Where Ladybugs Roar

Confessions and Passions of a Compulsive Writer

Monday, January 30, 2012

YA Books and the Absentee Parents

Over the weekend, we got into a discussion on Twitter about Disney cartoons and the scarcity of sets of parents in them. (This conversation carried on between the husband and I as we ran errands--the husband went through all the live action movies by Disney on the hunt for complete sets of parents--which are rare.)  (You can play this game at home.  Establish a safe word if you're playing between spouses so neither of you gets into a snit over the Parent Trap.)

This is something that comes up frequently in discussion among those that write and read Young Adult books. Parents are killed-off as either part of a tragic backstory or to move forward the plot or just to keep them from hindering the adventure.  Sometimes, the parents' divorce is impetus for a teen's exploration of independence or the fact that only one parent is present means a lack of supervision.  Woo!  No supervision! Sometimes, parents just don't care and are in the house at the same time as a teenage werewolf boyfriend for months and they never notice... ever... at all.  (I'm not going to mention any specifics here.)  Sometimes, the parents leave on trips, or work or... whatever.  You get the point.  They're not around.  FREEEDOM!

Let me break to say, so I'm not completely coming off as hypocritical: I stank of this plot device. In fact, let's tally it up.

Sentinel's Run: One character with two dead parents.  The other is sent off to a war setting to fight for the humans.  (Teens = 2, Parents = 0)

Good Girls Don't Date Mutants: One character's mother kills his father. (Doh!  Tragic backstory alert!) The other (age 17) has two uber-responsible parents---who leave her alone while they go on a quick trip.  (The shame is high with this one.) (Teens = 2, Parents = 3, but 2 go AWOL, and the other is a murderess.)

Secrets of Skin and Stone: Piper has two very involved parents.  Gris has two involved parents--but he's over 18 and doesn't live with them. (Teens = 2, Parents = 4)

Scorched: Sidra has two parents who've gone through a bitter divorce and a step-mom just slightly older than herself. (Tragic backstory in overdrive.)  Asher has two dead parents--part of his tragic backstory. (Teens = 2, Parents = 2, divorced)

Curse Me A Story: Sheri has a mother and a very involved step-father. Thomas has two dead parents--both part of his tragic backstory. *sighs* (Don't judge me.) (Teens = 2, Parents = 1 1/2)

The Unseen Kingdom: In my defense, this is based on the Odyssey and it's not my fault that Odysseus is gone for most of that story--he's like the ultimate of absentee parenting.  And, technically, the female lead in this has a very active dead father because she can communicate with the spirit world. Actually, I don't want to talk about this.  (Teens = 2, Parents = I don't even know how to tally this one--one is AWOL and the other has a dead but involved parent.)

I have to say, though... while this plot device/impetus might be applied frequently, it's so completely useful!  Wait, that came out wrong.  It's very hard to write exciting stories when two sets of involved parents are there preventing their teens (or younger) from getting into trouble. (Not that it can't be done....) As a teen, most of the moments that I remember as being fun and exciting--didn't involve my parents.

(cyber gasp)

I have super responsible parents.  If they could prevent it, they tried to keep me out of danger or from making mistakes that would contribute to a tragic backstory.  I never could have had a werewolf boyfriend in my room for months.  They probably wouldn't have let me put myself in a position to be kidnapped and nearly killed by vampires.  There was no way I'd be sent off to a boarding school where I'd discover I had magical powers--though, this I'm mostly blaming on the adequacy of public education and our middle class income. I'm sure there were times they'd have liked to send me off to boarding school.

Also, I realize I'm lucky to have parents still married and that two parent families aren't a requisite for happiness or responsible parenting.

Also, some stories are about growing up in a less-than-perfect homelife.

So, I'm not sure where I was going with this blog post other than to say that I find it interesting how other writers handle parents in their plots and to introduce the find-the-parents-in-Disney-shows game.

Also, my kids will never have any cool adventures.  That's the goal.  Just sayin.

So, what do you think?  How have you handled parents in writing?  Does your tally look as shameful as mine?


