Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Absent Parents in Children's Literature

That's my big sister Em and I when I was ... very little. I guess my parents figured: "Baby Matthew wants an ice cream cone? Sure. Slap him in a rubber diaper and put him in the bath tub."

Then I guess they left the room.

Who knows? I don't, but I want to talk about parents (or the lack thereof) in the books we read and write. I'm sure most of you have noticed that most MG and YA literature consists of protagonists whose parents are either dead, missing, abusive, distant, incarcerated, abducted by aliens, or sometimes just plain not even mentioned.

I'm not saying it doesn't make sense. I mean these books are about young people, and young people are much more interesting if they can get into adventures. It's hard to have adventures if mom is going to start blowing up your phone when curfew rolls around. But lately I've been thinking about why this is. I mean personally, it feels natural to write about young people with parents who are out of the picture. All my writing is at least partially autobiographical, and my mom died when I was 11 years old. My dad was out of my life even a year before that, for reasons we don't need to get into. Is that really why I write stories the way I do, though?

I don't know.

I'm trying to think of a scenario in which normal, healthy, present parents could be a part of a YA or MG novel. I can't think of a single one I've read myself. I think I may have to write one.

Harry Potter has a lot of awesome adults, even an amazing godfather, but Harry's real parents are dead before the first word. Charlie was there in Twilight, and he seemed like a decent dad, but he'd been out of Bella's life for so long he didn't have much authority over her. Another Charlie, from that story about the chocolate factory, had some pretty decent (albeit extremely poor) parents, but it was his grandpa who came along to take part in the story.

What do you guys think? Have you read any children's books lately that had normal, present, healthy parents in them?

If not, do you think there is some other underlying reason behind this phenomenon? Something other, perhaps darker, than just freeing the characters up to go on adventures?


  1. There must be some kind of Jungian process of individuation going on here. Preteens and teens need to separate from their parents and seek the assistant of others in their community. Even as an adult, I sometimes find parents that are too present in fiction. I don't want to read about them-- I want to put myself in the shoes of the child who is the only one who can save the world... alone!

  2. Well, in the older Disney movies, the mom was always whacked about 5 minutes in, so this certainly isn't new. I agree that it's because these stories are so often about a young person (or deer, as it were) finding her way in the world without someone shielding her. I've ready plenty of YA where the parent is around, just not sitting on the kid (Dia Reeves' Slice of Cherry, for example), but I've certainly read a disproportionate amount where the parents are dead or long gone. What's rarer is when parents are thoroughly integrated into the plot.

  3. The Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy springs to mind. The teenage MC in those books has a perfectly nice, relatively normal Mum and Dad. To be fair though, Landy manages to get round the issue of curfews and the like by employing a mirror version of her to be used as needed, so probably not a good example :)

  4. Another reason is that it add empathy for the main character and makes him/her the underdog emotionally. It can be part of the emotional arc for the main character. And sometimes it can be part of their goal in the story - which makes it really primal and almost everyone can relate to. I have also read great stories where the parents are there and are still part of the main character's emotional arc. Either the parents are fighting or they prevent the characters from doing something.

  5. No I haven't read any with normal parents. And you know, sometimes I think it could just come down to the simple fact, that as kids go through puberty, they don't want their parents cramping their style and pretty much pretend they don't exist.

  6. I do think the parents have to be out of the story but they can be around. I do agree that many books solve the problem by having the parents dead or away or the kids in boarding school. (Sorry you had that situation in real life.) I'm surprised with all the boarding schools to solve the problem since most kids don't go to them.

    Here's a few where the parents are around: The Gathering by Kelley Armstrong, Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins (though not in book one), Matched. I'm sure I read others, but your point is a good one.

  7. You make such a good point! I'm trying to think of books I read as a child where the young protagonists were having adventures with their parents and also have good relations with them... and for the life of me I can't! Erm... The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. No. The Secret Garden. No. SE Hinton's The Outsiders. No.

    Oooh I know! The Hardy Boys? Nancy Drew? The Famous Five? LOL! Goodness I'm old!

    Take care

  8. I've learned from my own experience, that kids are more likely to relate to other kids and stories in which the parents or other adults have a huge part can be really risky, as far as gaging a kids interest. Even I get bored when I read a middle-grade novel and there are too many adults involved in a big way. I'm a kid at heart, I guess!

