Sunday, April 4, 2010

how bad is your fictional parent?

The New York Times had an interesting article today about the role of the parent, both historical and present, in young adult fiction.

If you don't want to read the whole article, here's an excerpt:

“…in the classic stories, from “Cinderella” to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the hero’s parents are more likely to be absent or dead than cruel or incompetent. In fact, it’s the removal of the adult’s protective presence that kick-starts the story, so the orphan can begin his “triumphant rise” (as Dave Eggers put it in his memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” after it actually happened to him). In the move to independence, the parent is all but forgotten, or occasionally pictured in a fond glow of love and regret.

And then the young adult novel came along.

Judging from The New York Times children’s best-seller list and librarian-approved selections like the annual “Best Books for Young Adults,” the bad parent is now enjoying something of a heyday…”

I find this especially interesting because in my YA novels the parents seem, so far, to play a key role - e.g. be an active participant and/or a key factor in the story. So, unlike what the article states, 'that their removal kick starts the story,' it is often the parents' behavior within the family that kick starts my stories.

Having said that, as I started to type this entry I then wrote: "And while the parents in my stories are often deeply flawed, they're not bad and they don't disappear (though I do notice that either the mother or the father usually play a stronger role, rather than both parents being integral...)" and then I stopped typing. Because I realized that, while that sentiment applies to the parents in The Pull of Gravity (my YA debut due spring 2011), it does not apply to the parents in my Work In Progress ("WIP"), Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me. There, the father has, indeed, abandoned the family, and the mother is a big, bad, bleeping mess. However, in both Gravity and Kerouac, at least one parent usually pulls through -- a phenomenon that may be attributable to the fact that the parents are never throw-away characters in my stories (again, needing to be removed for the story to begin), but rather are integral parts of the story.

What about you? What role do the fictional parents play in your novels and WIP's? Or if you're a reader rather than a writer, how do you feel about the portrayal of parents in YA fiction today?

*with thanks to Mary Walters linking this article to me.


  1. Interesting. I've always been fascinated by the way fairy tales deal with parents. I write historical fiction, not YA. My stories tend to start around coming-of-age. In The Prophet's Mantle, Miri's mother has been dead for a long time, but her sister Marta is a good surrogate who plays an important part in the story. Her father is distant (because she lives with the older sister) and plays a mixed role.

    In Conversations with Elijah, the heroine is an orphaned slave who knows absolutely nothing about her parents, at least in the beginning. She also has a surrogate (her mistress) who is about the same age difference as Miri and Marta. I've never really thought about that before, so it's an interesting repeated theme.

    My WIP, Conversations with Jezebaal, is a sequal to Conversations with Elijah, but from different perspectives. Jezebaal's mother died in childbirth years before the story begins, but her father did raise her and was very positive & important in her life.

  2. Great topic. I enjoyed the role of the parents in JUNO. But I was watching the movie from an adult perspective.

  3. Very interesting to think about. In my YA novel The Subrosa (nee Balderdash) Semesters parents, well one parent anyway, does play a key role, though is largely not present throughout the novel. She isn't the best parent in the world, but she's not a nightmare, either.

    My YA WIP has a weird parent situation. My main character believes herself to be an orphan, but it's more complicated than that. Once again a parent who is mostly absent through the novel plays a key role in things. Probably this similarity says something about me psychologically. I know that I'm now thinking I need to watch out that I don't get stuck in some sort of literary rut!

  4. thanks for chiming in all... Alissa, I, too, noticed a theme with my parents as I was typing the post - it's interesting to note and like you said, to watch. I often think it takes more than one book to fully explore a theme that interests a person, though, and if you do it differently enough in each book, i wouldn't worry too much about ruts. :)

  5. In my stories I tend to have 1 parent who plays a key role -- I think because it's easier than juggling both. Kind of like how in real life, I have 2 best friends, but fictionally, I usually give a character 1 best friend because it's simpler. You never want redundancy in your cast of characters, ya know?

    That said, I would love to write a YA novel that has both parents playing *distinct* integral roles, because I think that DOES happen in life (like it did in mine!) and kids/teens should be able to embrace it, instead of escape it.

