Monday, July 19, 2010

The Parent Conundrum in Children's Literature

My buddy Stephanie, better known as Maybe Genius created an interesting topic on the Bransforums recently. She called the thread something only slightly different from the title of my post, but I have no qualms about ripping her off since I will be linking heavily to her blog and basically announcing how awesome and insightful she is.

She actually covered the topic on her blog in a great post before she started the thread on the forums, and apparently it had been being kicked around the blogoshpere a lot that week. In the thread intro she advised curious readers to check here and here (those are her link suggestions, not mine).

To read the entire thread on Nathan Bransford's forums please visit here. There are several interesting comments or replies to Stephanie's topic but I will just share two of them here. My own:

This whole topic really hits home for me. There are several reasons for this:

- First, I write YA. The MC in my only novel has a dead mom and a dad in prison.
- Second, I'm a father. I'm pretty lucky that my 14 year old daughter still accepts me but there will be a time soon when she simply has to separate herself from mom and dad if she ever hopes to obtain knowledge of self.
- Third my own mom died when I was 11 years old.
- Fourth my dad was a drunk who I didn't see for 6 years when I was a teenager.

I think that the coming of age and expression of independence that is reached by a young person growing into themselves is the key at the heart of most YA archetypal tales. Think Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins and even Eragon.

Does having even one supportive and half way normal parent ruin the drama of such an experience automatically? No, but it is much harder to convey this drastic change in a way that resonates with a stupid parent in the way.

The truth is my own teen years were full of turmoil. I won't go into detail but I did grow up pretty fast. It would actually make a pretty good story.

Are there successful people who grew a lot and whose parents supported them maturely all the way? Sure. Look at a star like Taylor Swift for an example. The problem is, these don't make very entertaining stories. Sure they are touching in a Biography but those stories are about the person's success, or great failure, not about their relationship with their parents. Missing or dysfunctional parents make growing for the kid much harder, and conflict equals drama, which equals entertainment.

Would I like to see variety in YA? Sure. Do I expect a lot of healthy supportive parents to start showing up in novels soon? Hell no. Though it would be nice to see more parents like Curt's dad in Glee.

Feel free to disagree with me, I'd love to hear more thoughts on this.

Nathan himself also shared a reply:

This is such a great thread. I don't have anything too insightful to add to what has been said, but I too have written an absent parent into JACOB WONDERBAR. I come from a stable family with both parents and so it's not based on anything from my real life. It's more of a choice driven, I think, from the fact that when I was young I loved books about kids who were on their own. MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, HATCHET, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS... you name it. And just about everyone in Roald Dahl's books (except for Charlie) had rotten or dead parents and he was my favorite writer growing up.

I think middle grade especially is a time when you're starting to become conscious of growing up and becoming independent of your parents and genuinely admiring adults who are not your parents, and so an absent parent or parents and surrogate adults is an externalization of that feeling of nascent independence. Just my own theory anyway.

I don't have a whole lot more to add today but I am curious to hear what you guys think. Even those of you who don't write YA or MG books, surely you must have read these kind of stories at one point. Can you think of any examples that go against the grain? Do you have any other insights as to why things are this way?

Please let us know in the comments.


Ted Cross said...

The main story thread in my book is based on the idea of the father being so loving and caring that he is really torn up about having to place his sons in danger by having them fulfill the requirements of going to war as soldiers. There is the threat that his marriage may soon end, but it doesn't affect the story too much. It is mostly a father and sons deal.

JE said...

The only YA book I've read is Twilight, and I don't think that counts. LoL. Although, the parent/child relationship in that book was strained, too.

Like you said, when kids have to deal with more conflict, the entertainment value shoots up because there is so much more to deal with.

Do I think you could write a story with an MC who has both loving parents? Yes, because growing up in a loving home also has it's pitfalls. The parents who push their kids too hard because they want the best. The parents who are work-o-holics, have money, and give their children everything--but not the most important thing: attention. Successful parents that children feel inferior of. This list could go on.

I guess I'm saying that just because you have good parents, doesn't mean you don't have conflicts. They're there....just a different kind.


Vicki Rocho said...

This is one of those things that was sooo obvious but yet I never really noticed until recently. Now, thinking back to the mountains of books I've read, it's hard to think of any with a 'normal' two parent support system in place.

I think it's probably because the story is usually about the growth of the child, having a parent be too active/present interferes with the kid's story.

Old Kitty said...

Conflict works better in stories and nothing says conflict than dysfunctional families. I much preferred my stories dark and disorderly when I was a teenager ( a long long time ago!!) - S.E Hinton books, Roald Dahl, The Birds and Other Stories... yummy and juicily all very wrong but spoke directly to the moody teenager in me! LOL!