    It's so true though, where are the parents? I think that's another part of it too. Kids love the thought of a "secret" adventure and being on their own. In real life that would never happen, but in books they can fight off a dragon, rescue their friends from a villain, and cast magic spells, still making it home for a healthy breakfast with mom and dad! ;)

    Great post, Matt!


  9. Good post Matthew. You got me on that one. I can't think of any. The absent parents certainly allow for the young character's free range or movement though.

  10. I think I remember a section from "The Hero With 1000 Faces" that talked about parents serving as the initiating forces into the real, adult world. Adventure usually involves escaping the real, adult world, so getting rid of the gatekeepers might just be the easiest way to achieve the "call to adventure."

    The only literary example with well-adjusted parents that I can think of is "My Side of the Mountain," and the kid runs away anyway. Again, the all-consuming drive was to escape the adult world that was being thrust upon him and to live life on his own terms. Maybe in a good YA story the only way to give the child protagonist true decision-making power over his or her quest is to take the guardians out of the picture.

  11. Actually, I did recently read a book with active, loving parents. And it was quite refreshing. It's by Laura Josephsen. She had a publisher interested in her book but chose to self-publish. I loved it.

  12. I think the best YA parents I've read were in "If I Stay" but of course they come to an untimely demise quickly.

    I think the fact of the matter is that "normal, healthy, present parents" just don't make for very interesting reading. I've tried to write some and they always come out pretty flat. Sometimes all you can do is to have them on the periphery and hope they come across as supportive.

    But like you and everyone is saying, in order for the protagonists to explore and follow their journey, you can't really have someone saying "Don't forget to take an umbrella in case it rains." :-)

  13. Some of my favorite MG books are ones that include the parents as part of the story - Edward Eager's stories come to mind, where the parents either get caught up in the magic and have to try to reconcile their adult brains to the impossibilities the children accept so readily, or are needing to be helped by the magic (Mr Smith's bookstore struggling, causing the children to seek the pirate's treasure, in Magic By The Lake, for example).

    And I personally love the humor that comes from the protagonist getting ready to do something heroic and brave, and having the parents there, completely clueless, saying, "Be back by nine, dear."

  14. I would love to see good parents more present in children's books, too. I read somewhere that MG & YA authors think adults get in the way so it's easier to leave them out. But parents don't have to "get in the way" if you know what you're doing. The Quimby parents are present in Beverly Cleary's Ramona books, and it didn't take anything away from Ramona's hilarious misadventures.

    Some MG books with single parents that are great: Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. But again, that's one parent because the other either ran off or is dead.

    Some sort-of-recent books with two present parents I can think of are Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech, Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech, and Hoot by Carl Hiaasen. Louis Sachar's Holes has two parents, but they're hardly in it because Stanley's story takes place at camp.

    It'd be great to see more present parents, but an author has to be true to the story too. And all these books with one parent or no parent or both parents ended up being so terrific and I couldn't imagine them any other way!

  15. Great topic! It also happens to be the topic of this week's Twitter chat at #mglitchat. Join us Thursday at 9:00 pm Eastern time!

  16. As an MG writer, this is an issue I've wrestled with on multiple occasions. I think the reason parents are either rotten or absent in MG novels is because it's a fast and easy way to engage reader sympathy. Somehow, I have to make a reader care about my protagonist within the first 10-20 pages. I can do this by:

    1. Creating a burning, unanswered question.
    2. Pitting the world against them.
    3. Making them orphans.

    Harry Potter does all three of these things within the first 20 pages. Percy Jackson hits the first two and compounds the sympathy by adding Smelly Gabe in place of a father.

    In Return to Exile (which, I believe, Michael Winchell will be reviewing on this blog around launch time in two weeks), I gave Sky, my protagonist, great parents and turned their very goodness into a roadblock. But this took time. To get immediate reader interest, I relied on burning questions and a cruel world.

    It's hard to work strong adult allies into an MG novel, and keep them there, because the reader will always be asking "why in the world is that kid in charge?" And most the time, the answer to that question feels very contrived.

    Wow. That response was much longer than I'd intended. I'm totally using it as my blog post for the week. Thanks for the riff Matthew!

    Also, if anyone knows of other things that work well in engaging immediate reader interest, other than the three things I've listed, I'd love to hear about it!

  17. I've been thinking about this topic because I've heard a couple editors comment specifically on the "dead parent" thing in YA literature. And yeah, like you said, many YA and MG novels don't have functioning parents and often that is integral to the story.

