The novels that taught me to be a better dad

How fictional fathers inspired me to be a better parent, from Atticus Finch to Harry Silver to – yes – Daddy Pig. 

Atticus Finch, played here by Gregory Peck in the 1963 adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, is one of literature's truly great dads. Image: Getty
Atticus Finch, played here by Gregory Peck in the 1963 adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, is one of literatures truly great dads. Image: Getty

Last week I committed a cardinal parenting sin while preparing dinner for my three-year-old. I burned her fish fingers to a dessicated crisp. Captain Birdseye himself would've thrown them overboard, even if lost at sea.

It was Peppa Pig's fault. My daughter and I had been ensconced in an episode of the hit cartoon together, in which – and I'm not making this up for dramatic effect – Daddy Pig sets fire to a barbecue. “Trust me, Mummy Pig,” he'd bragged to his wife moments earlier. “We daddies know all about barbecues.”

But when I told my daughter that I'd ruined her favourite dinner and that she'd be having a boiled egg instead, she didn't launch into her customary sad-news meltdown. Instead, she looked at me earnestly, put a hand on one hip and sassed: “Silly Daddy Pig.”

Like most children of her age, my daughter's been mainlining Peppa Pig through her eyes and ears for some time, in books and on television. She adores it. And so do I, mostly. My only problem is that... well, Daddy Pig is shatteringly incompetent. He's lazy, obese, domestically useless, a DIY disaster, hates exercise and is regularly body-shamed by his daughter. It got me thinking: is Daddy Pig the fictional yardstick by which my daughter judges me as a dad?

'Is Daddy Pig the fictional yardstick by which my daughter judges me as a dad?'

Since that happened, I've been thinking about dads in books. When our daughter was born, my ex-wife devoured self-help books on motherhood. But the few I found on fatherhood tended to be written by men trying to be funny (most weren't).

Nothing I read reflected how I felt, let alone told me about the kind of dad I should be. I needed help. So, as for many of life's problems, I looked to literature for answers. Bad dads (or father figures) aren't hard to come by in books, from King Lear to Mr Wormwood in Matilda. For good dads, one has to hunt a little.

For me, it starts with Roald Dahl. I'll never forget the first time my dad read Danny the Champion of the World to me when I was about nine, Dahl's touching ode to fathers and sons. Danny's dad, William, really was, as Danny describes him, "the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had." He is a proper bacon-and-eggs, keepy-uppy kind of dad – an adventurer, a gifted pheasant poacher and, most importantly, a born storyteller (it's through him we first hear about the BFG).

"A stodgy parent is no fun at all! What a child wants - and DESERVES - is a parent who is SPARKY!"

It wasn't until I grew up that I came to appreciate what Dahl – who lost his own dad when he was three – had to say about fatherhood, as he perfectly encapulates near the end of the book: “When you grow up and have children of your own, do please remember something important. A stodgy parent is no fun at all! What a child wants – and DESERVES – is a parent who is SPARKY!"

It's a fine headline for fatherhood as a whole, something we should all aspire to. But what about when when life gets hard and you need more than just a big smile and broad shoulders to support your child? Aren't fathers supposed to dish out polished pebbles of wisdom, from time to time, too? To protect, but also prepare?

Cormac McCarthy's “The Man” in his Pulitzer-winning novel The Road can help with that. It's a book that makes me want to squeeze my daughter and never let go. It follows a dying father and his son as they wander through a ravaged post-apocalyptic America that's overrun by cannibals, scavenging for scraps to survive. It’s in this bleak landscape that the father teaches his son the essential skills to survive when he's gone. His most important lesson? “Keep a little fire burning, however small, however hidden.”

As I see it, that fire embodies the flame of hope that all parents see in their children: a metaphor for basic human decency, of helping others and holding hope in the face of disaster. As long as the father and son carry the fire inside them, life will be worth living. My daughter and I are not being hunted by baby-eating cannibals, but I've often felt adrift in the strange world of parenthood, muddling through as best I can. "My job is to take care of you,” the father tells his son. “We are the good guys.”

'Keep a little fire burning, however small, however hidden'

But being a good parent isn't just protecting your kids from danger. It's about understanding them, too, and giving them the space to get to know themselves. And, one of the worst things you can do to your child is to ignore their “inner world”, as Carl Jung called it.

My job is not to impose my personality on her, but to celebrate her for who she is – her fears, her hates, her barmy imagination, even her lies. On this point, I defer to Atticus Finch, Scout's father in Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” he says.

This leads to the crux of Atticus' entire parenting philosophy: respect breeds respect, which means no lying to children, including hard truths. “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake,” Atticus tells his brother after he refuses to tell Scout what “whore-lady” means. “Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles them.”

So when I recently caught my daughter poking a dead rat with a twig, I tried to channel my inner Atticus to have a chat about death (dumbed down of course; I skipped the bit about my own death, and dread the day I have to explain that Peter Rabbit's dad isn't just dead, but was skinned and dismembered, boiled and put in a pie by Mr McGregor). “This dead rat is not very happy now,” she said, staring in wonder at the sun-baked carcass. I wondered if he ever was.

“What makes life worth living?” wrote Karl Ove Knausgaard in his book Autumn. “No child asks itself that question. To children life is self-evident. Life goes without saying ... because children don’t see the world, don’t observe the world, don’t contemplate the world, but are so deeply immersed in the world that they don’t distinguish between it and their own selves.”

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake”

This, I think, encapsulates the most wonderful part of parenthood: those stolen moments with your child(ren) when the world around just switches off: laughing on the swings, singing nursery rhymes on the bus, poking dead rats with twigs.

“Sometimes we are only aware of how happy we are when the moment has passed,” says Harry Silver in Tony Parsons' spectacularly touching 1999 novel Man and Boy, about a father forced to solo-parent after his wife leaves when he sleeps with a colleague. “But now and again, if we are very lucky, we are aware of happiness when it is actually happening.”

Parsons speaks of the most priceless gift a parent can bestow: their time. Spending time with our kids isn’t always easy, or even practical. Of course, not every parent has a choice, and most parents I know would give their iPhone for more time with their kids. But that seems a pretty basic rule.

When people without children ask me what it's like being a dad, I say it is the hardest, most tiring, repetitive and draining experience of my life. But it is also the most thrilling, rewarding and important thing I will ever do. I don't think I'm especially good at it. I've had complaints. But if I've learned anything from the literary dads I admire – from Danny's William to Atticus Finch – it's that the least I can do is be there.

Now that I think of it, I can't recall an episode, or any one of my daughter's shelf-load of Peppa Pig books, in which Daddy Pig doesn't feature, either. In one of her favourites, Daddy Pig even takes Peppa and George on a “dad-venture” to his work, where they spend a thrilling afternoon filling potholes with concrete. “You make every day an adventure,” Mummy Pig tells him when they get home.

Daddy Pig may be a bum-fluffed buffoon who can't read a map or put up a shelf, but at least he is – I think Roald Dahl would agree – “sparky”. And I hope one day, when my daughter's finally learned to cook her own fish fingers, she will look back and say the same about me.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more