Absentee Parents in YA: Yes-Yes or No-No?

Earlier this year, WSJ’s Amy Chozick, wrote about television parents making a comeback:

For decades, TV has depicted teens as angst-ridden and rebellious, and parents as out-of-touch and unhip… [but the] less-defiant generation is influencing plots, changing what types of shows get made and prompting networks like MTV that have long specialized in youthful rebellion to rethink their approach. The new, more-sanguine shows still broach racy topics like sex, drug use and teen pregnancy, but they appease parents by always presenting consequences. Parents typically have prominent roles and just as many tawdry story lines as the teens — and look almost like older siblings.

Over the past few years, Gilmore Girls style fare — shows families can discuss and use to find common ground–have been more popular than the glitzy Gossip Girl style dramas most adults associate with teens (though GG is really focusing on parental drama lately). Although television and literature coexist rather than correlate, TV’s spotlight on the parent-child relationship presents a stark contrast with the absenteeism of parents in YA literature, where more and more teen characters tackle their issues alone, or with marginal, keeping-up-appearances style parenting

In an essay over at the NYT,Julie Just, the children’s book editor, argues that many popular titles — including Twilight (Stephanie Meyer) — feature absent parents, forgotten parents, irrelevant parents, and even pathetic parents almost as a matter of course. (The Guardian’s Book Blog has a nice response to Just’s article here.) Which leaves me wondering — is the absentee parent really becoming the norm? And is it a good thing?

The Hero’s Journey

Most fantasy books — Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book, Eva Ibboston’s The Island of the Aunts and The Star of Kazan, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, to name a few–sideline parents. This isn’t just because parents aren’t interesting, but because most fantasy novels (including the above) follow the hero’s journey pattern, as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

While not all YA is fantasy, a lot of YA is about the hero’s journey. Unlike television, which presents a very external view of the world, most novels (yes, even third person novels) depend on the reader getting inside the protagonist’s head and following their character development — their personal hero’s journey — into uncharted emotional/internal territory.

Getting deep inside a character’s head requires a certain narrowing of focus; instead of gathering several impressions of an event or person, as we might with a television show, novels keep us to a limited set of view points, because more than said few (more than four, in my case *cough cough*, Anita Shreve) become unwieldy and confusing. Skipping very detailed parent description also helps keeps readers within the right frame of mind (yes, some parental development can be a very useful thing, but more on that later).

Parents can also be symbolic — cutting away parental ties, either by choice (deliberately setting foot on the hero’s path) or by force (being orphaned/kidnapped/etc.) can provide a lot of detail about a character with just a few broad strokes. In the latest Dianna Wynne Jones’ novel, Enchanted Glass, Aidan is an orphan whose parents weren’t exactly card-carrying members of The Helicopter Parents‘ Club. As a result, his family is less about biology, and more about choice, as he gathers the people he cares about (and who care about him) together, a common theme in Wynne Jones‘ novels. But Aidan can’t find his true family until he has, to some extent (the book has that first-in-a-trilogy feel), completed his journey and come to certain realizations about himself.

Absent Parents — Truth or Fantasy?

(Remember when I said more about developing parents as a characters later? This is later.)

Books are about children, not parents. And yet, according to Chozick’s article, the teen shows just about teens or glitz and glamor are those with falling ratings. Why? Possibly because giving depth to a parent is like giving depth to a villain — it adds depth to a book, and is often the difference between a good story and a great one.

Unsurprisingly, young adult books are about young adults, not their parents. And yet the popular teen dramas Chozick references, with their carefully fleshed out parents, present a side of the story much young adult literature does not, giving viewers a context for why parents act (or react) as they do, and why/how teen characters are perceiving the world. Would such a tactic work in a YA novel? I’m not sure, but I suspect it would, if handled well, because giving depth to a parent is like giving depth to a villain–it adds depth to a book, and is often the difference between a good story and a great one.

Of course, not all stories can feature parents, because parents aren’t a part of the equation. Would Harry Potter work if he were a regular wizard kid, like Ron, with parents who knew most, if not all, of his doings? Moreover, if Harry were your standard-issue wizard progeny, he wouldn’t bring his neglected, unloved kid angst to the story — which, although not absolutely necessary to a good YA fantasy, is part of the reason YA readers relate to him. (What teen hasn’t felt unloved at some point?) In contemporary YA, though, absent parents can be quite problematic, because their whereabouts need to be accounted for. The constant stream of fantasy that keeps our suspension of disbelief alive doesn’t hold for contemporary lit — once realism creeps in, questions start to arise. From Just’s article —

Sometimes the parents are very, very busy, and sometimes they’ve simply checked out… In Laurie Halse Anderson’s best-selling “Wintergirls,” about a dangerously anorexic high school senior, the mom is a sought-after surgeon too pressed to notice that her malnourished daughter is a bit shorter than she was four years earlier.