  1. It's funny, because this is something I've discussed with other book reviewers in the past, and I find it incredibly irksome. The book you "didn't" mention specifically is one of those that bothers me the most. The parents who are there but just aren't paying attention make very little sense to me. OK, I understand that some parents are not great parents. However, even the most indifferent people would likely notice a WHOLE EXTRA PERSON LIVING IN THEIR HOUSE.

    Stories like The Mortal Instruments, where the "missing" parents are a big part of the story, make more sense to me. You still accomplish the "Yay! No grownups! Whee!" feeling, but in a way that makes more sense.

    I guess what bugs me the most is (basically) what you pointed out: even with concerned parents, teens still manage a fair amount of free time, and to get into a fair amount of trouble. My parents were, what I would refer to as, over protective. Yet I managed to kiss boys and pull shenanigans and be places I wasn't supposed to be.

    I tend to think of the missing parents in YA as laziness on the part of the writer. Usually. Not always. But usually. They don't want to write in all the sneaking around, or the difficult conversations, or whatever, so they make the parents absent, for all intents and purposes.

    Sorry. Longest comment ever.

  2. PS- the word I had to type in to verify this comment was "CLAPON"... like the Clapper! Ha!

    Sorry. Random. I thought it was funny. Carry on.

  3. Actually, I agree that it can equate to laziness on the part of the writer. There are ways to have involved and responsible parents and still forward plotlines. However, after detailing my own history with it... I couldn't say that without risking hypocrisy. LOL. I certainly understand why writers do it and why it's so frequently used.

    I'm less forgiving of it in MG books actually.

    That's an awesome word verification.

  4. That makes sense to be more annoyed with it in MG than YA. It's less reasonable to assume that a parent would say to themselves, "Oh, my ten year old? No, he's good. I don't need to check on him." Where PLENTY of people say that about their 17 year old.

    I don't think it's hypocritical for you to recognize that a pattern used in your writing could be seen as part of a trend you are annoyed with.
    1) You aren't saying that it's ALWAYS a bad thing, just that it gets overdone.

    2) You are also admitting that sometimes it's done right and it makes sense. Your books could be falling into this category.

    3) People change. Writers too. Just because you wrote something doesn't mean you stand by every word of it 100%- even if you still LOVE it. Even JK Rowling admits that there are some major, huge edits she would make to books 2,3 and 5. If she can see room for improvement/change/shifts in her writing... we ALL can :)

    But, in the end, I am with you. From a writer's standpoint, I see why they do it so often. I get it. I really, really do. But it still sometimes annoys me as a reader :)

  5. Yes, Gina! That final sentence! That boils down how I feel about it.

    I'd never heard that about Rowling about 2, 3, and 5. I'm assuming she doesn't go into specifics, but I personally always thought Dumbledore's character changed from the first three to the remaining books. I also felt like Harry's emotions were too wildly erratic in 5--even as I have the caveat that he was going through major drama in his life and it might have been realistic. It got tedious.

    Boy, that makes me think that no matter how brilliantly I write--I might always feel like it could have been improved on. Because Rowling is brilliant, hands down... she just is. She makes mistakes and sure there are typos, but the world she created was brilliant.

    *sighs* I'll never be able to read anything I wrote after I have it published. It'll make my OCD meltdown.

  6. She didn't go into a lot of specifics, but she mentioned a big plot hole and repetitions that finds tedious. And most of book five, she said she would scrap it. She was suffering from writer's block and depression at the time, so the whole book feels disjointed from the rest of the series. Everything you said, basically.

    And yeah... don't read your own stuff. If it's anything like seeing yourself on video... yeah. That's not good for anybody's mental health. Just let it sit on the shelf and look pretty :)

  7. I definitely have a lot of dead parents in my YA... sigh... but mine is for a reason! I was raised in a really really strict Christian household, and I still kind of have this hang-up about having my characters lie to their parents or flat-out disobey them all the time--it makes me feel sick to my stomach, and I have a hard time doing it without at least pointing out that it's a bad idea and not a healthy way to relate to your folks. (Lying to your parents was pretty much the WORST THING YOU COULD DO when I was a kid). So I tend to just make it so they don't have parents, or their parents are gone.

    But also, a lot of my YA is more traditional fantasy, and so the characters are basically regarded as adults even if they are 17. It kind of helps things, I find.

