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As Father’s Day approaches, a look at dads in books for children

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It may well be true that Father’s Day is without a jot of authentic tradition to its name, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to celebrate. At Nosy Crow we’ve been listing our favourite dads in children’s literature all week, and what started out as a harmless pub game between Kate, Camilla and me has spiralled rather dramatically into a mammoth collection of categories, sub-categories and clauses.

Being a bit of a purist about these things, I initially protested to Kate that our list should be comprised only of nice dads, and that bad dads would go against the spirit of the exercise somewhat – this is for father’s day after all! – but we all realised pretty quickly that a lot of the best characters are really awful fathers.

This initial concession led to a proliferation of different categories.

Here are our best categories and our strongest nominations, with, where I felt it necessary, some context or justification. Please add your own categories or nominations in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #kidsbookdads or Facebook!

Good dads:

William from Danny, the Champion of the World (written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake, see the picture above). This is a pretty uncomplicated one – I think we can all agree that William is an amazing and exciting dad (even if he does lead his son into a life of crime). The opening chapter is a really lovely and quite moving tribute to the relationship between father and son.

The dad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming is another good example of an exciting dad.

The dad in Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a favourite of Kate’s.

Big Nutbrown Hare from Guess How Much I Love You (written by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram). Big Nutbrown Hare is never specifically referred to as Little Nutbrown Hare’s father, but I think we’re invited to assume as much.

Gorilla from Gorilla and the dad in My Dad by Anthony Browne are pretty good entries from the outgoing Children’s Laureate…

… And we have two from the incoming one: Stick Man from Stick Man whose quest is to get back to his family tree, and the gruffalo, from The Gruffalo’s Child, who tries to warn his adventurous child against the mouse. Both are written by Julie Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

John Arable from Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole, is an inspired choice by Camilla – the true story of the two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who raised a baby penguin together.

Two excellent suggestions by Kate B were Mr. Brown from Paddington (by Michael Bond) and Pongo from 101 Dalmations (by Dodie Smith).

Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird (by Harper Lee). I have had to lobby quite hard for inclusion of Atticus Finch: on the one hand, he is, of course, the greatest father in any book, but is To Kill A Mockingbird really children’s literature? Well, it was treated as such on its release in 1960, and it’s taught all over the world in schools, so I think that makes it not not children’s literature.

Kate made the very interesting suggestion of Anne Frank’s father, “especially in contrast to how she portrayed her mother”.

My contribution to the sub-category of real-life good dads is Michael Rosen in his poems about his son Eddie, which reach their heartbreaking conclusion in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

Kate B also suggested James Potter from the Harry Potter books, which to begin with seemed like a silly suggestion to me; certainly not worthy of the Pongo/ Mr. Brown company in which it stood – James isn’t even alive in the books! – but it is, of course, actually an excellent choice. James dies protecting his family from Voldemort – a powerful symbol of fatherly love, and he’s there in Harry’s mind throughout the books.

James Potter segues seamlessly into our next category…

Absent dads:.

There are quite a lot of these in children’s books, ranging from dads who’ve abandoned their children to dads who are absent through no fault of their own.

The father in The Railway Children. I can’t remember his name, but it doesn’t matter – he’ll always be “Daddy, my daddy!” to me, in the manner of Dead Poets Society and “Captain, my captain”.

The fathers in Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women were both examples of Kate’s category of “Absent Dads who are the Deus Ex Machina, resolving things at the end or making the ending happy”, as is the dad in The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr.

Bad dads:

Interestingly, a lot of bad fathers are defined in terms of their absence (in another blog post I’m sure there’d be a lot to say about that…) Some literary dads, however, would leave their offspring a lot better off if they did disappear.

Surely the absolute worst dad ever is Huck Finn’s; the violent town drunk who locks his son in a cabin and leaves him to starve. If we can have To Kill A Mockingbird then we can probably sneak in Huck Finn.

An excellent contender for the same title must be Matilda’s dad (from Roald Dahl’s Matilda)

Kate B points out that many fairy tale dads, such as the fathers in Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Cinderella, behave shockingly badly towards their offsping, though they’re often under the influence of wicked stepmothers.

Bad dads who become good:

This is a more heartwarming category and it seems to be an popular archetype in children’s books:

The father in our very own Olivia’s First Term, by Lyn Gardner is viewed by some of us as a bit of a bad dad, but others of us felt this was harsh, and that he really was doing his best in difficult circumstances.

Other complicated and difficult dads who are more or less redeemed at the end of the book or books include Lord Asriel, from the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman; Mortmain, from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith; Mr. Darling from Peter Pan; and Colin’s dad in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden

Surrogate dads:

Adrian thought up the “surrogate dads” category:

Ben from Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy.

Tom Oakley from Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian.

Joe Gargery in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

The magnificent Akela from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Finally (!), here are a few that didn’t quite fit anywhere:

Kirsty called the dad in Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging “the best comedy dad”, and nominated the dads in Big Red Bath and Peepo“ for the title of “Best at giving baths dad”. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory demonstrates the “Dad upstaged by grandfather” genre rather well…

As you can see, once you’ve started, it is hard to stop.

Over to you…

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18 Responses to “As Father’s Day approaches, a look at dads in books for children”

  • Surrogate father.

