Books

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

TV parents are popping up everywhere, but in young adult books, parents are a near-extinct breed.

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?

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image