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I saw a link on Neil Gaiman's Facebook page to this NYT Books section essay about how prevalent bad or missing parents are in YA fiction. It's a pretty interesting article and cites some specific examples, including Gaiman's Coraline and Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. Both are excellent books, both are spec fic, both won the Newberry, and both are really closer to middle grade than YA. I don't recall if Coraline's age is given but Miranda in WYRM is twelve. Coraline's parents work at home but don't pay much attention to her because of work deadlines; because they're in a new house in a new neighborhood, she has no friends and ends up exploring somewhere dangerous. Miranda's mom has no choice; with her ex-husband not providing any financial support she has to work, and since it's the 1970's there no such thing as free or cheap after-school care.

The essay touches on the reason for this phenomenon: if the kid is the protagonist, he or she can't have a parent around to take care of them, or they couldn't really "protag." But a further aspect of this that the essay doesn't really go into much is the writer's dilemma in accounting for the bad parenting. If the parent is truly bad— abusive, alcoholic, cruel, whatever— then the protagonist has to show some psychic damage from the effects. Gaiman and Stead solve the problem by making the parents merely pressed into less than optimal parenting by sheer economics. Both Miranda and Coraline are unequivocally loved and cherished, just not afforded much attention during office hours. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, makes Harry Potter remarkably well adjusted for such a neglected child.

Another option in spec fic is to simply have the protagonist get plucked from the real world into faerie or an alternate universe, not because of any neglect but merely from circumstance. If Coraline were truly a YA protagonist of fifteen or sixteen, no one would consider her at all neglected. In fact, she would be unlikely to want to spend a lot of time with her parents. The essay also cites the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer and lays a certain level of blame on Bella's mother for sending Bella off to live with her father so she can travel with her new husband, a professional baseball player. In fact, Twilight does rather succumb to what I call the Gilmore Girls syndrome, in which a teenager is somehow more mature than his or her parent(s). Not that Bella is a paragon of good sense, but Meyer doe make her rather maternal for her years.

And of course, spec fic can also provide dangerous situations that don't necessarily require the protagonist to have a run-in with a serial killer. Reading stories about kids in danger can be unbearably stressful. At the beginning of the Harry Potter series, Harry is an orphan, alone and friendless, but his dangers at the beginning of the book seem mostly those of emotional neglect. Rowling gives him friends, and then ups the ante over the course of the books, as things get more dangerous for Harry. She only really raises the specter or Harry's possible demise once the final book came out; by then everyone was thoroughly hooked.

So, in your favorite YA books, is the protagonist in danger? If so, where the heck are his or her parents?

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( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 5th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
Orphans are also popular because we root for underdogs. It's universal these days for heroes to have either emotional or physical scars that they can overcome in the course of their many trials.
Apr. 5th, 2010 01:15 pm (UTC)
That's certainly true for Harry Potter. Rowling made the aunt and uncle so nasty to him, we're rooting for him from page 1. And scarred is infinitely better than perfect.
(no subject) - peadarog - Apr. 5th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - karen_w_newton - Apr. 5th, 2010 01:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Apr. 5th, 2010 01:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 5th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
When I started reading your post, Karen, the first books that popped into my head were the (middle age, I presume) Great Brain books that I read as a kid. In those books, the kids would often slip out or be unsupervised, but given the turn of the 20th century scenario in small village Utah, that wasn't unexpected. When T.D. was caught he was punished, so it wasn't a matter of the parents being absentee either.

But I do see what you mean about making the kid an orphan or making the parents non-existent. It's a hard balancing act to do.
Apr. 5th, 2010 01:21 pm (UTC)
The time lines does matter. It's harder to explain kids being on their own in contemporary fiction because kids today have a lot less unsupervised time. I remember going out the door on a summer day with no thought that I had to tell my mother where I would be, so long as I was back in time for lunch. Of course, since I was walking, I rarely went far. In fact, once when I was six, it was a very hot day, so I cut off my bangs. The result looked rather laughable, so other kids naturally laughed at me. Considerably aggrieved at such base cruelty (!), I decided to run away from home, so I went into the woods behind out house and sat on a log until I got really hungry. When I got home, no one had realized I had run away!
Apr. 5th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
In The Giver, (Lois Lowry) Jonas is part of a loving but deluded family. He is in great danger, but emotional, psychic danger.

In Running Out Of Time, (Margret Peterson Haddix) Jesse believes she lives in 1840, when it's actually the later part of the 1990s. Her mother sends her out into the real world with a few bucks and no knowledge of what's out there because she's the only one who can get out. She too is placed into tremendous danger.

In both cases, they are neither orphaned, neglected or otherwise abused kids. And these two books were the only ones I could think of wherein the kid wasn't orphaned or neglected in some way!! I'm sure there are others, but making the kid an orphan or neglected sure makes it easier to creat a protagonist!
Apr. 5th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
I think those two support my argument that spec fic gives the writer more latitude in creating dangerous situations without abuse or neglect. Interestingly, when a book is not NOT YA, I get annoyed when the protagonist's family is never mention. It's like he just sprang into the world fully formed without parents or siblings.
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Apr. 5th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 6th, 2010 05:17 am (UTC)
Percy Jackson has a loving mother. Of course his father, Poseidon is a bit of a dud for most of the series.

I just read The Body Finder and the protag has both parents around and they are good. I have a number of books with a single parent who knows the secret of the teen. Percy Jackson, Last Olympians, Wickedly Lovely Series, Mortal Instruments Series). In all cases the remaining parent is good. But the death of one parent does leave its scars. In each of these books the parent does try and help the MC. Naturally the MC is still the top dog, but they are not totally alone.

The reality is, some parents are not protective of their children. Some parents don't know what their kids are doing or who they are doing it with. Some kids are resillient and can walk the straight and narrow. Others faulter. Both groups of kids make up my caseload.

