Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Defense of Dead/Absent Parents in Children's Literature

There has been some discussion in the book world lately about the prevalence of absent and/or dead parents in children's literature. In an interesting article in Publishers Weekly called "The Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome," editor and author Leila Sales argues that dead parents in children's literature are not only troublingly common, they can sometimes be symptomatic of lazy writing--after all, it's easier to write a book if you don't have to figure out the main character's relationship with their parents.

Now, you may be less than shocked to learn I have written a children's novel with an absent parent (or at least a parent who is either flying around the universe or currently living in Milwaukee who could say really??). Wherever he is, Jacob Wonderbar's dad is not living at home with Jacob.

Although I am biased on this subject, I definitely agree with Sales that there is a certain appeal to just getting the parents out of the picture so the kids can go have their adventures. Roald Dahl perhaps knew this better than anyone when he had James' parents run over by a rhinoceros at the beginning of James and the Giant Peach, and Sophie is already living in an orphanage in the beginning of The BFG.

And yet despite my good luck in the parental department (I had the incredible fortune of growing up with two relatively normal parents who managed to raise me to adulthood without getting run over by rhinoceroses), virtually all of my favorite books as a child involved kids having to fend for themselves with dead or otherwise absent parents:

James and the Giant Peach
Tom Sawyer
Island of the Blue Dolphins
By the Great Horn Spoon!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
and many many more

The tradition has been carried on in modern children's classics such as A Series of Unfortunate Events (orphans), Harry Potter (orphan), and The Hunger Games (fatherless), not to mention in movies as diverse as Star Wars (thinks he's an orphan, father actually a deadbeat/Sith) and The Lion King (father killed by wildebeests).

And it's not exactly a new tradition. Early and medieval stories across cultures, from Cinderella (orphan) to Aladdin (fatherless), feature characters who lack one or more parental units.

So what is up with all those dead parents?

I'm not a psychologist or an anthropologist or even a cultural historian (though I play one on a blog), but I am a former twelve-year-old, and I can remember how thrilling it was to read books where the kids were off on their own, fighting and outsmarting adults, dealing with harsh landscapes, facing their deepest fears, making unforgettable friendships, and, while I didn't know it at the time, learning how to be adults.

Around the age the books in this list are so appealing, we're starting to imagine life without our parents, we're starting to develop our own opinions and thoughts, and we're starting to realize that our parents are not always right about everything (eventually we'll learn that they were right about more than we realized at the time).

Dead parents, I would argue, are an externalization of this nascent independence. We're starting to imagine life on our own and love to read about kids who have been suddenly thrust into that position. A tradition this common cannot be accidental.

Now, that's not to say that we don't need more authentic (and living) parents in young adult literature. Sales rightly points to the incredible Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron as an example of a richly rendered life with two different, compelling, divorced, and refreshingly alive parents, and my client Jennifer Hubbard presents a richly rendered two-parent household in The Secret Year.

But even still, it's inevitably going to be a rare book that features a happy, stable child with happy, stable parents. We're always going to be drawn to stories about children having adventures on their own, or as in the case of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You and The Secret Year, living in broken or flawed families during troubling times.

There's a reason why when you reach "happily ever after" it means the story is over.

Originally published at The Huffington Post


Liberty Speidel said...

I seem to remember a book about the Nancy Drew series that mentioned the lack of a mother in Nancy's life, and I think you hit the nail on the head: in literature, when parents are out of the way in a kid's life (for whatever reason), it cuts the strings and allows the kids to have their own adventures.

I often wonder if Nancy Drew had had a mother in the series if she'd have been half as successful as a teenage detective.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I don't think I've ever agreed with one of your posts more, Nathan. A growing view of individual as decision-maker rather than supplicant would be drawn to the kind of environment where the child protagonist makes decisions for him/herself without the restraints of (or despite of) adults.

You skirt this at the end, too. I think why so many children's adventures have absent/gone parents is because it is the child that goes on the adventure. If the parents were properly ensconced in their position as guardians, they would be able to protect or better overcome the challenge of the story with their adult insight/power/authority.

Joanne Bischof said...

It makes sense. So much of fiction is creating a dramatic, larger than life world. And like you said, there is an adventure to reading children's literature where they get to fend for themselves, like in the Boxcar Children series. That was one of my favorites growing up. Although as a mom, I hope to always be a part of my kids' story :)

Cowgirl in the City said...

Hey, Congrats on getting published in the Huffington Post and on your new book! ;) Awesome.

I've always loved the orphan=freedom aspect in books and movies as a kid too...and dreamed of being able to be on my own (and was secretly glad I didn't have to be). Great article/post.

Julie Kingsley said...

In my former life I taught fifth grade where I ran a parent/child book club for years. I remember being shocked by the venom spewing from the parents mouth about The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Seriously, do the parents really think that just by reading this adventure that their kids are going to hightail it out town with their gambling money and live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Hah, I think not. Let the kids live a little!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

At some point, you have to take responsibility for your own life. And it helps to start with an opportunity to dream inside these stories presented to us. We start to live indepeendent lives inside our own heads first, trying on possibilities, before we truly step out on our own.

Raejean said...

From a writing point of view, not having parents around solving the kid's problems so they can have an adventure makes sense. Many of the books that do have parents around, the parents are often clueless or unconcerned about their children's activities.

As a mom, I have an untold amount of respect for authors whose characters work with their parents to overcome challenges. A couple I've read this year are A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clement and The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth.

Jackie said...

Disney likes dead, don't they? They built a brand on dead parents.

