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The Parents of YA

A couple of days ago Kmont over at Lurv a la Mode posed the question: What's with all the crappy parenting in YA novels? I had to smile when I read her thought-provoking post as it's an old, familiar trope of young adult literature--remove the parental units and BANG! You've got free reign. It makes sense to a certain degree, right? In the absence of authority figures and/or the adults in the teen's life most likely to object to all manner of shenanigans, your protagonist can get up to scads of mischief, thus providing the crisis/plot/problem what have you. Better yet, kill off or mysteriously disappear one parent and you've got some juicy material for teen angst and conflict. This is an old trope stretching back to when orphans were prime protagonists in young people's literature and I do think things have changed over the years. But it does seem to still hold true in a large section of YA fantasy novels, since a kind, involved, non-self absorbed set of parents would likely never let their kids wander off with vampires, consort with underground trolls, frolic in the snow with unusually prescient wolves, etc.
At the same time, it should be noted that YA novels with fragmented, bifurcated, and absent families often accurately reflect real family life for many of today's young adults and I'll be the first one to say that running across glimpses of yourself or reflections of your life in a book is an experience unlike any other. Those are the books I read when I was 12 and 14 and that I re-read to this day because they spoke to me then and still resonate through the years. The lively discussion in the comments of KMont's post address these aspects of the issue and you should definitely stop in and take a peek. I appreciated her question, particularly as it was motivated by the fact that she, like me, is a parent and finds herself wondering if parents are dead in YA. For my part, I don't believe they are. And, since I read a lot of young adult literature, I thought I'd highlight a few of my favorite YA novels that possess that rare commodity--two involved, complex parents. This is not to say they are perfect by any stretch of the imagination! But they are there. They are trying. And, most importantly of all, their presence in the novel strengthens the narrative rather than weakening it.
Madeleine L'Engle has long been one of my favorite writers and I think she does families quite well. In her Time series, Meg and Charles Wallace's parents are integral characters in the story and saving their father from the IT's clutches is the whole premise of the first book. Both Mr. and Mrs. Murry are smart, loving people who teach their children by example and raise them to be active, independent thinkers. The same is true of L'Engle's Austin Family Chronicles. And while Mrs. Austin was never quite forcible enough for my taste, both parents are present and participating in what is going on in their children's lives.
Ellen Emerson White has a gift for razor-sharp characterization. In her President's Daughter series, she explores the unbelievably complicated dynamic between Meg Powers and her mother--the first female president of the United States. Both incredibly charismatic individuals in their own right, this four-book series refuses to shy away from the reality of mother-daughter relationships and how it is possible to love someone unconditionally, while having a hard time forgiving them for certain words and certain actions. Meg's father is a superb character in his own right. He is sympathetic, smart, extremely loving, and the depiction of his marriage to Mrs. Powers is breathtaking.
Garret Freymann-Weyr's Printz honor book My Heartbeat bowled me over when I first read it. A lot of it was sensitive, thoughtful Ellen and Super Cute James. And a lot of it was the exquisite writing. But even more of it was Ellen's tangled, emotional relationship with her older brother Link and their affectionate, if somewhat blind and overly anxious parents. They are both working parents, they have lives of their own, but they remain key players in their kids' lives and it shows. The scene where Ellen and Link are talking about their parents while watching Casablanca, and they stop and stand to sing "Le Marseillaise" because it's a family tradition makes me cry every time I read it.

These were just the first few that popped into my head when I cast my thoughts about for the "good" parents of YA. Which ones have I missed? And what's been your experience reading about parents and families in young adult novels?


  1. YA reading does reflect the trend of broken families and crappy parents. I've a couple of those in my series, but for the most part, I show two, caring parents. They still exist!

  2. How about the Weasly parents in the Harry Potter series? That's the first thought to pop into my head.

    There's also lots of basicly well-meaning parents in YA who have been removed from the picture via boarding school =o)

  3. The parents in The 13th Reality were fascinatingly normal, I thought. :D

    From a different perspective-- I don't know that I've ever written a character with a completely normal family life. Often my characters have only one parent or something. Why? Because it simplifies things. Having only one parent means only one parental character I have to write! Sometimes I think it comes down to a weird simplicity.

  4. I've had parents refuse to read a book because of the way the parents are portrayed. It doesn't mean it's a bad book, but truthfully, it's ridiculous how often they are MIA or just pathetic.

