Absent Parents in Children’s Literature

A friend of mine, author David Klein — whose debut novel, Stash, is due out later this month — alerted me to a recent interweb discussion about absentee parents in children’s literature.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford summarized the debate here, while making some solid, sensible points. Here’s one quick snip:

Another major factor in YA and MG literature is allowing the characters to fight their own battles. It’s a very common theme in YA for parents to be absent, abusive, oblivious, or otherwise useless. There’s actually a reason for this, other than the obvious ready-made angst factor. You see, for a story to truly be centered around an underage MC, they have to do everything themselves. Parents, guardians, and other adults can’t do it for them.

Of course, this is an old narrative device, wildly popularized (and trivially conventionalized) by the folks at Disney (Bambi, Simba, I’m looking at you). Seriously, the list of dead or missing parents in Disney films is long and almost comical in its predictability.

Note: This screen shot was filed under the caption,

“Awesome Moms,” so of course she had to go.

The role of parents is often a thorny issue in children’s books, for some of the reasons explained above. But as a devoted parent, I have mixed feelings. I understand the narrative expediency of eliminating parents, or making them appear incompetent, but at the same time I kind of hate it in books when every adult is a complete, useless waste of oxygen. I guess I’m much more offended by one-dimensional characters than the idea of absentee parents.

Personally, I tend to write sympathetically about parents in my books. The trick is to keep the story child-centered. Because, likewise, I also loathe it when a perfect adult prances into the story and solves the problem for the child.

In Bystander, my recent book about middle school bullying, I created an absent father and it served as an important fact in my main character’s life. A source of vulnerability, the limp in his walk. At the same time, Eric’s mother is outstanding. She does a lot of things right as a parent of a child who is bullied. For example, even though her role in the book is limited, Ms. Hayes has thoughtful family policies about computer and cell phone use, she advocates aggressively for her child with the school once she perceives a problem, she makes an effort to spent alone time with him and, basically, she tunes in. I like her and wanted to model how a good, caring mother might act under those circumstances, since I think that’s the most likely scenario. The adults in the school are also shown in a positive light.

Even so, the conflict and the drama remain with the boy, Eric Hayes, in his own world (mostly) away from home. Mom isn’t the answer, but she does provide a foundation of support.

In Six Innings, I’m pretty sure all the adults portrayed are sympathetic and realistic, though Mike Tyree’s parents are distracted by his sister’s athletic success. They don’t quite give Mike the attention he needs. When I started the book, a few people asked me, essentially, “Are you going to write about how the Little League parents and coaches are so awful and over-the-top?”

My answer, “No, not this time.”

In my experience, the coaches — while flawed and sometimes too focused on their own child — are good, decent parents who volunteer an incredible amount of time and energy to the benefit of many children in the community. These aren’t horrible people. And overwhelmingly, the parents in the stands are good folks, too. Hopelessly biased, a little irrational at times, emotionally invested, caring. What I respect most is they are . . . there. They show up, and if you ask me, that’s 95% of parenting: showing up, day after day.

Quantity time, not quality time.

Art: rough cover sketch by R.W. Alley,

where Jigsaw literally finds a skeleton

in the closet.

Lastly, since I’m on this topic, I’ve written almost 40 Jigsaw Jones mystery books. His parents are amazing, loving, funny, intelligent, present in every way. It’s a great family. Mila Yeh has a stepmother — and guess what? She loves Mila just as much as a birth mother. Part of that was inspired as a reaction against the negative cliches that are prevalent about stepmothers, but also by my own wife, Lisa, who is an incredible mother and stepmother.

Still: The stories are about Jigsaw, his adventures and struggles in his boyhood world, and that’s where the conflict takes place. So from my point of view, I think you can represent strong, capable, caring parents in children’s literature and still keep the story kid-centered and child-resolved.

2 comments

  1. Kurtis says:

    I’m aware of this issue and try to defy it but still have absentee and/or somewhat clueless parents in every book. Part of it is my own experience growing up — my parents were often distracted by work, there and not there, and it’s how I think of parents. They tried in fits and so do the parents in my books. And part of it is needing the kids to be released from supervision so they can have adventures. I didn’t want to write about a grown-up-managed baseball team, because the only baseball I played was sandlot ball. Parents would never let a kid bring home a snake, so in my second book both parents are busy with their jobs.

    I promise to make the next set of parents smothering and well-meaning. ;-)

  2. Jimmy says:

    I know you are kind of kidding, Kurtis. But if you want to write about real baseball as it is played by real kids today, it’s going to be organized and there are going to be grown-ups around, period. It’s just about whether you want to be realistic or not — and obviously it’s fine if you don’t.

    Hey, in the book I just handed in, the mother is a shadowy, grieving figure. I wrote a couple of scenes that fleshed her out more, then cut them, because . . . who really cares? That wasn’t where the action was. We’ll see what my editor thinks.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and chiming in.

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