The current Harry Potter books have loving parents (HP's parents were loving!).

Take care

Christina Lee said...

Yeah, this topic IS an interesting one. Plus, I think we write in absentee parents or strained relationships so that the teens can run around more easily and get caught up in adventures w/o parents "getting in the way".

But it's also a refreshing change to see in-tact families (in the The Dark Divine, for example)!

Will Burke said...

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a pretty supportive mom. though ignorant of Buffy's Calling for much of the series. When she found out, she didn't last long, making me think that someone thought it didn't work.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Guess that means my life story would be really boring - my childhood was scary normal and happy.
My book's not young adult, but it does begin with a character entering manhood after a traumatic childhood. (His parents died when he was young.) It did really add to the emotional tone of this character.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

I think this entire thread is great. Nathan made a great point about the MG age and how kids are beginning to question authority, parents, etc... It really is an ideal time to introduce the 'surrogate big bro' or the teacher who acts like a mentor.

Matt, you also make a great point about our upbringing influencing us and our internal views. I am much like Nathan. I had a fairly good upbringing where the home was intact, parents were involved, etc...I do have to step out of myself to find that place where a young adult would struggle. That's not saying I had it easy. I didn't. I did experience plenty of 'crap' back then. I find myself going back and remembering the feelings those moments conjured in me. I use those to gain insight.

Katie Anderson said...

I agree with Christina. I think as writers, it's honestly easier to write our kid-centric stories without the parents interfering so we have to have them missing, or distant, or dead, etc...

BUT, this post had made me wonder about growing up in real life....

My mother was involved in my life so much that I had a really hard time finding my own identity. And still can't write a "mother" into my novels because I can't figure out how the teen can act without thinking about how the mother will.

As hard as it is for children with uninvolved, loveless parents, I found myself wondering if they end up knowing "themselves" better?

Probably not. That's totally whack. It just struck me though.

Emily White said...

I think any situation can work. I don't think we should avoid supportive parents in a book because we think there won't be tension or the child won't have a chance to take on whatever problem by themselves.

I've known kids who had wonderfully supportive parents and who got in a lot of trouble anyway. Sometimes that adds a little flavor all its own--when the kid rebels against the wonderful parents and suffers the consequences of it.

I recently read Wings, by Aprilynne Pike. The parents were present, loving, not overbearing, but the MC still had a pretty tense life.

It can work. You just have to find a way.

Candyland said...

Hmm...I don't know HOW to write about supportive parents! That's part of the problem. I know they're out there, but it's as mysterious to me as paranormal stuff.

Lydia Kang said...

I think it's easier to have an exciting story when the parents are absent. That being said, I do get tired of the parents in the coma, parents in the car accident, etc.
I was trying to think of a case where there were parents, but it only ratched UP the tension, rather normalized it. Like Claire's parents in the series Heroes? She ended up finding that her normal parents were actually adoptive and her dad was part of this huge conspiracy. So if parents are there, I feel like they better have some involvement in the craziness of the teen's life, in an interesting way.

Melody said...

Most of my MCs have absent parents. I've wondered about why this is, especially since I couldn't have better, more supportive and caring parents.

I think that stories in general are all about choices. They revolve around what choices the MC makes. If the MC has parents, it's really hard to make choices independently because there is a well-set mind of obedience in our culture (a good thing). :) For MG and YA, we have to get rid of the parents to allow them to make choices themselves.

That said, does Eragon have to be listed in addition to Luke Skywalker. Please? Eragon was such a copy......... :)

Shelley Sly said...

This is such a great topic!

I write MG, and it's tough finding that balance when I don't want to write a "bad parents" story (I've done that too many times) but need them to be less involved in order for my 11-year-old MC to have an adventure.

Right now, I have the parents just preoccupied with other things (moving into a new house), so it's not that they're "bad parents" and ignoring their kids, but they're just a little out of it right now.

Faith E. Hough said...

Yeah, this is such an interesting topic. I agree with another commenter: I feel that I don't know how to write about supportive parents. Not that I lacked them, because unlike many writers my childhood was fairly placid. I wasn't even a rebellious teen--got that over with at 6, I think. However, it is extremely difficult to maintain tension and excitement in a story where the parents are, well, alive and good and well. As a parent, this sometimes frustrates me, because I have read great books with great parents--but still the parents kind of have to be out of the picture. Konigsburg's Mixed-Up Files is an example, and a new favorite by a friend of mine is Crunch, by Leslie Connor. I'd actually highly recommend the latter to see how one author dealt with this issue...

Jemi Fraser said...

