Friday, August 30, 2013

Those Pesky Parents by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin


One of the things you realize, when you start immersing yourself in middle grade literature, is the phenomenon aptly titled on Goodreads as "The Dead Parent Society of Middle Grade Fiction." A great proportion of fiction for this age group consists of orphans (Harry Potter being the best and brightest example of this), and there is a thriving sub genre of what I call "boarding school fiction."

The reasons for this are plain. Middle grade readers want kids their age to be the stars of their own stories. They are cutting loose the parental strings, and heading for the promised land of independence. They are solving mysteries, being superheroes, and defeating evil wizards. No one wants a pesky parent to step in and solve things--or even pop up and say it's time for bed.

[Side note: My formative years were in the early 1970s, and I keenly remember going off with my brother and friends, riding our bicycles into the woods and horsing around there for hours. My mother didn't seem to turn a hair at this. Modern parents, myself included, probably can't imagine allowing our children such freedom. We are way more structured and timetabled, which has inevitably led to the type of parenting commonly referred to as "helicoptor."]

I get it. We want to be free of fathers' tail fins, and mothers' motors. But personally, I get a little tired of all the corpses littering children's literature. That's why I felt that a novel like R.J. Palacio's Wonder was such a breath of fresh air. It was salutary to come across loving parents, who were suffering along with their child as they made the decision to send him to school so that he could learn to deal with the world.



Perhaps there is hope for parents in middle grade after all.

What are some of your favorite MG titles in which parents are NOT dead, or absent in some other way?

12 comments:

  1. In Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy and When You Reach Me, one loving parent is present in the life of the 12yo MC. Stead is careful to view the world through the kid's eyes.

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    1. I loved the parenting in Liar and Spy--thanks for the rmeinder, Manju!

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  2. Something kind of interesting in my book about the Lost Colony of Roanoke: on the manifest of the 1587 voyage there is one boy who doesn't match up with any of the adults name-wise. He's been such a curiosity to me, he's ended up in the book!

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    1. A mystery! (Can't wait to read you on Roanoke!)

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  3. Truth be told, I can think of more movies and television programs that show the point you're making.

    But of books I've read, one that comes to mind is "Our Only May Amelia" by Jennifer L. Holm. Her parents play a part without taking over.

    I first read it at 14, but didn't finish it after a certain death I couldn't read beyond at the time. Of what I read, the parents mattered without taking over May Amelia's story as she tells it, via first person narration.

    That said, it's set in the 1800s, so that avoids some modern "Helicopter Parent" stuff highlighted in the post above, but that's the only book with human characters I can think of.

    Not to sound like an egomaniac, but this is was something I had to grapple with for my upcoming debut middle grade novel, whether or not my protagonist's parents were in it or not.

    I chose to include them, and make no mistake, my protagonist solves his own problems, but the parents played an overall positive part without taking the story over. I believe it is possible to do it. It's just an additional challenge on top of just making the core story work.

    That said, both this and a previous post on Project Mayhem about our kids today reminds me why I don't read or write much contemporary fiction. I can't fully face that, and it might play into why I tend to like books originally published in the 80s or so, too much of contemporary life seems too controlling.

    It's also part of why(NOT the only reason, though!)I write mostly animal fantasy. I don't have to face the "Helicopter Parent" war either directly or indirectly when you write about humans as opposed to animals who by nature live in all kinds of ways and grow up faster due to instincts and biology compared to humanity's more doting, long-term parenting.

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  4. "I chose to include them, and make no mistake, my protagonist solves his own problems, but the parents played an overall positive part without taking the story over. I believe it is possible to do it. It's just an additional challenge on top of just making the core story work."

    I salute you for this, Taurean.

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    1. Thanks Michael, it wasn't an easy decision, but I know it was the right one.

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  5. Bravo to both of you! I'm sick and tired of kids who have their heads in the computer and their books hidden away in the desks. We live in the world of the absent parent whether the parent chooses to close the door or leave. What happen to those Hero Parents? Love your choices both of you!!!

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  6. I love the quirky dad in Linda Urban's A Crooked Kind of Perfect. I believe both parents are present in that one: a mom who works and a stay-at-home dad. I get that broken families and absent parents make for drama but I do value a story that features a whole, healthy family.

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  7. Danny's dad in Champion of the World has always been a favorite of mine, but then I suppose there is no mom ...

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    1. That said, Matthew, we need more nuanced portrayals of fathers in fiction.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!