Like the mother in Wintergirls, many parents in YA literature are missing because they’re out (or in, as in Gaiman’s Coraline) at work. But even in a novel like Wintergirls, reality threatens to intrude at any moment, because it’s only Lia’s biological mother who is accounted for. The people she lives with — her father and step-mother — are very present in her life (though, granted, not as present as they were when she first checked out of hospital), weighing her, taking her to psychiatrist appointments, asking her to pick up her younger sister. The true absence of Lia’s parents is in her pushing them away–her step-mother asks her questions Lia doesn’t answer, or simply doesn’t hear, because she’s lost in the fog her problems, and her lack of adequate nutrition, bring. But although Halse Anderson’s characterization addresses this, it’s sometimes hard to believe that even this rocky suburban family doesn’t notice Lia’s decline.

At the end of Wintergirls, readers learn more about Lia’s family, and her parents’ choices etc. are put in context–for me, those chapters are the most powerful in the book.

Teens Saving Themselves

Just points out that absentee parents are fast-becoming a stereotype, and one that does not reflect reality. She writes–

Ineffectual, freaked out, self-centered, losing it — and all that smoking! — this was the dawn of the struggling parent (the completely pathetic parent would come later). One might vaguely remember real mothers like the beautifully observed Ma in “A Place Apart” (1980), by Paula Fox, seen through “a smoke screen,” cigarette ashes patterning her sweater, or her neighbor, “a restless ghost” who takes special pills twice a day. But in less fine novels the stereotype started getting out of hand. One study from the 1970s compared mothers in young adult fiction with the ones in real life, based on statistics from the Census Bureau and the Department of Labor, and concluded that less than 3 percent of the depictions were “realistic”: in the novels, mothers were disproportionately seen as being paralyzed at home, while in real life they were beginning to go out and get jobs.

Problem novels, arguably the birth place of the absentee parent trope, are popular for a reason. Like fantasy, they’re a window into another life for many readers, though a more realistic, easy-to-visualize one. (While I agree that problem novels can also help readers struggling through difficult issues and times, I’m not convinced these readers represent the majority of the purchasing demographic.) Absentee parents, truth or not, are part of the teen experience–even teens from great families sometimes feel isolated. As author Sarah Ockler (Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah Hannaford) points out–

The best YA lit — arguably, any literature — is not that which paints the most accurate reflection of reality, but that which resonates most authentically with the intended reader. It’s the whole “perception is reality” thing. Regardless of the reality, lots of teens perceive their parents as inept, mopey, or even downright bad — I know I did. In my thirteen- to nineteen-year-old mind, Mom and Dad were clueless, ineffective, and, you know, stupid.

If someone wrote contemporary YA with great parents, what sort of story would they write? A more grown up version of Paul Haven’s The Seven Keys of Balahad, seems a likely candidate. Instead of absentee parents, the book has very present parents and absentee kids, who sneak out and lie (for a good cause). At several points, the main character, 11-year old Oliver, worries about his parents worrying about him, about disobeying his father (when visiting Balahad’s thieves market), and about lying to cover his tracks. The isolation American-born Oliver feels is isolation from his peers, and from finding a way to fit into Balahad, as his parents have.

But The Seven Keys of Balahad, while a great novel, falls into the opposite trap–adults are needed to come to the rescue. While not all present parent books end with grown up help (Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series, for instance), many do. It’s the damsel in distress complex updated–teen gets into trouble, cries out for help, gets rescued by a hovering parent. But damsels in distress are boring the second, third, and fourth time around. Knowing there’s a safe haven is great, but contemporary damsels don’t don’t want the prince to ride in and fix things. No, they want the damsel to save herself, to cut off her own hair, tie it to the bed post, climb on down and go on adventures (Shannon Hale’s Rapunzel’s Revenge) where she kicks ass and takes names.

Although absent parents may not be realistic, the trend certainly isn’t a bad one. YA books only have to appeal to YA readers who are, despite the recent uptick in adult interest, primarily teens. Isn’t a good thing to show them how to kick ass and take names, too?

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