The Parent Trap
(Why there are so few Parents in YA Literature)

The Parent Trap

I’ve been thinking about the question of parents in young adult literature. I’m far from the only one. What brings this to my attention is a story I’m reading over for a critique group I belong to.

The story involves a young man coming into powers he knows nothing about. What makes the story intriguing to me is the fact that his mother knows what’s happening. She is a compassionate mother, and feels a lot of pain witnessing the confusion her son is going through, but for various reasons, she can’t bring herself to tell him what he needs to know.

I found this story to be very compelling. There are many stories out there where boys and girls entering puberty come into shocking new powers they know not what to do with (ooo, smell the metaphor), but there are fewer stories where the parent watches, and understands, but cannot communicate to their son or daughter that, in spite of all evidence, things will turn out to be all right — even though that in itself is another feature of our angsty teenage years.

It was clear that it was the mother’s story that the author felt most in tune with, and it was definitely a story I wanted to read. Just one problem: the moment the young adult author made the mother the protagonist in his tale, the tale ceased to be a young adult story.

As much as we hate to put our literature into tiny little boxes — as much as there are books which cross over the divides, including middle-grade protagonists who age to adulthood (see Booky and Harry Potter), or YA books which feature few, if any, YA protagonists (see Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief of Eddis sequence), we are still bound by marketing departments and agencies with limited budgets, that try to appeal to our audiences through a series of formulas. Want to know the target age of your readership? Take your protagonist’s age, subtract two years, and that will be the median age of your readers. According this theory, there aren’t enough tweens and teens in the world who will want to read a story about the parent of a teenage protagonist to justify publication, and parents don’t read YA style books for their own enjoyment.

Hogwash, I tell you, but try telling the marketers that.

Have you ever asked yourself why there are so many orphans in children’s literature? Have you ever wondered (as the New York Times has wondered) why many protagonists’ parents are never home, distant, incompetent or positively abusive? Well, if you are to tell the story about a boy or girl with perfectly normal parents, something strange happens: the parents get in the way.

Erin put this best in an entry of her pregnancy journal, The Mongoose Diaries:

February 25

Saturday, I try to write: a little bit of my fairy tale novel, the one with the talking cat and the orphan girl. Why so many orphan heroes? It’s always seemed obvious: our parents get between us and the story. Our parents keep our lives little and safe and not good material for fiction. (Or, that’s what we want to believe, though every day I see children whose stories are too big for them.)

Now I see, no. Our parents get between the stories and us.

I’d get between a freight train and Vivi. Uselessly, knowing it to be useless. But I would. It wouldn’t require the least scrap of courage. I’d just do it.

(Courage, maybe, would be stepping off the track.)

Can you imagine, for a moment, eleven-year-old Harry Potter’s living parents allowing him to get within ten miles of Dumbledore and the old wizard’s fight against Voldemort? Would twelve-year-old Percy have had to flee to Camp Half Blood at twelve if his step-father hadn’t been an abusive jerk? Would fifteen-year-old Matt Cruse be a cabin boy on board the Aurora if his father were still alive, making a living for the whole family?

We get between the stories and our children. That’s what makes us parents. For me, it was watching six-month-old Vivian staring transfixed at the television screen as, on 24, a terrorist executed a hostage, that the decision to cut off our cable was cemented for me. But 24 and its associated shows aren’t the only reason why we now only watch TVO Kids off the airwaves. We’ve also made conscious and unconscious decisions to keep our children from watching the news, for fear of the images that they’ll see. I hadn’t even realized I was doing this until I heard my mother-in-law Rosemarie mentioning that we should be careful about putting the news on, for fear of what story might lead.

There are displays of parents having the courage to let their children fight their own battles, but they stand out because of their rarity. Think of Meg Murry’s father finding the courage to let his daughter go back to Camazotz, alone, to rescue her brother. In the Percy Jackson sequence, Percy’s mother has the courage to admit that she cannot protect her son from the monsters of mythology all on her own, and Riordan does a good job making relationships between children and parents a major theme of the quintet. In the Doctor Who revival, the parents of companions have had far more screen time, with Russell mining the drama of mothers Tyler and Jones worrying about their daughters’ dangerous lives. Donna’s grandfather similarly has the courage to be supportive, although in all three cases it helps that Rose, Martha and Donna are themselves adults. At some point, all parents have to have the courage to let go.

To my mind, the best example of a parent character accepting the dangerous world their children choose to inhabit, while still (technically) children, is Joyce Summers, Buffy’s mom. She’s a remarkably well rounded and likeable character that defies the stereotypes of the genre. She learns about her daughter’s dangerous life while Buffy is still seventeen, and though Joyce takes a highly realistic few months to accept the truth, still she does. And she’s simply wonderful. It’s no surprise to me that she’s the creation of Joss Whedon.

In my own case, I’ve had to wrestle with the parent trap as well. Peter is an orphan. Rosemary has normal parents, but circumstances conspire to sideline them from the action. In The Night Girl, Perpetua is estranged from her mother, and hasn’t seen her father in years, if at all. In Icarus Down, Simon is an orphan, and I initially didn’t even bother to explain how his mother died, because doing so slowed down the narrative too much (this will change in the next draft, now that my mother has suggested a great way to incorporate this detail into the story).

I think my proudest achievement in this area is The Dream King’s Daughter, where Aurora’s parents do have a part to play in their daughter’s story, and the story’s complication comes precisely from Aurora’s relationship with her parents. It didn’t start out that way. In an earlier draft, I wrote Aurora as an orphan living with foster parents that she didn’t know weren’t her parents. In the current version, the character of Aurora’s birth mother, Dawn, materialized, and gained subplots of her own. And though she doesn’t commandeer Aurora’s story, I hope that her own tale proves compelling in its own right for my readers.

In writing young adult fiction, one of the first questions that the author has to answer is what to do with a protagonist’s parents. The easy routes include rendering the protagonist an orphan — in spirit if not in fact. The parents have to go away, or look away, or it’s unrealistic to expect that they wouldn’t interfere in the story.

In YA fiction, we are often forced to ask parents not to be parents.

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