One of my assignments at Hollins was to do a retelling of the Little Mermaid from a different character’s perspective. Some of my classmates chose the witch, some a sister, some a side-kick. I was the only one who chose the father.
Parents are often brushed to the side, or even killed off, in fiction. Especially YA. The reason being parents / adults are often too powerful to allow the main character their own growth, strength, and independence. Readers want to see the character come to their own conclusions and solve their own problems. Unfortunately for adults and parents, this means their presence is either as the antagonist, or it is absent in some form.
Everyone remembers watching Ariel tell her father, “I’m not a child!” And agreeing with her that 16 is old enough to go the dangerous surface.
Now that I am an adult and a mother, I cringe when I think of that scene. Ariel had no idea of the danger her father so clearly saw. And how many times do we replay the “don’t touch that, it’s hot” scene (in various ways) and watch as our child shrieks at their burned fingers.
While agency is important in writing young characters, so they can connect with our young readers, I lament that it takes such a toll on the parents. Parents who are usually absent through death, or one over-worked single parent who has no time to pay attention to what the kid is getting into.
What I would like to see more of is parents who are present and loving and supportive, and actively encouraging the child to find their agency. Wouldn’t that be such a relief to read? But it’s hard to do. I know. Because it’s hard to do in real life. Easier to sweep them off to the side than to build a healthy relationship.
Now, to step off my pedestal and give you a taste of my retelling. There’s no title yet! It’s a rough WIP.
I am the ruler of the people of the forest. The spirits blessed me with six beautiful daughters before a sickness took my wife. The spirits accepted her.
My mother is acknowledged as the wisest witch that has ever lived. A witch is a link between the spirits and my people. When someone dies, the spirits gather around the burial ground and either welcome or deny the new spirit into their land. One must live according to the ways of life set forth by the people of the forest. One must also live a life the spirits see as filled with compassion, courage, and love. A witch is chosen by the spirts through the line of the ruler. Sometimes every generation, sometimes every other, and it can be a son or daughter. The spirits have chosen well throughout the years.
A witch is not just a link between the spirits. They provide healing and settle disputes. They bless marriages and births. They beseech the spirits to have favor on the animals and fruits of the forest for our provision. The spirits guide them in producing potions, and some of the most powerful can gain magical abilities.
As each of my granddaughters turned thirteen, my mother escorted them to the Land of Spirits. There my daughters presented the spirits with gifts. The spirits in turn gave my daughters something to treasure. The spirits also searched their hearts and minds.
Thus far, the spirits have not chosen a witch. I trust the spirits will have a fair reason if my youngest is not chosen, but there is an uncertainty felt among the people.
My youngest asks my mother many questions about being presented to the Land of the Spirits. She made each of her sisters describe to her in detail what I was like. Our dinner together is never silent. The others are patient with her. Willing to answer her questions. Happy to describe what their experience was like. I can sense in each a sigh of relief that they were not chosen. It is a very heavy burden to bear, though why it may be placed on my youngest is mysterious.
My youngest wanted me to join her and my mother on her journey. I asked my mother if the spirits would find this acceptable. Only the witch and the young one she is presenting have ever gone to the Land of the Spirits. She smiled knowingly at me and nodded.
“Your youngest told me she wanted to ask you several days ago. I have consulted with the spirits to ask their permission. Your wife was the one who answered. She said she wished to see you again, and her wish and that of your youngest have both been granted.”
I did not sleep that night. I had not seen my wife, touched her skin, in thirteen years. My youngest just barely old enough to cry when she saw the sorrow the people held in their eyes. What would I say to her? What had she thought of the daughters presented already? Had she seen them? They had never mentioned seeing her. Perhaps she thought it would hurt them too badly to see her again. Perhaps my daughters did see her, but were sworn to secrecy. Perhaps they did not wish to heap sorrow upon my shoulders when they believed I could not see her again.
I stared at the roof of my mud hut. Images of my daughters growing up flashed along my sight: braiding flowers in their hair, chasing each other through the trees, one crying when she was taught how to hunt a deer, another collecting berries and being pricked by thistles, and always the youngest quietly watching. She was never unwelcomed in the games, she simply wanted to see how others played first before she did. I, being older, saw her great strategy, though I doubted her young mind knew the extent of her wit.
And now my oldest has celebrated twenty-one years of life and will be married in two weeks. A fine huntsman whom I believe will be accepted by the spirits. He will treat her well. His cousin, a crafter of wood, has given his heart to the second eldest. She skips about with flowers in her hair and pink cheeks. Her marriage will be in two months’ time.
“Where did the years go?” I asked the shy ray of pale pink that crept through my window.
Before the sun had fully shaken off sleep, the people of the forest were lined from oldest to youngest down the path we were to take. My youngest emerged from my mother’s hut and my eye stung as my vision blurred. She wore the same dress as her sisters before, passed down by tradition, but it looked different somehow. The dress, woven with the finest threads and dyed the green of an oak leaf, flowed gracefully down to barely brush her bare feet. A silver chain laced with emeralds shimmered in the light as she walked. Her long dark hair, elaborately braided, hung down to her waist.
She took her place at the beginning of the path, smiling and blushing at the many compliments that came from those who waited in the line. I joined my mother and walked a few steps behind my youngest. She knew what to do, she had seen her five sisters do this before her. She slowly walked to each person who held out a flower and allowed them to place the flower in her hair. Down the long line we went, her hair adorned with more and more flowers as we proceeded.