This is something that’s been bugging me for quite a while now – so much so that I actually considered writing my dissertation about it, but then I changed my mind/realised it wasn’t all that viable. The question at hand is: where are all the parents at in young adult literature? (you know, just in case you missed the title).
I’ve discovered two rough categories when it comes to parents in YA novels:
- The “normal” parental unit
- The problematic parental unit
I will explain these below, but first I want to emphasise that this is a rough division of two trends I’ve noticed and that there are plenty of novels that don’t fit either of these two descriptions!
Another disclaimer: the quotation marks are very important here! In my opinion there’s no such thing as “normal”, but unfortunately society thinks otherwise (but let’s not get into all that right now).
The “normal” parental unit
This unit usually consists of a mother and a father who are so intensely uninteresting that they don’t have any role in the story (the occasional single parent fits this category too as does the (very rare) homosexual couple). The father has a boring job, and the mother does too, or is a stay-at-home Mum. They only seem to exist because most teenagers simply have parents around, but there is a lack of emotional attachment, especially between the father and the protagonist. These people are basically chauffeurs and sources of frustration because of curfews and homework monitoring. Also, they’re incredibly naïve.
Example: Paper Towns by John Green (and most other John Green novels – the only exception being The Fault in Our Stars, in my view)
The problematic parental unit
This is a category with a couple more subcategories. A big chunk of it consists of absent parents (either one or both of them). These can be parents that have run away or left involuntarily, but also parents that have died, which is especially common in fantasy or science fiction.
Another version of the problematic parent is the parent who is not exactly doing a stellar job of raising their children. There are gradations to this of course, but these parents all have in common that they are (at least in part) the cause of their children’s unhappiness – and we’re not counting the usual teenager “my parents don’t understand me” thing here. In a lot of these cases the parent’s behaviour is also damaging the child in some way. It should be noted, though, that it’s not always the parent’s fault. Parents are also people!
Example: all four books in The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
So, to sum up: most parents in YA novels are either absent (because of actual physical absence or lack of a role in the story) or “bad” parents.
So, why is this?
I can imagine that it’s partly because these stories are about finding your own identity and becoming your own person, separate from your parents. These characters are either drifting apart from their parents because they’re growing up, or growing up despite of their parents or lack thereof.
It makes sense when you look at it that way, and I have no problem with stories which feature troubled parents because, sadly, that’s the truth for a lot of children. As is the case with the absent parent (although the orphan thing has become a bit cliché over the years).
However, what does bug me is the stories with the parents that are entirely on the background. They’re there – we know they’re there – but they don’t have any personality or any role in the story whatsoever. Why is that?
I mean, I’ll admit, I have an unusually good relationship with my parents (I speak to them almost every day despite living on my own), so it can be difficult for me to imagine otherwise. I know there are loads of teenagers who don’t really feel like they can talk to their parents, but there must be a lot of them too that do feel like they can. Where are their stories?
They aren’t completely non-existent. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz comes to mind, for example. Or Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins. They feature realistic parents in the sense that although the protagonist might not always get along with them, they are a big part of his or her life and that is reflected in the story.
I’d love to read more YA books with present parents, whether they be gay or straight, together or separated – I don’t care. Oh, and while we’re at it: I’d like a YA fantasy story where the parents are still alive. Just give me some realistic parents, please.
One last disclaimer: I think problematic parents are important too! I am not trying to diminish the worth of stories featuring those parents in any way – just so that’s clear.
Anyway, what do you guys think? Are parents represented accurately in YA stories? If not, what could be done to improve this? Let me know! I’d love to hear other people’s views on this. I can imagine they’ll be quite different from mine!
12 thoughts on “Where Are All The YA Parents At?”
Glad you brought up Ari & Dante!
It is an EXCELLENT discussion! 😀 And I love that there are quite a few sides to this too *nods* I mean, I call it “absent parent syndrome” and it does bug me how often it happens. Like I recently read Wink Poppy Midnight and that had the WORST absent parent syndrome of all. I mean, wouldn’t you notice if your son was being emotionally abused by a girl who kept sneaking into your house at night??? I think I kinda would notice?? Ugh. And I think it’s annoying when books portray parents as not being involved in their kids lives because a lot of parents ARE super involved. Maybe even over-protected. Maybe it’s annoying to the teen, but I still don’t see that represented a lot?
Although I also do know that being a teen can quite often be a clashing-time with your parents. Because you’re trying to adult for yourself and figure out who you are as a person. And sometimes parents aren’t very good at realising their kid isn’t 12 anymore, but 16 and needs space to grow. I wasn’t particularly close to my parents when I was in my lower teen years. I got MUCH closer to them once I hit 20. 😂 You start to realise your parents aren’t deluded and actually have awesome advice. heheheh. So I think that kind of thinking does make it into books a lot and it seems fair, in a way? Or at least realistic.
ANYWAY. I’M SO RAMBLING. XD But this is a great topic and I love the conclusions you drew too!