There is an entire FB page citing the orphans:

1. Snow White's parents
2. Bambi's mother
3. Cinderella's parents
4. Peter Pan's parents
5. Prince Phillip's mother
6. Tod and Copper's parents
7. Ariel's mother
8. Cody's father (The Rescuers Down Under)
9. Belle's mother
10. Simba's father
11. Pocahontas' mother
12. Jasmine's mother
13. Aladdin's mother
14. Quasimodo's parents
15. Olivia's mother (The Great Mouse Detective)
16. Nemo's mother
17. Penny's parents (The Rescuers)
18. Max's mother (A Goofy Movie)
19. Mowgli's parents
20. Dumbo's father
21. Milo's parents and grandfather
22. Andy's father
23. Lewis' parents (Meet the Robinsons)
24. Linguini's parents (Ratatouille)
25. Tarzan's parents
26. Lilo's Parents

Tony Noland said...

Interesting. From a dramatic standpoint, the absence of a parent is almost as good as an extremely permissive parent. A child protagonist has to make the decisions and actions him or herself; with any kind of active, involved parent figure in the picture, that's much harder to believe.

M.A.Leslie said...

I think that kids can relate better with parentless main characters. Not only does it facilitate the story and allow the kids to go off and do the things that they wanted to do but I really think that most kids today are feeling like the ones in the stories.

Think of it this way, would the show RUGRATS been a hit if the parents were attentive?

The Lemonade Stand said...

I think that if the main child character has experienced the tragedy of losing/not having parents then it makes it easier for us to sympathize for them as a reader. You feel sorry for them so when more bad things happen to them, you desperately cling to the hope that the ending will bring happiness. If they already start out happy and tragedy-free, then the happy ending isn't always nearly as gratifying.

Steppe said...

I think stereotyped parents that are kind, loving, and attentive could be cooked up and worked as a pretty funny sub-plot as comedic relief for a crime fighting kids network that never lets on about their secret life fighting all manner of evils. Even a secret organization that enforces rules of non-disclosure to parents to qualify its heroes for service in the Juvenile Justice League. That could work for a talented YA Fiction writer. Have the kids range from 8-19
with the retired members sent out to earn money for The League with the twist that some of the kids parents are former members who contribute anonymously.

MIMI CROSS said...

Have you checked this out Nathan?

I finally get the Disney thing. Knocking off mom (or in the case of The Lion King, dad) allows the protagonist the freedom they need.

For folks who don’t want the parents to be the main character (YA) or part of the main plot and just want them nearby, the ‘vague parent’ is kind of perfect. My personal choice.

Moving away is nice because you don’t have to kill mom and dad off or get all involved in their dysfunction. After “The Corrections” I suffered family dysfunction burnout.

Moving away with dad is especially nice, since many father figures prefer the less is more relationship, especially with their daughter. I know mine did. Some guys are just more comfortable being a friend instead of a father, works nicely for fiction and sometimes, for real life.

Throw in a separation or upcoming divorce for the parents to help facilitate the situation, and voila!

The main thing is, especially for girls, mom has to be gone in some way in order for the daughter to begin to explore her own life. I mean if her mom had been around would my main character have fallen from a cliff? No way! She would have been hanging with mom, having tea, shopping, whatever.

Love you blog.



swampfox said...

Hey, the father was there in RUMBLE FISH. Well, mostly. OK, partly.

Ted Cross said...

I ran into a logic problem in my book, set in a medieval-type fantasy world. A normal family in such times would have many children, but in writing we are taught to cut the number of characters down to only those necessary. It becomes unwieldy to introduce a dozen or more brothers and sisters, even if that would be the truly logical setup. I keep having characters with only two or three children, even though I know it just isn't logical. At least my main character does have both the father and mother.

Mira said...

"There's a reason why when you reach "happily ever after" it means the story is over".

That's excellent - quotable.

This is a terrific article. Very much agree with all your points about that age group beginning to imagine independence, and the developmental stages involved. Absolutely. You said it so well, I can't really add much.

And this not to disagree with that, but there may be additional factors that make these books attractive to children. There is a sad reality that many children have absent parents - even if the parent is in the home. The parent may be distant emotionally, or just away from the home for long periods of time. Or divorced, etc., and live elsewhere. That the absent parent is often the father may explain the Ol' Dead Dad syndrome.

There are also many children who have parents who are not actually parenting them, or not parenting them well, so the child needs to learn how to grow to adulthood on their own.

The 'hero journey' in books about orphans may speak not just to children who really are orphans, but to those who are orphans on an emotional level, for various reasons.

Anonymous said...

Conflict = interest = relatability.

Growing up I was the only one in my group of friends that had two parents. My best-friend's mom left her family, left, like, gone and moved to a different state and didn't come back; another friend only saw her dad once a year even though he only lived a thirty minute drive away; another's dad ran off with a hot blonde, leaving her and her mother high and dry; another's dad was deceased.

I always think, who are these people that have such perfection in their own lives? And even if their life can be considered ideal, don't they realize that life is hard for you know, everyone else?

Patricia A. Timms said...

In my opinion as a mother of three, kids who have happy homes with two functioning parents still wish their parents would disappear from time to time. It's kids who want these stories where no parents exist.

As a small child, I wanted my parents to fade away occasionally and I wondered if I was really adopted and from France (who doesn't want a sexy accent?), and then when I was 15 they did divorce out of the blue and it wasn't as appealing to read about for awhile. But I still write my stories this way.

Kids want to be empowered and if that's through reading then awesome. That doesn't mean they want to be disfunctional later. Kids run back home when they are all grown (at least I did.)

Becky Levine said...

Great post. I think it's half us authors needing to get the parents out of the way and half the kids wanting to "believe" in a world where they are free and independent and can take off on any adventure. Especially at a young age, I think kids like the safety of following those adventures from their own bed or back deck or beanbag chair and being able to roll their eyes and say, "Dude, my parents would NEVER let me do this." :)

Matthew Rush said...

Glad to see you getting up on the Huff again Nathan. I wrote about this on the forums not too long ago and my stance is still the same: I don't see it as lazy writing, I see it as entertaining. Normal parents, in general, are boring. I play one in real life and trust me, I'm boring. That's not to say there couldn't be exceptions. You've obviously mentioned some here.

