Where Are the Parents?
In my previous post about my recent trip to Los Angeles, I promised a new one about the panels I spoke on or attended at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Deadlines have caused me to run a little late on the follow-up, but here I am!
My Saturday morning panel with Dana Schwartz and Kip Wilson, moderated by Renée Roberson-Tecco, was titled “Young Adult Historical Fiction: Struggles in Foreign Lands.” I also attended an afternoon panel on the same stage moderated by fellow Carolrhoda author Emily Barth Isler (After/Math) titled “Middle Grade Fiction: Courageous Kids Protecting the Planet,” which featured authors Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin, C.C. Harrington, Gail Lerner, and Brian Selznick.
One question elicited a great deal of discussion on both panels: Why are parents usually dead or absent in YA and middle grade fiction? The quick answer of panelists in both cases was “So the kids can have adventures!” The panelists observed that parents are too quick to find solutions and fix problems, and it’s important in books for young readers to have the children and teens confront dangers and solve problems on their own.
In the YA historical fiction panel, Dana talked about how her duology (soon to be a trilogy) Anatomy: A Love Story and Immortality: A Love Story craftily gets rid of the parents. Protagonist Hazel Sinnett’s father is a military officer who has been deployed from their home in Glasgow, Scotland to Continental Europe. Hazel’s mother has fled their estate with her delicate younger brother because of the resurgence of a plague that claimed the life of Hazel’s beloved older brother several years earlier. In this bestselling series, the family absences allow Hazel to dress as her brother in order to sneak into medical school classes in pursuit of her dream of becoming a surgeon. Missing parents gives her the freedom to pursue her dreams and make mistakes with high-stakes consequences.
In Kip’s historical novel-in-verse The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin, 18-year-old Hilda is an orphan who has aged out of her children’s home. Kip pointed out that many children in that time and place — Germany during the Great Depression — lived in orphanages due to the death of their parents in WWI and the influenza pandemic, or were placed there by parents (mostly single parents) due to the economic collapse. Parents could no longer support their kids and believed an orphanage was a better place than squalid tenement houses or life on the streets. That said, there’s no shortage of adults in Hilde’s life — the other nightclub workers and the aunt of her Jewish friend and lover Rosa.
Still, I felt like the lone dissenting voice, pointing out that in Torch, the parents are very much present in their children’s lives — for better and for worse. One of them is the antagonist, the Communist Party apparatchik who embodies the power of the State. Comrade Kuchar has given his son Tomáš every privilege in life from a large house to a spectacular train set, from falsifying records to hide his autism to a smoothed-over path to university and a comfortable life as an engineer and loyal party member. But all the privileges come with conditions. Loyalty to the party. Proper social behavior. The “right” friends. Conditions Tomáš struggles to meet and, when he witnesses the democratic opening of the Prague Spring then its destruction, conditions he refuses to meet. I mentioned Štepán’s mother, who I described as a tragic figure, caught between her love for her son and her students, her loyalty to the party, and her need to save herself when she goes from being a party cheerleader to a target of persecution. (This is the kind of dilemma I explored in my viral post on the Shirley Exception, a reality people in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes live with every single day.) Finally, I described Lída’s father, Ondrej, who appears to be a typical absent parent — and even more so one who has reversed roles with his teenage child, needing to be taken care of rather than being the caretaker — but ends up playing a crucial role in the unfolding of the story. In other words, parents in Torch are all over the book, without taking over the book.
Years ago, I heard a lecture by the brilliant and acclaimed author A.S. King, who typically includes parents in her book as antagonists, mentors, foils, and witnesses. I consider this ability to incorporate parents as three-dimensional characters with desires and flaws a major part of her brilliance. I kept her advice — and the models that her books offer — in mind when I wrote Torch.
If you’re thinking of keeping parents in your middle grade or YA novel, I suggest reading A.S. King’s books. Most of them are YA but she has middle grade novels under the name Amy Sarig King. These books do a stellar job of making parents and other adults complex, making them a part of the story, but keeping them from solving the kids’ problems or taking over the story.