Thanks Cait! 😀 Absent Parent Syndrome is a perfect name for it, and I completely agree with everything you say! It’s kind of complicated because the relationship between a teenager and their parents can be really complicated itself. Mine wasn’t, and certainly isn’t now I’m in my twenties so maybe you just look at it differently when you’re older? Thanks for your comment, Cait! I love reading what everyone has to say about this. 🙂
One book that I really loved that I felt did have (ultimately) a great parent/child relationship is Kissing in America by Margo Rabb.
I agree that there are a disproportional number of books with background parents, but I will say that I personally did have parents like that. My parents were very present in the home and did a lot of stuff with us as kids and teenagers. That being said, my parents were still in the background of my “story” especially once I got my license and was in charge of getting myself places. I think since YA books are written from the perspective of teenagers, that may be why parents fade to the background. They have so many other things to think about: friends, school, love interests. I think parents really don’t factor into their day-to-day that much unless they’re particularly problematic or they have a particularly close relationship with them. That’s just my two cents though and I can’t pretend that my situation is necessarily the “normal” one.
Hm, I haven’t heard of that one, maybe I should check it out!
I think that might be a big difference between the US and … other places, I guess, too: in the Netherlands you can’t get your license until your 18, or at least not drive without supervion until then (they’ve recently changed the rules – I’m not really up to date on them). And getting a car is more the exception than the rule. It seems like a small difference, but I think it might actually be quite significant! You’re definitely right, though, the teenager’s perspective makes parents move into the background, and for a lot of teenagers that’s just how it goes. I’d love to see more books where parents are more present, though. 🙂 Thanks for your input, I really appreciate all the different thoughts and views on this!
I’ve been thinking a lot about parents in YA recently and you bring up a lot of the stuff I’ve been mulling over. I had extremely present parents who I got on with really well, but I hardly ever find representations of my experience with my parents in YA, or of the experiences of my friends. Part of this I think is because I’m from the UK, and I read a lot of US YA, where a lot of things are different – you can’t even start learning to drive here until you’re 17, and the drinking age is 18 but there’s a lot (LOT) of underage drinking, and I find US representations of that are wildly different.
Two things that I’d also noticed. The first is that it bugs me how, in a lot of YA novels where the parents are problematic, the issues usually seem to be resolved by the end of the book. It feels unrealistic, as if, boom, you grow up a bit, and therefore everything with your parents will either be fine or at least remain static. I don’t know, I think I just feel like parental relationships are a thing that change and grow and annoy throughout your whole life and some YA just ends a little too pat on that for my taste. Second thing is that I feel like the problematic nature of some parents in YA is too uniform, in the sense that the parent is not just realistically flawed, but monstrous. Of course, there are some really terrible parents out there, but I feel like the majority in YA are either great parents or awful ones with few in between.
For example, my parents put a lot of pressure on me to succeed academically, and I did, but I became extremely anxious as a result and had a nervous breakdown and career change at the age of 25. They didn’t mean it, they didn’t know they were doing it, and they couldn’t possibly have realised what the consequences would be, but there it was. They were and are great parents, but they didn’t handle the situation 100% correctly. And it wasn’t resolved by me turning 18 and going away to university, because I picked my subject based on what I thought I should do (again, subconsciously – if you’d asked me I’d have said it was what I wanted!) and ended up going down a path that was totally against my nature.
Sorry for the epic length comment, I just found your post really interesting and… went with it!
Thanks for the really cool comment! 😀 I agree with you, US representations seem to be so different from how things are where I’m from, which is the Netherlands. Here’s it’s much closer to how it’s in the UK, based on your comment. YES! Issues with parents aren’t magically resolved, that’s just not how a parent-child relationship works. That really bugs me too, so I’m glad you bring it up. Same goes for the monstrous thing. Completely agree with you. It’s just not realistic. Like you say – wonderful parents can make mistakes too. They’re also just people who are trying to do the best they can and don’t have all the answers. Again, thanks for your input!
I have a great relationship with my parents too so I know what you mean. And they are definitely absent in a lot of YA books! I think the Lynburn Legacy trilogy does a great job with parents (good and problematic parents), as does The Raven Cycle (I like that there are so many adults that participate in the story) and The Anatomical Shape of a Heart. And The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is a really funny contemp that comes out next week with a variety of parental units well represented. But yeah, that is a small handful for sure! I think a lot of times authors don’t know how to make parents “interesting” because of the teens finding themselves aspect that you mentioned.
I’m going to start reading The Raven Cycle this summer, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the parent thing is handled there! I haven’t read any of the other books either, but I might have to check them out. 🙂 I think that’s indeed what the “problem” is. It’s much easier to just forget about the parents and let them fade to the background entirely, but to me, because of my own childhood, that just doesn’t seem very realistic, although I’m sure to other people it is. Thanks for your comment, Morgan! 🙂