Also, since my mom died was I was 11 and I didn't see my dad for 6 or 7 years as a teen does that mean I can get away with writing absent parent stories without being called a lazy writer? Probably not.

Amy B. said...

I kind of agree on both sides. Where parents are rubbed out just for the sake of getting them out of the way, it's lazy. Where either parent is out of the way for real reasons and it's actually part and parcel of the book and character, it can be amazing.

And actually, Cinderella wasn't an orphan, at least not in the Grimm version. Her father was alive for the entire tale; he was just horrible and negligent. That made the story far more interesting for me. It's also part of the reason I loved Matilda so much. She had two parents and a brother and they were just AWFUL rather than being dead. As a young kid, I hadn't dealt with grief much, but boy had I dealt with mean people, so even though my parents were wonderful, I could see how others could awful.

Like all things in writing, if it's in your book for a reason, go for it. If it's there just 'cause, it's probably falling short.

Yat-Yee said...

It is quite a tradition, the absent or dead parents. I am, right this moment, struggling with how to deal with the issue of what role the adults should play in the problem-solving area.

On the one hand, the protags, which are twelve in my MG novel, have to make important decisions, to grow, to solve problems. And you mentioned a good point about readers at this age trying to imagine what life would be like if they were independant.

On the other hand, in reality, a lot of the problems kids get into require the help of parents and other responsible adults. In fact, kids are often not left alone long enough to do it even if they could.

Yat-Yee said...

Oh, also, I wanted to add to the list of the absent/permissive parent in popular culture:
My Neighbor Totoro (and all the Miyasakis that I know)

LaylaF said...

As in all things in life, it is important to have a balance that would allow readers to have choices..some stories with parents, some without.

But, since the topic here is those books without parents, I have to agree with Nathan, that having the parents absent in the book allows the reader to imagine what life would be like on their own...experiencing their own adventures, solving their own problems etc.

And those readers who are truly without parents can relate; while the ones with parents, safely making dinner in the other room... it allows them a bit of freedom and fantasy, without the risk of hardship.

Cheryl said...

Having parents bogs down the story because then the kids have to answer to someone. You can't have an adventure if you have to be home for lunch. And in todays day and age, you aren't even allowed to leave your front yard without a parent.

Parents also will only be of 3 types: absent with work (or whatever excuse), abusive, or coddling. Absent is still the same as dead so we can throw that out since that's what the topic is. Abusive means the kid is going to run away, kill them or have a miserable life. Running away gives the adventure part so that's good but again puts us back in the position of absent parents. Killing them is too mature for kids, and having a miserable life is too miserable for kids. Coddling is simply boring.

Instead of calling the Dead Dad scenario lazy, look at it from another perspective: it's exciting. Having the parents limits what kids can do. With parents gone, it opens up the imagination to limitless possibilities. Kids don't want to hear the lecture from the dad about not hitting. And they certainly don't want to have to stop in the middle of the adventure because the kid has to go home for lunch. Or go to bed. Or take a bath. Or do their chores.

And dead parents gives them a reason to be troubled and make us sympathize. They have something to search for, some meaning to their lives, their greater purpose. You won't find your greater purpose when your mom is telling you to do your homework and study for your math test.

And the number one reason why it's okay to not have parents:

KIDS DON'T WANT TO READ ABOUT THEM, they want to read about kids, to imagine themselves as that kid having that grand adventure.

They have their own parents. Books are to get away from them. Parents are boring.

D.J. Morel said...

The dead parent thing is definitely nothing new. Love your examples. I'd add Dickens. He didn't write kid's books, but created some of the world's most famous orphans.

It's not at all lazy writing, just the opposite. If the parents are there, and the main character has a good relationship with them, then she'd ask them to help. That's not a kid's book. If the parents are in the story and she doesn't have a good relationship with them, then that deeply influences the character in ways that don't work for the story. That pretty much would become the story, for most kids. Alternatively, if the parents do try to help and fail so that the kid has to save the day, then the kid has lame parents. Kid's may question their parents, but they don't want to read a book where the parents are weak or ineffective, that's reserved for teachers, random adults, relatives, or step parents. The only thing to do is get the parents out of the picture, and in a way that doesn't totally traumatize the protagonist.

Rick Daley said...

I think a book with a happy, stable kid and happy stable parents could work...if the protagonist is a neurotic schnauzer.

WORD VERIFICATION: heron. It's a bird. Look it up.

Melanie said...

I can see both sides here. On one hand, it would be nice to see kids learning how to grow up in less tragic or too-obviously-freeing circumstances, just to have a more rounded ouvre of books for kids to identify with -- and I think there probably are a good number that portray functional, involved families even though there's a surprising number of the other variety. On the other hand, part of being a good storyteller is choosing or creating a narrative occasion, a good reason to bother with the story in the first place. Dead and absent parents, whether they're central to character development or just convenient for the young protagonist, help to shape the impetus for a story.

Theoretically, there are probably a gaggle of stories not told because the character gets confronted with an exciting, tension-filled change, but her parents ground her and forbid her to traipse off through the wilderness for weeks on end. I'm just saying... That's not a very interesting story unless it becomes a story about something else.

Amanda said...

You could do it "Fablehaven" style and have the parents be on vacation. =)

Anonymous said...

Didn't the kids in the Time Warp Trio series have parents? It's been awhile since I read them or that my kids did but I seem to recll them going on some interesting adventures and also having parents.

Remilda Graystone said...

The problem I have with absent parents is when they're put into a situation where the outcome is absolutely unrealistic. What I mean by that is (and this is a big exaggeration) say the kid ends up blowing up half the house, the absent parent(s) (the way they're portrayed sometimes in literature) wouldn't even notice. It's like, I get getting them out of the way, but I don't get when the child does something that ANY sort of parent (except maybe the really drunk, unconscious, and dead ones) would notice--but in the story, they don't, and we're just supposed to buy that. They don't even provide good excuses in those cases, and THAT is when I think the writer is just being lazy.

