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!