  6. me too, Kristan. I had two great involved loving parents... i guess maybe those make better real life fodder than fiction? I mean, it is true that I mostly behaved and didnt stray too far from home, so perhaps under the supervision of two fantastic, wholly-present parents, our MC's would all be well-behaved, perfectly safe protagonists, not able to grow and change rapidly in the space of a 200-page story.

  7. My parents have played pretty major roles I would say. At least one of them I guess. They're human, fallible, with wants and needs of their own, but they don't overshadow the story or the protagonist.

  8. In my stories, I think the parent is very present. Even in my non-YA, the mother is very much a part of the story to her thirties-aged daughter. In fact, she has neighbors who replace the parents (still now, what, four years after writing that, I still find things I didn't intend to do but I find so meaningful now, and those things find themselves in the newer books I write. Chicken clocks?) :)

    In Paper Tigers, the mother fades into almost non-existence during the story, but she's there. I've thought lots about the need for her, and I'm still wary to cut her part back, OR give her a bigger role (the story is ulimately Rigby's) but I know there is unseen need for her involvement somewhere.

    Very interesting points to ponder for us.

  9. Does it make me Old School that both my MC's parents are dead at the beginning of my YA?

  10. I remember hearing (somewhere) about YA editors getting together to read manuscripts and joking along the lines of "Well, let's see how and when the parents get killed off in this one..."

    In the current incarnation of my YA fantasy novel manuscript, the parents do get killed off. I have been thinking about changing that simply because it is such a cliche. But then again, I have other adult characters who are "parental figures" in the story. The literal parents of my main character really are not supposed to play a significant role. It's just one of many things that I find too complicated to deal with right now!

  11. (writing from the perspective of a slight concussion)

    The parent in my next novel, ILLEGAL, is present, but takes a backseat role, especially in terms of desicion making.

    I believe the reader believes a character when they make their own destiny - good or bad. A parent can play a supporting or antagonistic role, but still, the choice is still in the hands to behave, submit, or fight.

    And of course, you can always kill the parents and leave the YA character to fend for themseleves, but they will always find an advisor. Everybody need an Obi-Wan Kenobi.


  12. My books are adult, not youth, but ALL of them have parent issues... I'm typically pretty rotten to them. At best they are caught up in their OWN misconceptions, and so are not available or reliable, and at worst... well in the trilogy I am writing a son watches his father executed on page 2, and in chapter two a different mom tries to sell her daughter for drugs. The book though, LEGACY is all about the rotten lot passed to these kids by the decisions of their parents.

    GREAT topic. It's funny that I never really THOUGHT about how terrible I was to parents before... Maybe I'm trying to make myself feel better about my own parenting through a diaspora design...

  13. thanks for all the great posts. Interesting to see how the parent thing plays out.

    Wasn't it James and the Giant Peach that had the parents trampled by a rhinocerous? I wish I thought of that one...

    Anyway, food for thought in future novels. Happy writing! :)

  14. What a fascinating article! In my upcoming YA, the parents are both normal and loving...however, they don't play much of a key role in the book. They're definitely minor characters in comparison to the teen characters.

    On the other hand, I've been working on a middle-grade WIP for a while now where I'm struggling with the orphan cliché. As of now the main character is an orphan...but I may change that in time. It seems so much cleaner and easier to not have to deal with the boundaries that natural parents would set for their children. I think this leads to a more active story where the MC takes center stage...maybe that's why it's such commonplace in literature.

    This is a really great topic, Gae! Thanks for sharing the article! :)

  15. This is a great post! I think the idea that one of the parents always pulls through is great- I love books where the character has a connection with their parents, but then again I also like when they don't at first and their relationship builds and grows by the end.

    I think having divorced parents is realistic and relatable for many kids, but having one or both parents dead? Not as much. I think this idea is a little overdone, but I don't mind it, it just makes novels with two loving parents stand out more in my mind.

    Either way, I'm pretty open to different parental situations as a YA reader, as it opens my mind to different situations other teens may be living. Although loving, happily married YA parents that are close with the character will always have a special place in my heart :)