If the parent is out of town or dead or somewhere else where they can't notice that magical creatures are shacking up in their house, then, yes, I can buy that. But if the parents are there and they don't notice AND there is no excuse provided for why they don't notice, then I get really irked because the writer is being lazy, the writer is COMPLETELY overlooking the parents' existence AND they're asking us to buy this nonsense or to even make up a reason for why they wouldn't notice what is completely noticeable.

Aside from those times, though, I'm fine with the parents being out of the picture. Oh, and I agree with this article.

WritersBlockNZ said...

Young adult novels are usually about growing up. Without parents, children are thrust into adulthood much sooner, propelling the story on and invoking change in the character. Plus, you'd be surprised at home many children have lost their parents young. It's a huge fear for children, and a reality for many. Why wouldn't it be worth writing about?

J Scott Savage said...

Technically, James' parents didn't get run over by the rhinoceros. They got eaten by it, which I always found both slightly disturbing and fascinating to imagine as a kid. Only Dahl could get away with starting a kids book by explaining how the boy's parents got eaten by a runaway rhinocerous.

I think we as parents are far more worried about things like this than our kids. They go, "Yep, parents got eaten. What's next?" Which is what makes it so fun to write for them.

Nathan Bransford said...


Ha- good memory!

Stephanie Barr said...

I agree there's something to be said for children's books to focus on children who have to fend for themselves.

Separation is another option, but dead has a particular poignancy.

Livia said...

I think it would be interesting to see how this trend varies across cultures. In a Western individualistic society, the idea of growing up is almost synonymous with idea of cutting ties with your parents and becoming your own person. Therefore, in order to grow up, or to have a coming of age story, you have to get rid of the parents, either figuratively or literally. In a more collectivist society (often associated with Asian cultures), growing up is associated with taking your place and responsibilities in the community. I wonder then, if Eastern coming of age stories have parents that are more around. Unfortunately, I'm not all that up to date with Eastern young adult literature. The only example I can think of is Mulan, where she takes her father's place in the Army. She goes out, fights the battle, wins honors, and when offered an official's post, she says she just wants a camel to go back home. Interesting, huh? There is a translation of the poem here.

Melanie said...

I think it's also interesting to consider the kind of environment young people live in now. Even just in the mid-80s, when I grew up, my parents knew everyone on my block, and I was allowed to run around for hours until dinner time without supervision. I didn't have video games or anything to distract me or keep me inside. I didn't have a nanny. I didn't have absent parents either, not until they divorced in the 90s, which made for a different kind of freedom but didn't change the fact that I had freedom.

The point is that, when I was young, I had a lot of free time. I wasn't afraid of the world or distracted by technology, and my parents let me be a kid and have that space. I don't know what it's like to grow up now, if kids have the same freedom of imagination afforded them, but it wasn't hard at all then to imagine kids going on adventures without parental interference.

Maybe today, with all the attention to divorce rates and family dysfunction, on top of the ways people often "occupy" their children's minds with TV and video games to keep them safe inside, it might be harder to buy that kids can have an adventurous life without having to kill off the parents. But I also think dead and absent parents, as well as negligent or abusive parents, are as much an emotional response to our present culture as they are a convenience for the writer.

Maria Alexander said...

As someone who recently lost a parent, I can say that the loss makes the child become the parent. The child must then own his or her own authority -- carry the torch, if you will. But it's a heavy torch to carry, indeed, when you're young.

I don't see it as much of a crutch as a trope. You don't need it. I'm writing a YA adventure that has excited lots of publishing folk, and the parents are very much alive, present and inadvertent catalysts.

Elie said...

It never seemed at all strange when I was a child reading about children adventuring alone.
Reading from a parent's perspective - it's a different story!
As a writer .. well ..

hillary said...

I think many stories for children "rub out" the parents to keep the content appropriate for the age group. If parents are around, they either fix problems (therefore working against the plot), or they don't. If they don't fix the problems their children face, there is often a complicated reason that is tough to treat in a child-friendly way. For example, if Cinderella's stepmother is mistreating her while her father is present, suddenly her dad isn't such a nice guy either and Cinderella's relationship with him is more complicated. If he's dead or away, he (and the author) are absolved of responsibility for the abuse. Historically writing for children has dealt mainly in the business of distinguishing good from evil, and dispensing with parents makes the distinction all the more clear. Alive, present, flawed parents are a messy gray area.

melissa said...

I was never bothered by the main characters of children's books having adventures on their own (like many of the other people commenting). In fact I seem to recollect that at times I fantasized that my parents weren't actually my parents (which doesn't make them dead or absent), but suggests that kids do want to experience life in the way that a lot of kids in books do.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Wonderful post. I've noticed this also and even commented on it as a popular cliche on a blog post earlier today.

I think the orphan is also an outsider protag who is instantly sympathetic to readers, and there's the "chosen one" aspect for Fantasy and paranormal.

Love the Disney list earlier in the comments. I think Sleeping Beauty is one of the only Disney movies where the protag has two parents.

Nicole Zoltack said...

In literature, kids are supposed to be the ones that solve the problems. They can't go running to their parents and get them to solve the problem. Kids want to spread their wings and fly away. How many kids dream of running away and joining the circus? It's like that.

maine character said...

I've never seen it as lazy writing, but simply a necessity to make the character achieve their goal on their own.

Look at Treasure Island - Jim Hawkins had to rely on himself and no one else. And the same with Huck Finn and The Outsiders. Or, as with Hatchet and Ender's Game, the parents are too far away to help.

Whirlochre said...

Personally, I'd be concerned about dead children in children's literature, particularly if they'd been murdered by parents so absent, they couldn't possibly have been murdered.


Corky Smith said...

