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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.


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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.
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".
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
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