally Lockhart books as well. Lyra's world suffers from "as-you-know" syndrome. It's a clunky thing you often see in science fiction: "As you know, our planet has two suns, so..." When writing from the PoV of a person who lives in an alien world it's difficult to introduce that world in a way that doesn't make the characters who are used to that world seem like idiots for stating the obvious about their environment, the political system, etc. The flip side of the problem is for the characters to be so blase about their world that the reader is mystified about how things work. It's a real balancing act and difficult to do well. JKR benefits from Harry being new to the wizarding world, so that world can be described from the unjaded PoV of someone who hasn't grown up with it, but in the first book she still makes a rookie mistake when she has Molly ask which platform the train is leaving from, which is just ridiculous. Yes, it clues Harry in to the fact that they're going to get the Hogwarts Express, but it's terribly executed and utterly implausible that Molly should ever forget about Platform 9 3/4!
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: October 28th, 2005 09:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Maybe I'm misremembering the scene, but I thought it came off as the kind of not-quite-rhetorical "reminder" question that also takes such forms as "What do we say now that we've opened the present?" and "What do we do before we cross the street?" (Or, in my own recent experience, "Which sentence is better? That's right, it depends. What does it depend on? CON...TEXT.")
dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: October 28th, 2005 09:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, that's what I got from it too, I don't think you're misremembering
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: October 28th, 2005 09:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
No, it didn't really come off that way. It just seemed like a clunky way for Harry to overhear that they were a wizard family. It's even worse in the film; Molly sounds positively dotty in that scene, in fact.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: October 28th, 2005 10:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'll have to chalk it up to different perceptions, then. I went back to reread it, and it still looks like a reminder-question to me, especially since as far as I can tell they stopped right in front of the appropriate barrier before she asked the question. I admit I can imagine it being presented as stupidity, though I haven't actually seen the movie.
hermia7 From: hermia7 Date: October 28th, 2005 06:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well said, and completely true. In addition to giving the story actual purpose, in the case of books FOR children this is also what makes them so appealing. Think of Roald Dahl, and how much children love to read about a world that is acknowledged as dark and unfair, full of adults who are cruel/irrational/etc. as well as loving, kind ones. Kids don't want to be protected as much as they are, and books that allow them to strike back or stretch themselves in a dangerous adventures let the kids in the real world live vicariously through them.
angua9 From: angua9 Date: October 28th, 2005 06:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
So, so true!

(although Frodo and Bilbo, I think, are coded children)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 28th, 2005 06:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, most adventures are "coded" coming-of-age stories, so in that sense every protagonist is coded a child and goes through a growing up experience. But adults are as eligible as actual children--the fact that Frodo and Bilbo are actually adults but able to be coded that way supports the thesis.
darkeyedwolf From: darkeyedwolf Date: October 28th, 2005 07:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
and the disbelieving adults of Derry, Maine.

Hah! *adores you*
gehayi From: gehayi Date: October 28th, 2005 08:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, ALL the adults of Derry, Maine aren't disbelievers. Just the ones in It. The adults in the Derry books where children aren't the protagonists (Insomnia, Bag of Bones, etc.) are believers...and quite competent ones. Which seems to support fernwithy's theory.
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: October 28th, 2005 07:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
That DOES sound dull. I'm reminded of one of the criticisms leveled at Daniel Handler concerning the Lemony Snicket series: that he had the villain (Count Olaf) doing so many terrible things to the Baudelaire orphans, especially attempting to marry Violet when she was only fourteen. First, Olaf is the VILLAIN. Of COURSE he did terrible things to the kids! I love Handler's reponse to this complaint:

"Oh, no! I endangered fictional children. What was I thinking?"

This book you're talking about sounds like it was written for adults, not children, especially the sort of adults who take it personally when a children's book has incompetent adults in it. I don't know what the (nominal) adults are thinking who criticize the Potter books based on the depiction of some of the incompetent or downright sinister adults in them; did they never read children's books when they were young? Are they so invested in BEING adults now that they take all of this as a personal insult and think the author is casting aspersions on their adulthood/competence?

One of the scariest books I read when I was a kid was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. That may sound strange, but the experience of being in a graveyard at night and witnessing a murder, then being pursued by the same murderer, was absolutely blood-chilling to me. Adults failed to protect Tom time and again. The mother in Hansel and Gretel abandons her children. Parents in many fairy tales fail their children and the kids are the ones who must save the day. This motif has been around forever. Complainers are only showing how utterly clueless they are.

One of the only series of books I came to refuse to read to my daughter when she was young were the Boxcar children books. (She was welcome to read them herself--I just didn't want to be exposed to them.) As resourceful as the kids were sometimes, adults came to the rescue far too often for the books to be interesting and the kids were all Mary Sues to the nth degree. I have never been exposed to such a boring, saccharine collection of books in all my life. Urgle.
parallactic From: parallactic Date: October 28th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
So please, give me secretive Dumbledore, never-there Remus, unstable Sirius.