  5. I agree with Raspberry - doesn't mean it's a bad book at all if the parents are MIA. It helps if their reason for being MIA is portrayed in a believable way in the context of the book.

    Angie, I think I heart you. This is what I was hoping to get out of my post a couple of days ago, but I think I must have really bungled it up in how I phrased my post.

    Also, it was just rather astonishing to see so many that preferred to read about crappy parents (so kid characters can have more fun) or thought it pretty normal. Maybe that kind of YA is the norm?

  6. I loved My Heartbeat! When I'd finished it, I'd used up a whole section of red Post-It flags!

    You know what YA parents I love? The parents in Speak. They crack me up. And it's not that they don't notice there's something suddenly wrong (although they are pretty self-absorbed and I'm not sure exactly how long it took them to notice), but they don't know how to handle it, so they make a couple of horrible efforts and the rest of the time the whole family just copes the best they ca--by trying to ignore the unnamed elephant in the room.

  7. Diane, that's good to hear! :)

    Vanessa, good call with Molly and Arthur Weasley! They're good parents to not only their own kids but their kids' friends as well. Ah, the boarding school card. It's been played well and many a time!

    Britt, THE 13TH REALITY is sitting in my TBR and I keep meaning to check it out. And I understand the simplicity angle as well. It's got to be hard to draw two well-developed, different, and complicated adult figures. I certainly appreciate it when I do run across it.

    Raspberry, I've heard about parents restricting their children's reading in that way and it literally sends shivers down my spine. And not the good kind. The "let's hide diversity and variety from their eyes and minds" mentality is not at all cool. And I'll admit I'm often drawn to YA protagonists with family baggage/history/pain. If well done, it makes it a better, richer book, IMO. But I do wonder sometimes if a few more authors will take on the challenge of writing intriguing sets of parents into their YA novels without sacrificing tension or conflict.

    KMont, yes, we definitely agree on that. It needs to be believable and organic to the story. Sometimes *cough*hush,hush*cough* they're just so conveniently absent and/or clueless that it stands out as glaringly unnatural or convenient and is a distraction. For me, at least.

    I heart ya back, babe. I was excited to talk about this topic when I read your post and you did not flub it up at all. I thought it was a completely reasonable, coherent request for input and discussion and your response set has got to be one of the oddest I've read in awhile.

    I don't know if it's the norm, per se, but I do think it's widely accepted or at least willingly overlooked, particularly in YA fantasy/urban fantasy. And I'm okay with it when it's done well. But I seem to have run across a lot lately where a token cardboard parental figure seems tossed in to meet some kind of quota and I would have been happier with the added complexity and challenge of reading about the protagonist dealing with the situation with the added help/burden of her parents' involvement.

    But, yeah, your comments were fascinating to watch pour in.

    Jena, no way! I've met so few people who've actually read MY HEARTBEAT, let alone loved it. I'm thrilled you are one of them. :) Such a gorgeously sweet book. *sigh*

    And I'm glad you mentioned the parents in SPEAK. When I first read it they outraged me, but on later readings I did remember friends who had parents very much like that in high school. Speaking of effective and moving books...

  8. The parents in Inkspell, while oddly remote as parents, are still supportive of their daughter, Meggie. Granted, Meggie's mother is missing for most of the book, but her father does his best on his own and represents a loving parent. Because of his own problems, he had to drag Meggie around the country with him, but he had a good relationship with her.

    What's funny, though, is that a lot of the books that have "normal" or "good" parents tend to not focus on the parents or the relationship between the parents and the main character. The parents are there more as a backdrop than anything else while the book itself focuses on the relationships of the main character with his or her peers. Is that indicative of how young adults view their parents? As background noise? Or is it simply indicative of authors not finding as much material to work with in functional parent/child relationships?

  9. Between your post and Kmont's, has me wanting to re-read all my YA bks to find out if I could find good far crap. Great post!

  10. redheadedali10:57 PM

    My favorite YA parents are Dimple's in Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused. The later scenes between Dimple and her dad, in particular, made me all misty.

  11. Jessie, I did remember the dad in INKSPELL and you're right, he has a special relationship with Meggie. Though the mom is gone, as you say. As to your second comment, I think it's probably a combination of both. It's a time period when the parents' influence does jostle for room a bit, I'd say, with their peers' and coaches, teachers, etc. But I can't think there's a shortage of material to work with. The focus just tends to stay so intently on the teen (particularly when it's told in first-person) that everything else fades to gray a bit. Still, I'd like to see more since the parents certainly don't faze out in reality.