There are potential positive and negative lessons in every aspect of life, including the stories we read to our children. As those who guide children, we must recognize that a child cannot always distinguish the difference from fantasy and reality. Although children have the most vivid imaginations and that is something that should be encouraged, they should not be deceived about the truth of things. The positive use of stories can stimulate courage, inspire nobility of heart, modeling the honor in the truth and give hope for better things to come. It’s our responsibility as parents and educators to the help children differentiate between what is reasonable and what is absurd. Evil witches, wicked stepmothers, ugly stepsisters, and fairies are all popular characters in fairy tales, but stepmothers aren't always wicked, stepsisters aren't always ugly and fairies aren‘t real. The same truth applies that princes aren't always charming and peasants aren’t always courageous and heroic. Fairy Tales make too extreme of examples for children and they have a “two-edged sword” sort of approach when teaching a moral because it seems to always leave an unrealistic example of “every dream that you wish, will come true” Should we choose to read fairy tales and stumble across a lesson of a moral, we must show the reality of the situation and then explain the importance of the lesson if we choose to adopt it. We must also explain the unrealistic nature of the tale as a whole. The lessons can be reasonable and the stories can be fantastically magical and inspiring with the proper guidance.

Josin L. McQuein said...

You have to get mom and dad out of the way somehow, otherwise there's no way the kids in those books could do half the things they need to do to advance the plot.

If they had parents who allowed it, said parents would be in jail.

k10wnsta said...

Parents are the first great antagonist in most kids' lives (or so they think), but since most stories involve far more extraordinary conflicts, they are antagonists who usually need to be put to bed early.

Interesting timing on the subject. Some time ago, I resolved that, because the anti-hero of my story was 14, I wanted no interaction with (and limited mention of) adults throughout the work. I felt if I could pull it off, it would emphasize the exaggerated sense of self-reliance most 14 year old boys act upon. Ultimately, however, it required compromising the story's integrity. That would not do.
So, from one extreme to another, now the very first word of the MC's narrative reference's his dad.

Simon Haynes said...

There's a teen character in my latest novel, and the first thing I realised was that the parents had to go. You can't save the galaxy when Mum and Dad are hovering around vetting your friends and packing your lunches.

Kristin Laughtin said...

A lot of these books are written for children who want to go off on their own adventures, as you said, but most importantly, are beginning to master their worlds on their own, whether this involves saving the world or surviving a harsh situation or simply becoming an adult. Parents, in most cases, would impose limits on the kids in these stories, and that would make them boring and stunt the kind of growth (or other development) the author wants to portray.

Can you imagine if Karana's mother had held her back from jumping over the side of the boat in ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, or at least been the one to jump over herself? And yet this is likely what would happen in reality (except not, I guess, since that book is based on a historical account, although the details are disputed). LORD OF THE FLIES might not count since for all we know, the boys' parents are alive somewhere, but if they had been present on the island, they would have been supervising all the children, who wouldn't have devolved the way they did.

If a parent's there, they're going to be making all the decisions. Not the kid. The kid, in most cases, is going to obey, or suffer some sort of consequence for not doing so. And not only does that kill half your plots before they start, it would probably also bore all the kids who want to read about people their own age having adventures.

Favoured Girl said...

I remember reading the Famous Five series when I was a kid and wondering how the children could have had so many adventures without the adults stepping in to save the day. Now reading this post, I think that's because the adults were mostly absent or too busy to notice what the kids were up to.

On the one hand, I enjoyed reading about the five's adventures because it allowed me to dream of being a hero in my own little imagined adventures. On the other hand, I knew they were quite unrealistic because the adults in my life would never let me go off on my own for so long.

Munk said...

I'm with many of you. It is all about the freedom to make decisions without having to ask permission first (or being forced to).
"Mom, can I go look for the Sorcerer's stone and fight a two faced Quirrel in the basement of Hogwarts? Pleeeaassse, Can I, can I Pleeease?"

k10wnsta said...

In my earlier comment, I should have pointed out the flak that Hit Girl's dad caught in the film Kick Ass. His presence and support (in fact enabling) of his daughter's heroic actions in the film was enough to polarize many people against it. They felt it was grossly irresponsible.

It was grossly irresponsible, but how else could an involved parent be portrayed in such a story?

christine tripp said...

Parents (adults) always say no. To everything.
So... you have to dunk the parents, otherwise there would never be adventure, risk taking or fun.
Parents never knew a quarter of what we did as children, thank G, and AS a parent I always said, what I don't know won't hurt me (or at least won't stand up in Juvi court:)
Bambi's mother was killed on screen, he was an orphan and what worked for mega millionaire Disney is good enough for me.
It's fantasy and children know it, if the adults do not. We so underestimate kids.
We have, in the past 30 years, wrapped them in a cocoon, thinking they are weak and feeble minded. Not able to make decisions, nor take care of themselves, yet less then 100 years ago, they worked full days, sometimes into the night, to help support their families.
Just view Lewis Hine's photos, on line, of "Child Labour in America" for 08 to 12 to see what children are really capable of.
I think they can handle a little fiction!

Martin Rose said...

There's another reason why kids might like to read stories with other children that feature absent/dead parents ---

maybe they don't like you anyway.

That is, it's a guilty pleasure for a child to experience the world vicariously without parents because if not for the fact that parents gave birth to them, they wouldn't be very interested in sharing their lives with them anyway. They love parents out of necessity for survival, not by choice. Maybe they want to live with Bobby's parents down the street instead.

Mike said...

Y'know, somehow, I just kinda get this feeling that all happy families are alike, but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Maybe it's just me.

I did a serial story based very consciously on Horatio Alger, in which the father was missing. The boy carried on, helped to support his family and, at the end, we left readers with the news that the father had returned and was seeking his family. We then asked kids to write the next chapter.