Yup. Don't forget the Dursleys, who take every chance they get to foist Harry off on others.

Someone mentioned Pullman's His Dark Materials already. I think Dianna Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci books also have competent adults who're untrustworthy or just seem untrustworthy at first. Then there's the old standby of the adults not believing the kids, so the kid has to go off and do stuff.
mincot From: mincot Date: October 28th, 2005 08:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
One of the best series I ever saw that balanced believable parents and kids that still had to Do Things was Diane Duane's Young Wizard series. Kit and Nita actively get into some serious scrapes, and they have to deal first witht heir parents' grounding them or other repercussions when they are (inevitably) late for deadlines or absent from school. Telling the parents about their positions as Wizards does little to help; the parents are disbelievingly supportive, but still REALLY want to watch out for the kids (after all, in one book Nita nearly dies), and the kids have to balance their parents' need to be responsible, loving, protective adults with their responsibilities to their own stories and jobs. Beautifully done.
dadaginny From: dadaginny Date: October 28th, 2005 08:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I have to agree with you on this series! It was great, and the parental action in it was "believable".
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: October 28th, 2005 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it also helps that apart from the parent-child relationships, it's also established that the child-wizards are needed, and needed at that age, as part of a structure that also includes adults as mentoring colleagues... and that you lose some strengths and gain others as you get older, in that system. So the story is focused on a handful of young characters (expanding somewhat, but still a handful), but you know that there are any number of others with similarly crucial parts to play. And yet it isn't any less interesting.

Well, not to me. Fern used the series as an example of stuff she DIDN'T like, once. ;)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 28th, 2005 08:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fern used the series as an example of stuff she DIDN'T like, once. ;)

Yes, although it certainly wasn't about this issue--the kids definitely kept control here. My issues were more about kind of scattershot plotting and too many coincidences and things like that. The child action hero issue was handled quite well.
veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: October 28th, 2005 09:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Where was this entry where you talked about YW? I'd be interested in your take on it.

When mincot mentioned the series, I first thought of Tom and Carl, the Advisory Wizards. The two men are undoubtedly competent at their jobs, but mostly leave the kids alone and provide great help when it is needed. They're probably the best example of competent adults in a fantasy series I can think of.

As for bad plotting and coincidences, it's a fantasy series. You abandon your sense of disbelief at the very beginning. It is mostly a great story though, and Nita makes a great protagonist, human and likeable. The plotting and unbelievable events are things I can learn to live with, because in most other respects, the books are well-written.
narcissam From: narcissam Date: October 28th, 2005 09:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh yes. That went so against my genre expectations, I was blown away when Kit and Nita tell their parents.
humantales From: humantales Date: October 28th, 2005 08:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
The other thing is that, no matter what the reality of the situation, kids generally do see adults as failing them in some way or another, whether by incompetence, absence, lack of understanding or simple villainy. Thus, the books that speak to the kids (and the kids in us adults) are those in which the adults are (generally) less than helpful/useful.

This would be more coherent, but my drained while trying to make two broken systems add up.
dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: October 28th, 2005 09:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's starting to sound as if the author of this book was actively trying to avoid sending children "the wrong message" about getting involved in dangerous situations and suchlike.

Which makes it doubly painful.
veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: October 28th, 2005 09:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Most kids in fantasy stories are forced to grow up quickly or be killed. Buffy and Harry Potter are comng of age stories, and you don't grow unless you're challenged, and hey fighting vampires or fighting for your life every year sure does make you responsible real fast.

I totally agree with your rant. Except you put it in more eloquent words than I would have.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: October 28th, 2005 09:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
In any book, the supporting characters must of necessity be less competent than the hero(es) - or at least, less lucky - for the hero(es) to carry the main body of the action. Sounds like the person who wrote that book was just not writing very well.
sreya From: sreya Date: October 28th, 2005 09:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Good grief, woman, get out of my head!!!

I was just thinking on Wednesday how to pull together some kind of a journal post on "child warriors", considering that child soldiering is a human rights violation in our own world. (Not to say it's a BAD THING to write about, but an interesting paradox) And here you come, posting about children who need to pull off the action-adventures as protagonists. :~/
texasmagic From: texasmagic Date: October 28th, 2005 10:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
This fits right in with the fact that so many childrens' books have a hero/heroine who is an orphan, or at least has parents unable to care for them.
murasaki99 From: murasaki99 Date: October 29th, 2005 12:39 am (UTC) (Link)

Anakin's Fate with Competent Adults...

