Academic Articles

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Popular perceptions of disrupted childhoods

Kirsty Capes

2017

We need new stories about what happens to looked-after children. For decades, public policy-making has fundamentally failed looked-after children within the care of local governments across the UK. The care system very rarelyA common trope of children’s fiction is the representation of child protagonists as victims of some form of disrupted parenting. Disproportionately, child protagonists across the children’s canon are orphans; in foster care or other kinds of institutional care such as boarding schools; living with inadequate, neglectful or otherwise insufficient parents; or raised by relatives.

Research shows that ‘problem children’ – those who are victims of disrupted parenting – are more susceptible to what is frequently termed as ‘poor outcomes’ in adulthood. These can range from addiction issues to criminal behaviour and time in prison, to mental health problems including depression. Children’s fiction informs and amplifies this narrative of ‘problem children’ being destined for failure in later life, through its representations of children in care, orphans and so on.

This slippage between public consciousness and popular culture creates a cultural hegemony whereby children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are conditioned from a young age – through children’s fiction and other mediums – to believe that they are abject or extraneous to societal structures.

Drawing on 20th and 21st century children’s fiction, from Francis Hodgson Burnett to J K Rowling, Roald Dahl to Lemony Snicket, C S Lewis to Jacqueline Wilson, this paper will demonstrate how children’s fiction serves to ‘other’ child readers from disrupted parenting situations. Using contemporary Marxist-feminist literary theory and socio-political contexts, the paper will also demonstrate the undeniable correlation between working-class narratives and representations of disrupted care in children’s fiction.