Looking for books about "parentified" children.
November 28, 2017 10:24 AM   Subscribe

This great FPP about children having to parent their parents reminded me of one of my favorite books, Child of the Owl. I'm looking for books that depict kids like this; more details inside.

In "Child of the Owl," 12-year-old Casey takes care of herself and her gambling father, and then goes to live with her grandmother but still has to deal with bullying and poverty and other issues. I'm looking for books like this, about kids who are independent due to the adults who aren't there for them when they should be.

Ideally, I'm looking for books where the protagonist seems to be strong, cheerful and/or resourceful, like Casey, and the whole situation seems "normal" to them--they do not (at least at first) question the adults around them, they just make the best of the situation. (I'm particularly intrigued about how Casey seems happy when she lives with her father, cheerfully chatting with people who lent her father money, laughing about the strict nurse in the hospital, etc.) A bonus for being YA and first person, since that makes it more intimate, I think.

I liked Louise Fitzhugh's Sport too, for this aspect.

And in addition to these specifics, I'm interested in any book, fiction or non-fiction, about parentified children, that is compelling and engaging. Thank you.
posted by Melismata to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
How far back are you willing to go? Charles Dickens is all over this (partly for autobiographical reasons), most notably in Little Dorrit.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:27 AM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Any and all time periods, thanks!
posted by Melismata at 10:29 AM on November 28, 2017

The Night Swimmers by Betsy Byars fits right in with your two examples. Early 80s YA, standard third person narrative. I still think about Retta's tomato-soup spaghetti.
posted by Flannery Culp at 10:31 AM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Glass Castle
posted by Sassyfras at 10:32 AM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

The entire Series of Unfortunate Events is this.
posted by Mchelly at 10:33 AM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Absolutely Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman Cycle, starting with Homecoming and going on from there. I think Dicey's Song may be the best at directly addressing the parentification that happened to Dicey and where she goes from there.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:39 AM on November 28, 2017 [17 favorites]

Also came to say Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman Cycle, which I LOVED as a kid.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 10:42 AM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, by Alice Miller

A workbook I did which was amazing:
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson

Lisey's Story, by Stephen King
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:03 AM on November 28, 2017

Another Dickens novel where this parentification happens (multiple times, but once very clearly) is Our Mutual Friend—Jenny Wren is a secondary character but she has a lot in common with the one you describe. (It happens in David Copperfield too, now that I think of it. Maybe it would be easier to name Dickens novels where this absolutely does not happen.)
posted by Polycarp at 11:13 AM on November 28, 2017

Huckleberry Finn springs immediately to mind
posted by potrzebie at 12:23 PM on November 28, 2017

A Girl of the Limberlost
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:35 PM on November 28, 2017

Also a good one, though the parenting kids are teens: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
posted by Mchelly at 1:17 PM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm reading Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows right now, and it's full of a version of this, though somewhat mediated by reflections from the older version of the narrator. (It's really unexpectedly wonderful so far. Somehow I didn't realize Rebecca West had written any fiction; I mainly associate her with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which I've never managed to tackle, but this may give me the motivation.)
posted by yarrow at 1:30 PM on November 28, 2017

Henry James: The Awkward Age and What Maisie Knew both deal with prematurely responsible children having their lives ruined by their feckless parents.
posted by tinkletown at 1:41 PM on November 28, 2017

Just another vote for Cynthia Voigt. I re-read the series in my 20s and still loved it.
posted by OrangeVelour at 1:44 PM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ursula Vernon's Summer in Orcus is a fantasy novel in which the main character is a girl who takes care of her mother.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 3:24 PM on November 28, 2017

I'm afraid I have nothing to offer, but I wanted to thank you for making this thread, because I read and loved Dragonwings as a kid and I'd never heard of Child of the Owl.
posted by halation at 3:44 PM on November 28, 2017

Roald Dahl’s Matilda is the ultimate in wish-fulfillment for the parentified child.
posted by wabbittwax at 3:58 PM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Will in The Subtle Knife

(spoilers for the middle book of a trilogy, but it's been out and famous for years and years):

is highly self-aware about it in some ways (he knows that if anybody found out how much he has to do for his mother, they'd take him away & institutionalize her) and less so in other ways (he treats Lyra, a girl of the same age, as his natural subordinate at first and as though she's younger than she is; it's both infuriating, in that he is very conditioned by his upbringing into being the strongest pillar of any group of two and the narrator connives with him to make it happen, and somewhat sweet, in that he manfully masters himself when he gets angry at her because he takes it for granted that he must be the emotionally mature and understanding one in any group of two. though he does get sick of it.)

he thinks at one point -- again with the narrator/narrative colluding -- that it isn't fair, but it doesn't matter, because it has to be that way and abandoning his mother would make him a monster. so of course it's very hard, and of course he wishes some responsible grown-up would come along and tell him he can take a rest, but it's just how his life is and that's that.

(Lyra, by contrast, has no parents at all until she's 11, but is resourceful and highly adept at dealing with the adult world without ever being much of a parentified figure. she looks after other kids, but because it's in her character, not because she's told to. she escapes parentification even when she acquires parents partly because both her parents are so vile and view her so instrumentally, especially her father, that they don't look to her for personal emotional support any more than they would look to a potted plant for that. caretaking is not what they want from her.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:38 PM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Samantha Irby’s essay in We Are Never Meeting in Real Life about parenting her chronically ill mum was absolutely gutting for me. It’s not what you are asking for exactly but there’s something so clear and ruthless about how she describes their life together that I think it comes around to the life-affirming side again. But it’s not calm and it’s not cheerful.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:37 PM on November 28, 2017

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