    I just read and enjoyed "Bestest. Ramadan. Ever." by Medeia Sharif. The MC in this book has a really interesting mother and father. They aren't perfect and normal, but they are fully developed and interesting, and play a pretty big role in the story.

  18. Great post, Matt! This is something I've thought about a great deal, although not until after my first novel, The Beef Princess of Practical County (Delacorte 2009) was out and lots of reviews were lauding the fact that Libby has two reasonably normal parents. They stay in the place and don't intrude too much in the plot. They are present, still married and still somewhat sane, six years later in the follow up novel.

    I must be following my own trend because my third novel has two fairly average parents, too, but I had to send them away rather quickly so the magic and drama could unfold sans adults.

    Whether or not it's for convenience of plot that many of us write out the parents in our MG novels, the truth is that much of audience has a firsthand understandiing of the single-parent or absent parent experience. And who are we writing for? That's right!

  19. So, Ollie's parents in Deathday are both alive, functional, happy even (insomuch as they can be with what's going on), and that was important to me. Even though my biological parents were divorced, both remarried while I was still young, and I got to grow up with 4 parents in the best way possible.

    I think absent parents present a lot of opportunities for authors to let their protags do things parents would never, ever allow, but I also think getting those characters into those situations, and then having to deal with the fallout is even better when parents are around in stories.

    Let's see. Some others... BRUISER by Neal Shusterman has a great set of realistic parents. DRUMS, GIRLS, AND DANGEROUS PIE by Jordan Sonnenblick. THE DARK DAYS OF HAMBURGER HALPIN by Josh Berk. THE RISE OF RENEGADE X by Chelsea Campbell has a hilarious set of parents. INVINCIBLE SUMMER by Hannah Moskowitz has great, believable parents. Actually, so does her book BREAK. Hannah writes families like nobody's business. LIVVIE OWEN LIVED HERE by Sarah Dooley. INCONVENIENT by Margie Gelbwasser has some realistically dysfunctional parents. Books by John Bellairs (THE DARK SECRET OF WEATHEREND, THE CURSE OF THE BLUE FIGURINE) always featured a young protagonist teaming up with an older friend of the family in a way that exemplified the kinds of friendships kids can have with older people.

    To be honest, I think that a lot of times, absent parents are a literary cop-out. Unless, such as in Harry Potter or Michael Grant's GONE series, the absenteeism of the parents is a pivotal plot point. But I frequently cringe at stories where parents or parent figures are either completely absent or are staged as evil figures. Adults are as nuanced as kids and I love books that show that.

  20. First. Whoever took that picture was BRILLIANT *makes mental note to pass out ice-cream cones before bathtime*.

    Next. I loved how magical a world without parents felt when I read books with boarding school scenarios or the parents gone for whatever reason. Not because I didn't have solid parents of my own, but because it put the kids in charge. That's part of what makes the setting of books like HP so attractive. Who in their right mind would let hundreds of kids from age 11-18 run around a castle together with little adult supervision? But in a book it's FABULOUS!

    That being said, there are some MG books with strong families: The Ramona series, A Wrinkle in Time has a pretty cool family (if I remember correctly), The Penderwicks, Bridge to Terebithia come to mind. Also, I think it depends on the genre. Contemporary novels seem to have more space for present parents - whether they're functional or not - and less room for orphans running around on thier own. But fantasy/paranormal or stories with a big quest almost need the mc to be out on their own. There's actually a part in my current WIP where I had children and parents together and realized that, realistically, the adults would completely take charge...which is tough when you're trying to focus on your mc.

  21. Random thoughts:

    From a writing perspective, every significant character typically needs to earn his or her place in the story. If a parent character does this, we tend to leave them in. If not, we tend to minimize or cut them out.

    The mainstream vision of traditional family structure (parents + child(ren), though is somewhat narrow in its cultural resonance. In Native American families, for example, grandparents and other extended family members, especially elders, are often more involved.

    Plus, there's that special relationship between every other generation.

    As a fiction writer, I've had parents in my casts, and parents out. The Morales parents from Tantalize/Tantalize: Kieren's Story are actually terrific parents who play important plot roles. They don't always agree with their son, but it's not that they're bad people. They just have a different perspective on life.

    I recall one mother at a library event giving me a hard time about the death of the mom in Rain Is Not My Indian Name. She basically wanted me to account for all the dead mothers throughout the body of youth literature, which was a bit beyond me, though I did my best to respond thoughtfully.

