Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bad Parents in YA

I was going to blog about the film festival today, but I feel like I'm too in the middle of things right now to reflect properly on any of the films I've seen or make anything I say relevant to drunk writer talk.

But I will say that I've only seen two films so far that I loved... RABBIT HOLE and BLACK SWAN. Also TRUST made me cry about six times... But I think I'll save talking about the films until later.

Instead, I'll talk about something that's been on my mind lately: parents or lack thereof in YA novels.

Several weeks ago Sinead did a post about how common it is in romance (and in fiction in general) for the main character to have had a bad childhood, and how often writers choose not to let their main characters have strong, reliable parental characters to lean on while the story unfolds. (Often killing off the parents or otherwise putting them physically or emotionally out of reach.)

I've been thinking about this in the context of the YA market and although I haven't studied it to any extent, I think it's perhaps even more prominent in that part of the publishing world. In many of the most popular novels for this age group, parents are either absent or totally negligent. It was while reading SHIVER that this most recently occurred to me. Yes, perhaps the girl's clueless parents in that book helped put the hero and heroine on the same playing field... and built into the theme of pack as family and how badly theses kids need to belong... But it became almost comical for me how negligent her parents were. I mean, she's got a boy (who's also a wolf) living in their house, sleeping in her bed, showering in their bathroom, and they never notice. I don't think it was supposed to be funny, but it really started to crack me up.

I've heard writers on loops complaining about this common feature in YA. It seems to me that, almost without exception, the writers who don't like this are also parents. I hear things like: Why can't the mother character be more sympathetic? If she's facing such a big problem, why doesn't she go to her parents for help? Why is she staying out so late? Where are her parents???

Seems like some of these writers/readers can't bear to read a story where the kids are left to fend for themselves. Or maybe they are identifying more with the mother character than the protagonist...

But besides the somewhat obvious benefit of absent parents adding conflict and drama, I think this story element is so common in YA because becoming independent is such an important part of being a teen. Reading about kids who either have no parents or have parents who ignore or neglect them lets kids explore independence vicariously, from the safety of their own homes and families.

Hey, I just realized that one of the main elements of BLACK SWAN, the film I saw this morning, was the protagonist breaking free from an overbearing mother.

There. I tied this post together. ;)

Now, must go stand in another line.  HENRY'S CRIME tonight. It's a rom com. Yay. I could use a break from tough films right now. Tomorrow morning Molly's coming with me to see 90 minutes of Ryan Reynolds buried underground in a box. Can't wait. :)

What other YA books have negligent or absent parents? Can you think of a great one where the parents were there to help the kid through whatever it is he or she was facing?


Lisa said...

The MC in "If I Stay" has pretty cool parents (who die in the first few chapters). I think bad parents/no parents is a pretty common device because it gives your character a little more freedom. I personally hated Bella's dad in Twilight and Katniss's mom in Hunger Games because they're both so clueless that I just want to shake them.

Kimber Chin said...

Kelley Armstrong addressed exactly this during the weekend YA seminar. She pointed out that great parents would try to solve the teen's problems for them and then... whoops... it is no longer about the teen and wouldn't be a YA novel. She mentioned that one of the 'teachings' in YA is showing readers that it IS possible to solve their own problems (whatever that problem is).

I really wished you could have attended, Maureen. You would have LOVED it. Kelley ROCKED the house.

Eileen said...

I clearly need to read more YA. Hunger Games has been on my list forEVER.

I do think the isolation thing is something we do to all our characters, adult or teen, and removing a functional parental presence is a big first step in that. I mean, look at Bambi!

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think that Katniss' mom was ANOTHER problem for her to handle, made the book even better. When she told her mom that she had to take care of the younger sister. That she couldn't not care anymore - I cried. The kid being the adult. Loved it.

I agree Bella's dad - from what I've seen - not an issue.

Kimber - I wish I could have gone to Kelley's talk, I have to get back in the TRW groove - I'm missing too much good stuff.

I just got back from the movie with maureen - Ryan Reynolds in a box --- holy cats. My heart won't beat right again. It was excruciating!

Stephanie Doyle said...

I think that's also a teen fantasy... not just being independent because you have no parent. But also somehow being better/smarter than the parent.

Wasn't basically every John Hughes movie about that...

Ahh Breakfast Club.... takes me back.

Stephanie Doyle said...

I should point out I was commenting on Molly's comment about Katniss's mother....

Maureen McGowan said...

Lisa, I haven't read If I Stay yet, but have heard good things. I think killing the parents off early serves the same purpose. Rip the kids away from their support, or don't give them one in the first place. Re wanting to shake the ineffective parents. That's it! Adults HATE those characters, but I think they work for the teen crowd because teens often see their parents as clueless... (even if they aren't)

Kimber, I hated missing that meeting. :( but I was way too wrecked from seeing TRUST -- which happens to have been about a teen who gets hurt while her parents are looking the other way. Just realized that. But it was hard to blame the parents in that movie. They were pretty involved/active. That's one thing I liked about the film... It didn't rely on devices like bad parents to explain why bad stuff happened to the kid.

Eileen, LOL about Bambi. Good point. Taking the parents away is a pretty major theme in children's fiction.

Maureen McGowan said...

I'd forgotten how Katnis's mom was so depressed and ineffective at the beginning of that book. Perfect example. And you're right Stephanie. John Hughes did it, too. I'll never forget Molly Ringwald's parents forgetting her birthday in 16 Candles.

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