    K.C., lol, I had the same feeling after reading KMont's post. Wish I'd been able to come up with more.

    redheadedali, you know I've heard a lot about BORN CONFUSED and haven't picked it up yet. I'm glad to hear it's got some good daughter-father dynamics. Thanks for the rec!

  12. It doesn't happen just in YA. My daughter, who's a teen, is always groaning because so many movies have to kill off a parent (usually a single parent, and if there are two parents, than either both or else it's the mother) first in order to orphan the child in order to pave the way for greater adventure!

  13. The parents in Audrey, Wait! try hard and are involved.

  14. When I read a link to your post I immediately started thinking about The President's Daughter series--so was absolutely thrilled to see Ellen/Meg featured in your post! These books are the best, and the adult characters are so well-written.

    I recently read the novel Dear Julia, which has some interesting parent-child dynamics. The main character's mother is a successful feminist politician who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. The parents are a bit one-dimensional, but still interesting.

  15. Belle, you know your daughter is absolutely right. It's not unique to YA books and it's nice to hear a young adult perspective on that.

    Lisa, I haven't read AUDREY, WAIT! Though I've seen tons of great reviews. I need to check it out now.

    LaurieA-B, sister! Another EEW and President's Daughter aficionado. We ought to have a secret handshake given what undiscovered gems this series continues to be.

    I took a peek at DEAR JULIA over at Amazon and it looks interesting. Thanks for the rec!

  16. I love the parents in Adam Selzer's How to Get Suspended and Influence People. They are embarassing but so much fun, and as much as the main character is embarrassed by them, he loves them, and they are supportive. I don't think that teens want to see parents in their fiction any more than they want to see them in real life, however. Hovering at the edges, perhaps, and not destructive, but not front and center. My main pet peeve is hippie parents. Hippie grandparents, perhaps!

  17. all is my opinion, of course, but i think the following have "good" parents, if good is defined as caring about their children and involved in their lives in a healthy manner. apparently from previous conversation "good" must also be 2 parent?

    anyway-- based on sometimes shoddy memory

    CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL; his parents are trying under difficult circumstances. she actually also has a fab father, but, alas, widower.
    HANNAH'S WINTER: the parent role models in the book (fosterish parents) are good; main characters own parents are also good, she is just doing a sort of student exchange in japan
    RIOT. main characters parents are sympathetic & involved.
    GOING BOVINE. i didn't see anything wrong with these parents.
    MARE'S WAR. good parents, who disappear (no death, just not in story) so girls can go on a road trip with grandma
    ANATOMY OF A BOYFRIEND. good parents, etc.
    i believe all three john green books: LOOKING FOR ALASKA, ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES, PAPER TOWNS
    NICK & NORAH: parents are only referenced, but at list norah's are still married, iir, and involved
    both CLAY & FIRE EATERS by almond
    TREASURE MAP OF BOYS (entire series) parents married, good portrayl
    the GREGOR books, once gregor gets his father back
    SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS: i believe one or two of the four parents
    GEOGRAPHY CLUB & sequels, aren't the narrators parents married?
    THEODOSIA series
    NEW POLICEMAN & sequel
    DRAMARAMA, but parents disappear because teens go to camp

    OK, time for morning coffee

  18. Ms. Yingling, you have a good point. The parents are not the point, for sure, and teens are not necessarily focusing on them in their literature and in the context of the story. And reading some of these book as I did as a young adult myself, it certainly didn't bother me if the parent(s) were out of the picture. It doesn't bother me now. But it has always bothered me if they felt inauthentic or, for lack of a better word, unbelievable. They don't have to conform to any standard, but they need to feel fully developed as characters. I haven't read the Selzer, and I love a fun dynamic. Thanks!

    Liz, glad you stopped in! "Good" definitely does not have to be 2 parents. I hope I didn't imply that! I just thought it would be an interesting exercise to think of the ones I could that had two parental figures who felt fully formed to me.

    Thanks so much for the list! I'm going to go through them all. I have GOING BOVINE in my stack. And I completely agree about the VEGAN VIRGIN VALENTINE ones. I should have mentioned those in the post. I love that book. You're right about the John Green parents. His main characters always have a set of concerned parents. Though they don't play large roles, understandably. The parents in PAPER TOWNS were particularly interesting, I thought.

    I'm interested in the foster/exchange parents in HANNAH'S WINTER. That sounds very interesting.


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