I was stunned by the number of kids who, instead of expressing relief that Dad had returned, were furious with him and wanted an explanation of just where in the hell he had been. We'd tapped into something a little more "real" than we'd been hoping for.

Mind you, they loved the story. It was quite an education!

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M.A.Leslie said...

Do you think that a child that was in a fictional neutral family would be able to accomplish the things that the ones in absent parents fiction can? I don't think that it is being lazy that the writer just offs a parent or has them absent. I think that it is realistic. If your Jacob had attentive involved parents and he went off into space don't you think that the subplot to the book would be his parents in tears looking for their missing son? To do it any other way would make the story too fictional. Sorry kids out there with attentive parents, you will never learn to fly on a broom, shoot fire from your hand, or fly in space before the age of twenty. Damn those attentive parents.

Brendan said...

Very good points. It is a pretty widespread phenomenon and novels that take a different tack can be refreshing. I really enjoyed the mother/daughter relationship in WHEN YOU REACH ME, for example.

Another way to look at absent parents is that of increased stakes. If Darth Vader was just some dude in a helmet, the Star Wars trilogy would lose a lot of its emotional impact. Um...okay, bad example. As an author you want your protagonist to really be vulnerable, to be at risk and in danger, and you want their circumstances to be darkest before things begin to turn around. In addition to being a practical safety net, parents are an essential part of a young person's sense of self. Taking your protagonist's parents away--so long as it's not *just* a convenient plot device--is arguably the most dramatic way to wound them.

clp3333 said...

I think there's a sympathy for the main character too. It makes the character more real and deep to have life issues like missing or dead parents. Especially with how the family structure has shifted since even I was a child as opposed to being a teacher there are a lot more kids out there living that situation.

Jan Markley said...

Don't forget Nancy Drew! She didn't have a mother. I think it's because the child protag has to be the centre of the action and solve his/her problem without adult interference. My mystery series novels have two parents, but one is often on sabatical or less dominant in the story.

Disgruntled Bear said...

There's a line in Kate Kaynak's ADVERSARY that covers it:

"I knew if my mom understood what we planned to do, she’d try to stop us. That was what mothers did—a big chunk of their job description involved keeping their kids from doing dangerous things. Breaking into walled compounds filled with murderous fanatics and their sociopathic leader definitely fell into that category." p.178

Becca said...

In my opinion, when it comes to YA books, I think parentless characters are more interesting. It's also more realistic. Teenagers naturally stray away from their parents at this era, so why wouldn't the character?

Terin Tashi Miller said...


When I was a boy, the stories that made me think and empathize and try to understand the most were those of people surviving in the basic three themes: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Himself.
I've mentioned before one of my favorite books from the time I was 8 or 9 was "The Hound of the Baskervilles," after which I was enamored of Sherlock Holmes and had no regard for the age or experience of either he or Watson as "too old" for me.

There weren't actually "Young Adult" books at that time, unless you count "Catcher in the Rye" or "Our Town."

By high school, after Ross MacDonald's excellent "Lew Archer" series, I began reading the Nick Adams stories, and I saw in them reflections of some of my experiences growing up in Wisconsin.

I think that, unlike in many stories, many children now from elementary school on (though, perhaps less than we think) are not alone--they don't walk to school alone, they don't meet in parks alone, their lives and "play dates" and walking and transportation are all highly and strictly regulated.

My childhood was largely spent in the company of my friends, or by myself, not controlled and watched over or even that much outwardly worried over constantly by my parents.

Mary Pope Osborne has written an excellent series, that my 8-year-old loves, in which a brother and sister spend what appears to be days in a tree-house going on adventures with the help of magical books. No need to dispose of the parents. They are at the main house, the property on which sits the tree-house, where the children return, without much time having elapsed in reality at all.

Perhaps the key theme isn't so much dead or absent parents as much as escape, and learning, and self-reliance.

Of course, when I was 12, living in India, our teacher took it upon herself in English class to read The Lord of the Flies with us...a "children's book," or "young adult" novel?

Is it the characters, the subject, or the plot that makes a book "suitable" to pre-teen through teens?

It just took some explaining about what happened to James' parents, and honest reading of what his aunts were like, to have my son declare if he were James, he'd have done the exact same thing...

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Other favorites from my childhood:
"The Call of the Wild"
"White Fang"
Poems by Robert Service
"Little Sandy Sleighfoot (my mother sympathized with my big feet)"
"The Littlest Tailor"
"The Story of Ping."
"Winnie the Pooh,"
"Dr. Doolittle" (the series).

Last year, my son was interested in (because he loves trains) The Boxcar Kids series.

Another series where children are forced to survive without adults, until they find their grandfather (or he finds them, it was never that clear).

He was confused by it. He didn't get why the kids' parents weren't with them...

TLH said...

This topic depresses me, but it also gives me a lot to say. Instead of filling up your comment box, I'll just go make a post of my own about it...


Maya said...

Sales indicates that it's better to have an absent parent than a dead parent. In fact, that's her solution to the whole issue.

But what difference does it make? Either way you're trying to give the child plenty of challenges and individuality.

I just don't buy the whole "it's not realistic" argument. Yes, there are a lot of orphans in fiction. There are also a lot of vampires and heroes that save the world because they are the "chosen" ones.

We're writing about what we think is interesting. What's so great about being realistic? My husband has many fine qualities but he hasn't slayed any dragons--or orcs--lately and no one wants to read about his passion for gardening. Just sayin'.

Dominique said...

I thought this was a great post.

A beta reader once told me my book had a Mr. Kim problem (after the Mr. Kim in Gilmore Girls who is repeatedly referenced but never seen). She meant that a character obviously had a biological father, but despite many important events in her life occurring, he never got mentioned, even to explain why he wasn't there.

Some time, some day, I'm sure, a shrink will explain to me why so much of my work involves kids with one (or fewer) parents in residence. Until that day, it's nice to know I'm part of a literary tradition. (Thanks for throwing in Aladdin. Would've missed him, myself.)