Apr. 6th, 2010 12:42 pm (UTC)
The range of human strength is amazing. One of my favorite kids' books was THE SECRET GARDEN. Now there is a child with issues! Typical Victorian-era upper class parents-- mother a social butterfly who turns daughter over to kids, dad a career army officer. Then they both have the nerve to die of cholera and poor Mary Lennox, spoiled rotten by being waited on hand and foot, is an orphan who has to go live with a absorbed-with-his-own-grief uncle who pretty much ignores her. The story is really about the process by which she becomes socialized and learns to care about other people. But if she hadn't had a core of strength, she could have ended up as a whiny, unhappy child. Not that I recommend living in a house on the Yorkshire moors as therapy, but it worked for Mary.
(no subject) - tracy_d74 - Apr. 6th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 7th, 2010 12:02 pm (UTC)
I think the first five Harry Potter books are my favorite MG/YA novels. Although they're not his real parents, the Dursleys fill that role (or at least they're supposed to).

I'm pretty sure Harry wouldn't want them around at Hogwarts, though Snape and Filch would probably welcome them with open arms :)
Apr. 7th, 2010 12:25 pm (UTC)
The Dursleys aren't even good parents for their own child, let alone Harry! They spoiled their son rotten and turned him into a self-centered bully.

Actually, I think the boarding school scenario is a good solution to the YA/MG requirement not to have parents too close at hand. I've also heard folks opine that one reason the books were so popular is they combined magic with the real world setting of an English "public" school.
(no subject) - mary_j_59 - Apr. 9th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - karen_w_newton - Apr. 9th, 2010 07:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 9th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
Both speculative fiction - but, in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and Charles Wallace are neither abused nor neglected. Their father, however, has been lost in space! And their friend Calvin is neglected - though in a very realistic way, with a believable effect on the young man.

And then there's Diane Duane's excellent Young Wizards series. In these books, the parents are aware and deserving of respect, and they actually parent their kids - but the kids happen to be wizards, while the parents are not.

Since I'm a YA librarian, I've read a lot of teen lit, but I'll have to think awhile to see if there's a non-speculative example of good parenting. They certainly don't leap into my head! In fact, a colleague of mine said once that she was thoroughly sick of the dead mother trope (and I'm afraid I have a dead mother or two in my current WIP :( .) Maybe Murdock's Dairy Queen? Of course, the Dad has problems in that book - but it's also just plain realistic for young teens on a small farm to have adult responsibilities.

Interesting topic!

Here from jongibbs's journal, btw.
Apr. 9th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
Am I sick for thinking Dead Mothers would be a great name for a punk rock band?

Have you read WHEN YOU REACH ME? The protagonist is enamored of A WRINKLE IN TIME and refers to it all the time. I consider AWIT a classic example of spec fic solving the problem: Don't get rid of the parents. Instead, have the kids step through a magic wardrobe/wormhole/whatever.
(no subject) - mary_j_59 - Apr. 9th, 2010 08:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - karen_w_newton - Apr. 9th, 2010 08:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mary_j_59 - Apr. 9th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - writertracy - Apr. 10th, 2010 01:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - karen_w_newton - Apr. 10th, 2010 01:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 9th, 2010 09:43 pm (UTC)
Yes! Been thinking about this for a while.
Thought about it while reading Hunger Games too (father died, mother was absent for a while but wants to return to her loving path).
I'm writing a YA, one of the protags is adopted by a loving family and they do care about him. The other has a father, mother's been missing. But that's part of the plot.
In both cases parents will have a role in the story, even though the main one, of course, will be for the teens.
But it's kind of a difficult balance on how to make them free and loved at the same time.
Mines are on holidays in a small town, so they get some around time alone during the day :).
Apr. 10th, 2010 01:27 am (UTC)
Setting can help. Certainly small town parents probably worry less about where there kids are every minute of the day than parents in the city..
Apr. 10th, 2010 01:00 am (UTC)
I think in many cases the kids have to seem well adjusted because if they don't, there is a real danger of coming across as too whiny. Harry can't sit around feeling too sorry for himself because it might turn off the reader. But if he's well adjusted, then the audience can feel more sorry for him.

Case in point: I couldn't stand the Sisters Grimm series. I think the author did a good job in portraying the older sister's emotional scars. Intellectually, I could recognize that. But emotionally, I couldn't stand the character.

Edited at 2010-04-10 01:04 am (UTC)
Apr. 10th, 2010 01:25 am (UTC)
I don't the series but it sounds like a reasonable premise. Fiction is, fortunately, flexible about psychology.
Apr. 14th, 2010 04:45 am (UTC)
The orphan factor
Interesting topic. I know that I love YA fiction minus adults. I've just finished The Maze Runner by James Dashner, which of course, has no adults at all (until the very end, and they aren't parental figures). Then there is John Marsden's Tomorrow Series in which only teens have escaped a hostile military take-over of a small town in Australia. That series is fantastic, in my opinion. Both of the above also have strong elements of survival, similar to Gary Paulson's Hatchet series (another incredible series minus adults).

Of course, one of the most common dreams of the tween/teen life-phase is complete independence from parental control- that is what the adolescent struggle is all about. So, is it any wonder that books that exemplify that along with how to survive using your own wits and resources (perhaps why Survivor is also so popular among tween/teens/and young adults) are so compelling for that age group?

Now I just have to figure out why a woman of forty consumes this sort of YA fiction faster than it can be published:)
Apr. 14th, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
Re: The orphan factor
Hey, some of us YA fans are even older! You don't have to be a kid to enjoy birthday cake and ice cream, either.

Edited at 2010-04-14 08:29 pm (UTC)
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )

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