Children’s fiction: the absent hero conundrum

So I’m in the process of writing a novel for children and it’s a fantasy novel in which a girl gets magically transported from her normal existence to another part of the universe and… hey, wait. Come back!

Look, I’ve got a question. How do you deal with the absence of your main character from our normal earthbound reality when they are off in another place? A brief trawl of my reading memory (from my childhood, and reading to my children) throws up:

Narnia: the simplest option. Time doesn’t pass in ‘normal’ life while you’re away in Narnia. The children step back out of the wardrobe after years of adult Narnian existence to find they’re exactly back where they started. Neat.

Just an excuse to feature one of my favourite books, and absolutely one of my favourite covers…

The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper’s immensely powerful five-book sequence channelling Arthurian mythology): A somewhat similar process here, where the Old Ones are able to stretch and control time, so that Will is able to read the Book of Gramarye for he knows not how long, then step back into the Christmas party just as the carol is ending. Where the Narnian time-stopping is ‘natural’, a given, here it is a specific power.

Elidor: Similar again, though Alan Garner kinds of elides (ha!) the temporal relationship between his ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ world. The children travel to Elidor, where “the forest held neither hours nor miles” and “however long [Roland] had slept, nothing had changed”, yet when they escape back to Manchester, time has not moved at all.

Harry Potter: Seeing as most of Harry’s adventures happen when he’s away at Hogwarts (all? I haven’t read all the books) I presume nobody notices his absence. Do any of Dudley’s friends ever ask where his speccy cousin goes when he’s not home in the holidays? The benefits of the public school system, I suppose: nobody cares where you are when you’re not home. And, after all, Harry has a very limited muggle social life. Another benefit of the classic children’s book trope of the orphaned hero. No parents to worry about you.

Percy Jackson: Similar situation. Adventures happen when at Camp Half-Blood. Percy’s Mum knows where he is. Does anyone else miss him?

Skullduggery Pleasant: This one’s more interesting. In Derek Landy’s series, Stephanie/Valkyrie has a ‘reflection’, a kind of clone who gets on with her life while she’s off saving the world, and then relays her memories back to her when she gets home. A very contemporary solution. Nicely developed in one of the books when she learns that her reflection has been growing romantically attached to a boy in her school, and has even kissed him – something that she is able to pick up as a memory, but misses as an experience.

Now, then. My idea – and partly the reason I’m posting this is to see if this approach has been used somewhere I haven’t seen – is that when my teenage heroine is spirited away to my alternate universe, time continues back home as before, and her (divorced) parents think she’s been abducted. She is able to see this (through some off-the-peg crystal ball/magical pool contraption) and see that – ironically, awfully – her presumed (in fact, sort of actual) abduction has  brought her parents back together: thus making real ever child-of-divorce’s secret fear, that it’s their fault their parents split up. If she goes back to reality, will that drive her parents apart again? Is she better off not there?

Anyone know of any book where anything like this happens?

Bizarrely, the closest version I can think of if the execrable Tom Hanks film Big, which I watched recently with my kids (10-year-old’s comment: “Why is this a comedy, Dad?”). In Big, when Tom wakes up an adult, he runs downstairs to confront his mum, who doesn’t recognise him, thinks he’s an intruder and threatens him with a knife. When he tells her he’s her son, she assumes he’s abducted him. Later, you see police cars outside the house, though that element is kind of allowed to drift. Later, still, Tom (or whatever his character’s name is) rings his Mum, pretending to be his own abductor, to reassure her he’s alive and well. The trauma of this, for the Mum, is totally skated over. There’s one tiny scene when we see her talking to Tom’s best friend, who lives next door, and is the only person who knows what’s really going on. Tom’s Mum seems, well… just sad about it all, really. Then, at the end, the reconciliation – when Tom miraculously reappears in his bed again, a little boy, is once more elided.

The trauma pool is stirred, but allowed to settle pretty quickly back to calm.

That I want to avoid. But has anyone got there before me?


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