LLinTexas said...


You know, Nathan, you may have just hit upon something.

I had completely normal parents until about the age of ten when they discover the joys of alcohol. That was about the time I dove into books and almost didn't come out. The search for fantasy parents like in a Wrinkle in Time soon took over and I read almost endlessly.

If I could give that gift to a child someday, that would justify all my craziness about writing.

Maybe you just save me thousands of dollars on a shrink.

Thank you.


Erin said...

Ahh very eenteresting. Two of my favorite childhood books—My Side of the Mountain and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—were full of parents. Although in the case of Mountain, the parents sort of allowed the kid to go on his own adventure.

I wonder how much criticism authors are sidestepping by getting rid of the parental figures; after all, "helicopter parenting" is en vogue these days. YA fiction featuring parents who let their kids go live in a hollow tree for a winter, or for that matter go into the unexplored lair of a weird and mysterious candymaker, doesn't seem like it would fly among the helicopter set.

annie said...

Dead parents in stories are not - probably - an issue for most kids unless they happen to actually have a dead parent. That's when it becomes problematic.

My daughter's father died when she was three. I had to really police her books, movies and tv for a while after.

Cheri Chesley said...

Call this lazy reading, but I couldn't sift through all 71 comments before me to see if this has been mentioned. I don't even know if you'll get to comment 72, but I'm doing it anyway. :)

I recently had a friend submit a book that was rejected by the agent because of the lack of parents in the MC's life. The purpose of Harry Potter having no parents, and then systematically losing all parental figures throughout the series was so, at the end, he could face the enemy alone. How exciting could the book be if Dumbledore, Sirius, Lupin and Lily and James were all at Harry's back? Sometimes the character has to be utterly on their own in order to grow and learn and experience.

Someone said at a writer's conference once that, to kids, having to step up and be the one in charge is what scares/thrills them--which is why it's such a prevalent theme in children's literature. Whereas it's not so prevalent in adult literature, since that's what we do every day. Kids fear having the ultimate say. Adults fear having that taken away.

B. A. Binns said...

I think this depends on the age range of the intended reader. Younger readers are not unhappy to see mom and dad step in to savethe day. But as they get older and begin to both crave independence and recognize the perils that come with it, well, it's like getting on a roller coaster to simulate danger. The book becomes a way for them to experience independence and retain the safety net of patrents in their day to day lives.

By coincidence I had this discussion earlier today with a crit partner whowrites Middle grade, and her protagonist's parents are alive, involved hi his life, and the kind of wonderful people any kid would love. Her hero is in a situation where just one sentence to these good people would solve all problems and end the book. Her dilemma is finding a good reason for him not to say that sentence. Yes, things would be so much easier without those pesky good parents, but sometimes authors do give it a try.

Susan L. Lipson said...

Fern had both parents in Charlotte's Web; her challenge was to keep her parents out of her barnyard business. I think that in some ways the "secret-life-kept-from-parents" theme is more exhilarating for kids (probably more so for those who do have both of their parents), because getting around the parents' watchful eyes provides a greater challenge, and requires a savvier protagonist. That said, the protagonist who has lost a parent is automatically wiser for having experienced one of life's most profound emotions and events: loss and death. Regardless of their parents' presence or absence, young protagonists must make us care about them because of how they REACT to what life deals them (rather, what we authors deal them), more so than simply what life deals them.

live, laugh, inspire said...

Your post brough to mind Marshal from the TV sitcom,'How I met your mother'. When Lily is away and Marshal wishes to have a solitary fondle and fatasy, he needs to imagine Lily is killed off first so he doesn't feel like he's cheating. By doing this he gives himself free reign to fatasize about the wildest romps possible. Strange coomparison I know, but it's kind of the same(and besides its fun to be cheeky). The kid is freer to have wild adventures if the parents are killed off first and then there is no need for the child to feel the need to obey, or feel the guilt of breaking the rules of childhood'.

elizajane said...

I think that your analysis is spot on. The alternative to absent parents is conflict with parents, which is a more post-1960s, angsty kind of book. Before the 1960s, all good parents were dead or far, far away. Think A Little Princess. Think boarding-school books. Think Ballet Shoes. There were very good reasons for this, as you have pointed out: with parents absent, kids can have adventures, or are forced to grow up, or both.

For an annotated list of my 25 favorite "orphan" children's books see my list on Amazon: I can't post a link here apparently, but the list is called "Imaginary Orphans." I also have a 16-page-long annotated bibliography of children's & YA books starring orphans, from the 19th century up to about 2004, should anybody here want such a thing. I was a bit obsessed with orphans for a while.... (I adopted a bunch of them!) Anybody who's actually interested can find me via librarything -- I'm "annamorphic" there.

Liz said...

It's not easy to have parents in the stories when every "Writing for Children" course at Uni or elsewhere tells us not to have them around because: the children must solve the problems on their own.

Jane said...

Nathan, I think you are spot on (and I'm almost a psychologist). However, I also want to point out the realism of non-existent parents. I happen to have grown up in a very stable household with two wonderful parents (plus or minus seven siblings, but that's not the point). When I think back on my teenage years, I almost never think of anything related to my parents. For me, my teenage years were about discovering myself and my freedom--literally. I was actually spending much more time away from my house and my family, hardly spending quality time at home. My parents often joked about the fact that as soon as me and my siblings reached high school, they never saw us any more. We treated our house as "home base" to come back to in between the rest of the activities that encompassed our lives. It was a place to eat, sleep, and gain other necessities, but not a place we spent much time.

So, for me, my parents weren't dead and I didn't live in a broken home, but my parents were nearly as non-existent as the parents in many of these stories. Even for teenagers who did spend a lot of time at home, that emotional distance which is often present can easily be related to the characters.

Karen Peterson said...