    But have you noticed how this isn't a new phenomenon? Fairy tales (which I love writing retellings of, so I am thinking about them a lot) have some of the worst parents ever, and those are reeeeally old (you mentioned Disney, but they were just telling what had already been dreamed up). I'm taking about the original Grimm Brothers stuff. Snow White? Step-mother tried to kill her. Beauty and the Beast? Her dad pretty much just handed her over to the beast, even if he did cry about it. Cinderella? Real parents dead, step-mother is eeevil. Etc.

    Maybe that's where we all learned it, huh?

  8. Oh, Katie, that's brilliant! I'm like that too... and I think that's why so many of mine have dead or gone parents so that I'm not flaunting disobeying parents. (I was also raised in a very devoutly Christian household.)

    No, it's definitely not a new phenomenon. Hansel and Gretel... *shudders* It's funny that while we were trying to think of the Disney ones with complete parents, I remembered Sleeping Beauty at least had her parents and his dad because the two dads got hammered while waiting for Aurora to come home. *coughs* So, you know... responsible parenting for the win!

  9. Wendy! You may or may not do the fuzzy stuff... but have a Sunshine Award. :) Details in my latest post... if you want to, head over and claim some.

  10. Hmm...

    City of a Thousand Dolls: One main orphan character (oh dear) with a mother surrogate and a relative who shows up half way through.

    Life as a Cat: Three main characters, one of whom had VERY involved parents until she died. (Yeah, I know), one of whom has an overprotective mother and one of whom has an involved but busy dad and a dead mother.

    Black as Ice, White as Bone: One main character with a father who's away and a mother and grandmother who are involved--especially the grandmother. One main character, an indentured servant, who's either an orphan or his parents are in another country, not sure.

    Venus Mirror. A whole group of teenagers working on a cruise ship, most without their parents but one has an involved dad and one has a nightmare of a socialite mother.

    Yeah, I didn't do to well either. :)

  11. LOL. No, you didn't make out very well either in the present and accounted for characters' parents' tally. Yikes. On the other hand, I think in dystopians it's almost an expectation... which is what City of a Thousand Dolls is---right? That at least gets me off the hook for Sentinel's Run, so let's go with that. ; )

  12. Spyder: Avery's (17) parents are both alive, but one is in jail and the other is out of the picture. She lives with her brother who is involved as much as he can be for working nights. Sebastian (19) lives with an uncle 'cause his parents kicked him out. (I think you know that one.)

    Berserk: Harley (17) is in foster care and her foster home kinda sucks. Evan (18) has parents who are still together but they're having issues 'cause of something I did before the book XD

    SMN: Lennie's (16) parents are divorced but both in the picture. She goes back and forth between them on weekends. She also sneaks out the window a lot. Like Buffy. Which is an argument for window screens and second floor bedrooms if I ever heard one. Nolan (16, I think...) has parents who are alive! And together! Wow, that's shocker for me.

    Christmas Wars: Emerson (17) has alive parents who are not divorced, drug-addicted or gone! They're even married. Huh. How about that.

    To be fair, Emerson's adventures are a lot tamer. And they're (all) on vacation. And... this book is weird.

    Yeaaaaaaah, not so great XD

    Oh, but one thing I usually say to these arguments is... I have seen one of my parents since I was 9. The other works to support us. Up until very recently, she was working mostly from 4pm-9pm. (Sometimes she even leaves for a couple days at a time because I'm 19 and she's allowed to have a life :P I could be WILD. But mostly I just sleep and leave lights on and work. I'm not exciting XD) Anyways, some people (not you) talk about this subject like everyone HAS both parents who are in the picture and it isn't true.

    Then when you point it out, there are those people (not you) who go, "Oh, I know, but" and shove your life under the rug like it's not good enough to be okay to be in a book. *mutters* (Sorry, pet peeve XD)

    Um. So. Yeah XD

  13. Holy HECK that was long. I didn't realize how long that comment was going to be XD

  14. Ha I have 0 parents on the girls side and divorced parents on the guys. But the guys dad is super involved.

  15. Reading this way after the date, but couldn't resist commenting. Teen readers appreciate absent parents in books because that's their hearts desire, their biggest wish. I know it was mine when I was a teen. Adult readers might twitch about it being unrealistic, but I think reader demand is more at the heart of it than author laziness.