Killing the Parent in Young Adult Lit

Parents are always a sticky problem for young adult writers. Your protagonist can’t have exciting adventures if her parents are continuously blocking her fun – a feeling, I’m sure, many kids relate to. However, sitting in time out doesn’t make for a good story. Unless that story is based at a detention camp where your protagonist has to dig Holes all day. But even, in Louis Sachar’s story Holes, his main character’s parents are MIA for all but the first and final chapters of the book.

The problem with parents as characters is that most parents in real life are buying the book for their children. Most parents don’t like buying books, especially for younger readers, that don’t display parents in a good light. Figuring out how to develop characters that are acceptable to parents, librarians, teachers and other adult figures AND their children and students can be a daunting task.

Lucky, I recently came across a NYT article by Children’s Book Editor Julie Just, talking about just this topic: “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit.”

The easy way to solve the parent problem is to kill them. Make your main character an orphan. This has worked for countless authors: S.E. Hinton, Mark Twain, Robert Lipsyte, Johanna Spyri and L.M. Montgomery.

The easy way, though, has turned into the clique way. So do it at your own risk.

Instead be creative. J.K Rowlings, for example. Harry Potter is an orphan. But he has parental figures. His horrid aunt and uncle who love to lock him in his cubbyhole under the stairs. Philip Pullman’s Lyra in The Golden Compass. She believes she’s an orphan, but later discovers her Uncle is her father and the book’s antagonist is her mother. In Walk Two Moons, the protagonist goes on a cross country trip with her grandparents. No parent there, but the entire story is about Salamanca & her absent mother.

A good young adult fiction writers shouldn’t ignore the parents’ role in a young adult story. But their parent characters should be real, without being preachy, and they shouldn’t solve the protagonists problems.

So how do you do this?

First ask, yourself, what do my character’s parents contribute to the story? Don’t dwell on the negatives: that parents in real life keep their kids out of trouble aka having fun and exciting adventures. Instead, imagine how your character faces the challenges presented by their parents and watch your story unfold.