Great topic for sure :)

In my current ms, both teens are alone, but the next story brewing around in my head has an mc with 2 happy parents.

My fave YA story of all time is Anne of GG - and she's an orphan too. I think it does make for a more interesting/ more challenging situation for the protag.

Slamdunk said...

It seems to be easier to craft a story with parents who are absent or preoccupied. I don't read that genre, but I would think the niche in supportive parents would be in the inspirational section at the bookstore.

Angie said...

I think it's true that the whole absent/dysfunctional parent thing makes for more interesting fiction. I can see why kids would want to read about that, even if they have good parents. I also think that this is the reason that, as a mother, YA tends to tick me off a lot.

Tahereh said...

*lurks quietly*

Tamara Narayan said...

Maybe we could blame Disney for the missing/dead parent cliche from Bambi, Snow White, Nemo, and others. Perhaps future writers see these films as children and the absent parent idea gets stuck in their heads.

How about "Bridge to Terebithia" for a counter example? I haven't read it in awhile, but I don't remember any terrible or dead parents.

MBW aka Olleymae said...

I know some people say it's overdone, but i love a good MG story where the parents are out of the way. That way the kid can really grow.

Unknown said...


Jeez, thanks Matt! It was very cool of you to give me such bumpage :D

I wanted to clarify that, while I think there is a real and pertinent reason why the absentee parent trope works in YA, it's not the ONLY way to ramp up tension or create a good YA novel. Definitely not! I think if there's one thing we learn as writers, it's that no matter how the story pans out, if it's done well, that's all that matters.

My personal feeling is that, in MG/YA lit, the key to connecting with readers is making sure the child/teenage MC is *always* the star. That they're able to command their own lives and their own power. Conflict is key. And, let's face it, perfectly functional families are a myth. All families have their demons. Which doesn't mean every family is broken! Only that no one's perfect.

Anyway. Thanks again, Matt :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Go Curt's dad in Glee!!

This whole (extended) discussion has really got me thinking, and over the weekend I came up with another MG novel idea ... with happy parents and intact family. It's a bit more whimsical than my other work, which I'm also looking forward to! But I too Adam Heine's idea about removing the kid from the family in some way that the story requires, but is not because the mom/dad are dead or absent. I think that is one way to address this issue.

Also: I think you are right that it's not imperative that the kidlit be filled with intact families. :)

Tabitha said... really depends on the story.

Absent/dysfuntional/neglectful parents often make it easier for the MC to get around and do what s/he needs to do to resolve the story. But it can sometimes come across as contrived. On the flip-side, normal and loving parents can come across as overbearing. It's a very hard balance to find.

All that said, I grew up with divorced parents who did NOT get along, so I have a very hard time writing stories with normal and loving parents. :)

Lisa_Gibson said...

I wrote a post sometime back about how parents in YA lit seem to fall off the deep end. They drown in grief over something, to the point that they neglect the children that are alive or they have mental illness and suddenly everything lies with the teen to manage. I think it's an unrealistic portrayal, convenient to have them out of the way, but not true to reality. :)

Talli Roland said...

Interesting. Like Natah, I too loved books with absent parents. I loved the Adventure series by Enid Blyton, which had plenty of absent parents!I haven't read the threads so I can't comment on that, though.

Alissa Grosso said...

The flipside of the coin is the over-involved parents. I've heard the term "helicopter parents" used to describe the continued parenting of kids who have already reached adulthood. This presents its own kind of drama and conflict and could make for a good story.

K. M. Walton said...

Hmmm - two of my books involve absentee parents, as in dead before the books start. And my other book has present parents, but they're CRAY-ZEE. The MC in that book fairs far worse than the other MC's with absentee parents.

Go figure.

Lenny Lee said...

wow mr matthew this was a little hard for me to read but it got me thinking on how i dont have any mom or dad in any stories i write or in the book i just got done. you and me got a lot of shared out past cause my mom died and dad was a really mean drunk. hes dead but i dont want to talk on how it happened. so i got thinking maybe thats why i just have me as the hero in my stories and no one ever has a mom or dad. maybe i might try doing a mom or dad in one of my new stories. im glad you like my graphic on miss candaces blog. my brother helped me do it.
...smiles from lenny

Heather Kelly said...

I can think of a few MG/YA authors who featured parents who were supportive in their books, one such author being L'Engle, but the children were still on their own most of the time in those books. I don't think that bad or absent parenting is a necessity, but it's just an easy way of giving the kids the space to have their own story.

I'll have to take a look at the thread--I haven't kept up with Nathan's forums since they aren't exclusive to kidlit, and since I love the caliber of writers I find in kidlit. Thanks for spotlighting this discussion.