I've been thinking lately about all the books I read growing up. In many of them, the kids are incredibly independent. So much so, that sometimes the parents never appear at all! But the kids are usually very responsible and seem to have a ton of fun. Plus, they get along surprisingly well! It's an interesting exercise to read children's books from 100 years ago and then read books from today. In the modern books, the parents appear all the time, whereas in the older books it seems the parents had other things to do rather than keep track of where their kids were.
I've been putting together a little list of some of the best. All of them would make good reading for adults or children. Parents can read them to get an idea of what kids were considered to be capable of a short time ago, and kids can read for pure enjoyment. I would heartily recommend all of these.
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Okay, neither of these boys is exactly a role model. But they are both loads of fun, and it's amazing the stuff they figure out all by themselves.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. And really all of the Chronicles of Narnia. Like all the other British books on this list, it's about a family of children on holiday from school. I have never actually read a British book that happened at school, except for that tiny bit of The Silver Chair. Is it their boarding-school background that gives them such independence and family spirit? Eh, who knows. But I love the way Peter takes the lead and helps his brother and sisters out, and how they all look out for Lucy. I wish all kids got along this well (except for the betraying one's family to the witch part, but no family's perfect, right?)
The Story of the Treasure-Seekers and The Wouldbegoods, by E. Nesbit. I love E. Nesbit. Her books are so charming, and British, and fun. Those Bastables sure do have a lot of freedom! And they admittedly use it to get in a lot of trouble. Pretty much every chapter is about a different disaster! But it's never from ill-will. The children have a very strict moral sense they hold each other to, and never lie about their misadventures. I remember their "oath of secrecy": "May I be called a beastly sneak If this great secret I ever repeat." That's strong enough, for these kids! Nothing worse than a beastly sneak!
Five Children and It, and honestly everything else by E. Nesbit. She's seriously the best. The five children in this book (and its sequels) include a baby whom the kids seem to be completely responsible for! I guess they occasionally do hand him off to their mother, but no one seems to mind them taking this toddler (he can't be more than two) off for the whole day! Perhaps if they knew a magic carpet was involved they'd be more leery.
The Haymeadow, by Gary Paulsen. A teenage boy gets to -- or rather has to -- spend the whole summer up in the mountains taking care of sheep, all alone. A lot of bad things happen because he isn't really prepared. And yet he grows up a lot that summer. The ultimate conclusion, though, is that he shouldn't have to be quite so alone, and I'd agree. You do have to know how to do something before you become solely responsible for doing it!
Now for the ultimate, the best of the bunch:
Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome. This one, for a change, includes no fantasy (though the children have wild imaginations). The four kids have been just aching and longing for a chance to take off in a sailboat and camp on an island all by themselves. Their mother writes to their father, who is a sailor, and his answer comes back by telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN. In other words, go ahead and let them; if they're worth keeping, they'll be fine. The children do prove they're not duffers, and have a wonderful time too. I'm sure the mother enjoyed the break, getting to spend the summer with just the baby while her other children entertained themselves! She makes them write her letters and stop by her dock to let her know how they are.
Seriously, she is the kind of mother kids dream of having. She definitely does worry about them, but she doesn't nag or guilt them ... instead she plays right along with their game and makes them promise to eat their peas "so they won't get scurvy" and pretends to be a native when she visits their island. Besides, who doesn't want to be allowed to spend all summer sailing around and camping out, "bathing" by swimming in the lake and eating fish they catch themselves?
To put this in perspective, I think the youngest is about six or seven and the oldest might be fourteen or so. The second oldest, Susan, is the mother of the bunch and enjoys cooking meals for all of them over the campfire. We get the impression she isn't terribly good at it, but she manages to keep them all fed.
In one of the sequels, they actually do sink their boat. I guess that's real responsibility -- that is, you know kids are really in charge when they make a big mistake and no one jumps in to save them. But they handle this well enough, arranging for the boat to be fished off the bottom of the lake and mended, with the help, of course, of the very excellent adults who have been advising them throughout.
I could not recommend these books enough ... I am on my third re-read of Swallows and Amazons and would love to get my hands on those sequels I don't yet have.
Anyone have any to add to the list?
Note: I finally became an Amazon Affiliate because I was tired of linking them for free. Now, if you buy something via my link, I get a (small) percentage. I doubt I will actually make any money this way, but you never know.