    Little Foxes by Michael Morpurgo
    Billy is on the run, he has no family and leaves behind his foster carer. He finds sanctuary on a barge with a man. Morpurgo shows brilliantly that being a good father to a boy doesn’t mean they have to be your son… Loved it, but had a little cry!

  • Twitter nominations so far:

    @carylhart1: Uncle Quentin from Blyton’s Famous Five (absent and strange dad).

    @S_Spublications: the dad in Love You Forever by Robert Munch – a good, tear-jerking dad.

    @LauraWaldoch: the dad in Tatty Ratty by Helen Cooper – a good dad who “makes an adventure of toy’s disappearance to soften blow and finally solves the problem.”

    @TheFrankieJones says, “I believed that the dad in ‘My Dad is Brilliant’ was actually my father for years.”

    @nosycrow (that would be me): Poseidon in the Percy Jackson books (exciting and distant dad) and the dad in Candy Floss by Jacqueline Wilson (kind doing-his-best dad).

    @GregBatcheler: Ba in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon passes on his hopeful love of stories to Minli (good dad, then).

    @marquiscarabas: The dad in Skellig by David Almond (good dad).

  • In Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy Todd has two adopted fathers – Ben and Cillian – who are excellent fathers, although they leave telling him the truth just too late.

    Tiffany’s dad in the Wee Free Men books by Terry Pratchett doesn’t understand much about her being a witch and it is not the choice he would make for her but he supports her always no matter what.

    Then there is the dad in Michael Rosen’s We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, who takes the kids on an adventure and then rushes them home to safety.

    Also many books with no dads at all – for instance all the Spot the dog books by Eric Hill – you only ever meet Spot’s mum Sally.

    You’re right, this is fun and addictive!!!

  • Mr Brown in the Just William stories – do you have a category for “Exasperated Dads”? I think he’s a man with a lot on his mind; Mrs Brown is pleasant but bland, and Robert and Ethel are maddening. William can create mayhem, but also sufficient relief to merit the odd half crown. Personally, I like Mr Brown.

  • The dad in the Swallows and Amazons series. He hardly ever appears but is obviously a huge influence in the children’s lives. He’s their constant watchword – what would daddy think? Better drowned than duffers.

    Bereaved or abandoned dads – in Scar Hill by Alan Temperley Luke and Jon by Robert Williams.

    Dads who are not dads at all – Liam in Cosmic

  • Another David Almond: the dad in My Dad’s a Birdman is sad dad (the mum has died) and then mad dad (he thinks he’s a bird) and then, with the help of his lovely daughter, returns to being a good dad again.

  • A complicated and difficult dad who is sometimes good: Bill Casson, in Hilary McKay’s Casson Family stories, who swoops in occasionally to attempt to tidy up his chaotic and impoverished family and then disappears again, exhausted, to his luxurious metropolitan retreat.

  • INDISPUTABLY Merlin from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King for the surrogate father category: regardless of his inevitable love for Nimue, he remains a God among long-bearded magicians and perpetually guides Arthur with his wisdom & benevolence.
    One could also argue the case for Sir Ector for the ‘baffled and partially drunk surrogate dads’ category.

  • Good suggestion Freya. Sir Ector reminds me of another baffled and intoxicated dad in fantasy literature, Nathaniel Chanticleer in Hope Mirrlees’ absolutely wonderful Lud-in-the-Mist. I’m not sure if this counts as a children’s book but it’s entirely enchanting and has as it’s protagonist a father who is woefully ineffectual.

  • Good dad: Mr Penderwick. He raised four intelligent and independent daughters. He listens to them, has faith in them, and knows them.

    Surrogate father: Matthew Cuthbert of Green Gables, Avonlea. He was kind, wise, and listened. He really knew his Anne and loved her for who she was, not who she should have been.

  • Sharon –

    Matthew Cuthbert! How could we have forgotten!!! I feel ashamed.

    My daughter has just reminded me about another shocking surrogate father omission is Merlin in Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve.

    She also reminds me that I should mention – but in what category? Bad dad, I think, but she disagrees – Mattie’s dad (Canadian, curmudgeonly…) in A Gathering Light.

    Bill Cunningham (AKA Smugs) in The Adventure books by Enid Blyton is a surrogate dad and adopts all the children is a good and adventurous dad.

    Other child suggests Dad in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – bad-tempered but caring.

    Both agree that dad in A Spoonful of Jam and Cuckoo in the Nest by Michelle Magorian is “dastardly”.

  • Other Twitter suggestions are:

    @lkstrohecker: “Love David Logan from ROLL OF THUNDER HEAR MY CRY

    @pixiecake: “Definitely best dad is in Cosmic” by Frank Cottrell Boyce, but I don’t know if she means Liam PRETENDING to be Florida’s dad or Liam’s own dad, who, after all, comes to pick up Liam from Siberia.

  • Worst dad: Harry Drumm in Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough, for leaving his daughters to face one of the scariest monsters in fiction.
    Best surrogate dad(s): the troubadour who wins Randal at a game of chess in A Knight’s Fee by Rosemary Sutcliff, and then the old knight who adpots him (less exciting but more reliable).
    Best actual dad: Tom Natsworthy in A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve

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