    Then her daughter sneaked back on her way out and whispered, "Sorry, about that. It's just, you know, everything has to be about her. God forbid that I be the hero." That's stuck with me over the years.

  22. Interesting post. I think about it. Because I am as guilty as anyone of killing off the parents. But I think it boils down to the fact that we don't want to read about people who have it easy; we want to read about the ones who struggled and triumphed.

    however, I do have a tale half written with parents, decent ones.

    btw, great quote from the daughter, Cynthia.

  23. In one of my MGs, the parents are nice, respectable, etc., buuuut they're abducted by aliens. Why? Because kid characters can have more fun when the 'rents are gone.

    Great post!

  24. I must admit that I prefer books in which the parents are absent because it gives the characters more freedom to have interesting adventures. But I'm actually working on a project right now in which the parents are very much present, and it's fun to have the parents there as a source of both comfort and conflict. So I guess I like both kinds of stories. :-)

  25. Not very often. I HAVE ONE, though it was originally written as a family saga--the family is at the center of a sort of conspiracy plot and the teen daughter has figured out pieces, so has to go around dad and stepmom to do her solving thing--the parents provide an obstacle. I guess I wrote a YA mystery that is similar--one helpful parent, one obstacle parent, but both protective. Mostly though, I am not very kind to parents--they are abusive or neglectful--I murdered one... one was abducted... I'm glad I'm not in one of my books... that's what I have to say about that...

  26. Diane Duane's Wizardry books have parents in them. After awhile, they're not even parents left in the dark. They know what's going on (as far as they can). But the kids are often popping off to other planets and things, where the parents can't follow.

  27. I think you see parents more often in anime/manga than in Western English books. Sailormoon sprang to mind first. Her father works, so isn't as evident as her mother who I think is a stay-at-home mom. They're pretty normal.

    Not that anime isn't also filled with overbearing, secretive, freaky, kooky, eccentric, or evil parents. Because those are fun to play with too.

  28. Actually in my mg, the parents are fairly well adjusted.
    That's funny that you mentioned about Harry. Adults are pivotal characters in that book. Sure it's mostly about Harry, Ron and Hermione, but adults aren't hidden at all, just HP's p's.
    Interesting post and supercute picture!

  29. Wow. What a great series of comments we have going here, thanks everyone! I haven't read them all yet, so forgive me if someone else said this, but I just thought of another example. I've only read the first one, but the dad is pretty cool in Cornelia Funke's Inkheart.

  30. We see it a lot 'cause it serves the plot well - from Huck Finn to Mowgli to Bambi to Skywalker, it puts the person on their own.

    Sometimes the parents are off somewhere, and sometimes they're abusive or clueless, but it clears the space for the young person to find their own strength.

    And great story, Cynthia.

  31. I guess kids just don't want to read about parents. Yeah, go figure!

  32. I wrote five YA books, and out of ten main characters, three have two loving parents.

  33. It's easier for the writer with the parents out of the way, let's be frank. :D We need our MC to do the growing, make the choices, and solve his own problems. That said, I don't think it's impossible.

  34. Great blog and great responses. I agree with many of them. Primarily the posts about characters having to earn their place in a story and that well-adjusted parents are simply put 'boring'. The times that I've seen well-adjusted,cool parents (the mom in the entire Percy Jackson series) then the protagonist gets pulled away from them so they can, as Lisa just put it 'make the choices and solve his own problems'. The reality is, many MG & YA stories are exciting coming of age stories where a parent can be used to give advice but ultimately it's about the teen taking action on their own.

  35. Interesting post. I can't think of any books right off, but I'm sure there must be at least a few out there.

  36. Great post, Matt. I've thought about this topic myself. I can't decide if we do it because it's easier or ingrained for a coming of age stories. Something to chew on. ;)

  37. I think you've hit on one of the lines that divides MG from Chapter Books, Matt. In chapter books, the parents are almost invariably present, well-adjusted, loving, and supportive. But when kids start reaching the age of 9 or 10 or so, they start to see their parents as mean and controlling, no matter how loving and well-adjusted the parents are. By the time they're teens, kids typically can't wait to get out of the house.

    So, I think the absence of parents in MG and YA is about the relationship that kids have with their parents at that age. Tweens are looking for other role models who can step back and appreciate them for who they are, in a way that their parents can't because parents are mainly concerned with making their kids into their own parental vision of successful people. (At least, that's the way they think of their parents.) So, it makes sense for the positive role models in MG and YA NOT to be the MC's parents.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!