Gee, if Anakin had had Alexa's uber-competent adults around, he'd be podracing king of Tatooine, and Palpatine would be looking uneasily over his shoulder at Darth Maul and wondering Where It All Went Wrong. >D
hiddenhibiscus From: hiddenhibiscus Date: October 29th, 2005 02:27 am (UTC) (Link)
You might be interested in a Mother's Day article posted two years ago on this exact topic in the Washington Post. I wish I could tell you the author's name, or article name, but cannot. Just more analysis on the importance of the missing/incompetent adult.
From: mrs_muggle Date: October 29th, 2005 08:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I suspect that's a lot of the appeal of school stories - the adults are necessarily more distant (and outnumbered by the kids).
mistress_kabuki From: mistress_kabuki Date: October 29th, 2005 10:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Good points all. Makes me feel guilty for seeing incompetence, particuarly in IT though not so much in HP. I mean, sometimes it looks more as though Harry is incompetent, with the adults playing catch up. Boggart!Pennywise aside, I think Harry runs to adults constantly or at least expects them to read his mind and figure him out.

*still not forgiving Harry for OotP fiasco*
greyashowl From: greyashowl Date: October 29th, 2005 01:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Don't people realise that it's not real? I swear the IQ of the human race decreases each day.
marginaliana From: marginaliana Date: October 29th, 2005 02:27 pm (UTC) (Link)

here via hogwarts_today

That's... you... *splutter* Stop being so sensible! :P

You are right on the money, of course. I'm just ruefully remembering that last night I was ranting about the incompetence of the Hogwarts teaching staff and the futility of the "sink or swim" teaching method and how irritating I find it how little the students are taught... and of course, you're right. It's necessary. Harry's continued ignorance of magical customs is necessary. But I don't have to like it. :)

I think, though, that part of the problem is not that the adults are incompetent, but that we don't have good reasons for them to be incompetent within the story. I tend to prefer adults-are-dead to adults-are-alive-but-dumb stories for that reason. It just doesn't make sense to me for Dumbledore to have hired or kept so many bozos on the staff. He's supposed to be wise (or at least smart)! And it seems obvious that we're simply not supposed to question these things. We're not supposed to wonder how on earth Dumbledore couldn't sense Voldemort stuck on the back of Quirrell's head for a year, how Crouch could imitate Moody well enough to fool everyone for a year, etc. It's all just swept under. Which irks me, because it's so obviously a plot device. It's so obvious that she had to make things happen a certain way to keep the conflict moving. I just want an ingenious explanation for it all. So on the one hand, yes, it's necessary. But on the other hand, I think just because it's necessary shouldn't mean the author is excused from making it plausible.

Errr, just my $0.02.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 30th, 2005 12:34 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: here via hogwarts_today

Yeah--I think at a certain point, you just have to have willing suspension of disbelief ("Fine, DD's smart, but it's hard to hire good teachers... sure, I'll take that." :))
dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: October 30th, 2005 07:26 am (UTC) (Link)
Just watched A Nightmare on Elm Street and was thinking of this the whole time. It was odd, because I was getting so upset with the parents, but at the same time, well, come on, real life, would you believe this stuff?
From: catkind Date: October 30th, 2005 01:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
If you're going to write kids in adventures, then they have to take the action, make the decisions, and gamble for high stakes. That's the protagonist's job. If it means making adults a little less competent than we like to see ourselves, so be it. If you're determined to have adults hold the reins, then just write about adults in the first place... we can have adventures. Just ask Frodo and Bilbo.

I don't know about that. There are plenty of mechanisms available to leave the kids in danger despite competent adults, or even because of competently evil adults. If it's the norm in the book for the kids to be exposed it comes as less of a shock to the reader and to the protagonist themselves.

I often find books which insist on either being about the kids or about the adults disappointing; some of the best (read: my favourite) authors manage to write about both at once.

From: (Anonymous) Date: October 30th, 2005 03:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I try not to think too much about why Dumbledore didn't interfere more in plot events. McGonagoll seems to have never been fully briefed on Harry's importance (and is no end surprised when Harry both has information she doesn't and chooses not to share). Snape, depending which view of him you take, is either actively hostile or being perpetually thwarted in his attempts to get Harry out of the line of fire (by expulsion if necessary). Remus has social problems and some self-esteem issues (he has trouble believing anyone really needs him). Sirius was in prison, on the run, and then suffering from a variety of understandable hang ups.


But, overall, I like Dumbledore and try not to think about it too much.

Sunnydale has a weird effect on the minds of most of the people who live there, making them see the world they expect to see. I decided it's a side effect of the Hellmouth and that adults, who are more invested in the 'real world' where there aren't vampires, are a bit more susceptable to it than teens.

Still, I like it when there's an explanation for how the child is either without protectors or has gone through a great deal of trouble to remain protector free.

39 comments or Leave a comment