In addition to giving children the freedom to have grand adventures, dead parents lend young protagonists a certain, and arguably necessary, degree of tragedy. We love to root for the underdog. And who's more of an underdog than a kid who's alone in the world?

Ishta Mercurio said...

I agree.

When I was in college, I learned that good theatre is about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and I think the same can be said for literature. Normal and stable is not very interesting, and it doesn`t really give us anything new. It`s the other stuff, the extraordinary things like having your parents get run over by a rhinoceros, that are worth writing and reading about.

Also: there is something very empowering to a child in reading about kids their age who figure out how to make it on their own.

Sylvia Allen Fisher said...

I don't think I ever really registered the absence of the parents when I read as a kid. As others have mentioned, it was just something I took at face value and then plowed into the story.

I think what every kid can relate to about the missing parent scenario is the feeling of loneliness, and I loved reading about kids overcoming that. I was shy (shocker!), and to me it was all about the friendships that came about as a result of the adventures. I remember wanting a sidekick SO BAD. So when I read BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, it tore my heart out.

Also, the absent parent might be less about laziness and more about writers using their art to re-imagine a situation they had no control over at the time.

Anonymous said...

It's funny how I was reading this article in the Daily Mail recently and it talks about the absence of parents in most Disney films and TV shows. PURE EVIL:

(PS: word verification ECULTH)

Sheila Cull said...

"Go ahead and cut this mom and dad. Script doesn't need them."

Aren't we forutnate? As writers we can create any scene, for any reason.

lora96 said...

Ballet Shoes (orphans). Anne of Green Gables (orphans). Boxcar Children Series (orphans). Turn Homeward, Hannalee (separated from parents by war). Maniac Magee (orphan). Holes (separated from parents by incarceration).

I submit these to the list o' parentless excellence. Sometimes the lack of parental presence serves to deepen the emotion of the story and raise the survival stakes.

Plus, I have always loved the James and the Giant Peach line about the rhino--what a dreadful end for two such gentle parents.

ICE CB said...

I read part of the article in PW that you referred to. I think (and I could be wrong) the author of that article meant that there are too many similarities in the stories she has been reading. The list you mentioned includes animals (The Lion King,) a young boy (Tom Sawyer,) and a story with a little bit of everything (The Wizard of Oz.)
I wrote an animal story where I remove the parents as well; however, I never really thought about it. It just flowed that way. I wonder if my subconscious has been influenced by all my reading. I just graduated with Honors in English!

J. Keller Ford said...

Great blog!

It never bothered me to not have parents around in the stories; however, I have taken a different approach with my own story. My protagonist is actually searching for his. He'd been told all his life they were dead and then he finds out after fifteen years it was all a lie. Now he has to come to terms with why those close to him, even his own parents, lied to him 'for his own good'. Through his fantastical journey, he learns the meaning of true sacrifice in order to achieve one's goals and to protect those we love. I think this is a concept kids, even teens and some adults, have difficulty wrapping their minds around. it is also a different perspective in that a teen is trying to find his parents, not run away from them.

ilyakogan said...

In my book main character's mom is with her for about a quarter of the book and her dad is for another quarter... I don't think it took away from the book at all.

Lorenda said...

Hmm, never thought of it before but you're right. I was wracking by brain to think of a children's book with two "good" parents, and the only one I came up with was The Giver.

Which is kind of funny considering the whole point of that book is that societal perfection isn't perfect.

Nathan Bransford said...

By the way, I just wanted to register that Sales' article (which I hope everyone clicked through to read because it's funny and clever) is more saying that it's not strictly necessary to kill the parents off even if they're not present in the book. I took the blog post a step further, but I hope people don't think that the linked article is advocating parents present in every book, because that's not what she was saying.

Laura Maylene said...

While I recognize that there are many examples of powerful stories told about orphans/young heroes with dead parents, I also agree with Sales that it can be a co-out. Especially in the hands of a less-than-masterful writer. Making a kid an orphan is a quick and easy way to define the character as someone who has suffered (and is overcoming) a huge loss early on. In some cases, I'd equate it to the writer taking an emotional shortcut.

On the other hand, as Cheri pointed out, the reason the orphan trend was and is so huge is because it feeds on one of the greatest fears a lot of kids have, which of course draws them in.

Liz Fichera said...

I'll take absent parents over the clueless ones that I see written all too often in young adult literature.

Mr. G said...

I have been thinking about this a lot recently and specifically remember that it was on my mind while reading The Hunger Games. The tradition is as old as people have been telling stories. I would rather have missing parents than stupid parents rendered in literature, but wouldn't more kids lit with richly rendered, present parents be great?

Children protagonists can have adventures - even with parents. There is nothing so adventurous as the imagination in the back yard or neighborhood.

vnrieker said...

When I started writing my book, I didn't even realize WHY I was killing off or leaving out parents. It hit me what a phenomenon the dead-parent thing was, and whether or not I was doing it because I was used to reading it, or if it was pertinent to my story. I even thought about changing it. I didnt. It just didn't work for me--or my character.
Which is why I was afraid this post was gonna be "DEAD PARENTS ARE OUT--PRESENT PARENTS ARE IN", which woulda started my doubting wheels to spin again. I'm glad it's not, but it still makes me think about what I can do next time.

Great, thought-provoking post!

Lydia Sharp said...

it's easier to write a book if you don't have to figure out the main character's relationship with their parents.

Death ends a life, not a relationship.

Just because a child's parent is dead doesn't mean that parent is "out of the picture" and most certainly doesn't mean the dead parent isn't thought of when the child has an important choice to make, or when making goals for their future. It affects you more than if the parent were alive. The living parent is not necessarily viewed as wrong, either, but it's easier to argue with someone who is enforcing rules, aka someone who isn't buried. Often, the living parent is blamed for the other parent's death, which causes even more friction.

My husband lost his dad to suicide when he was only 12. Everything he then did as a teen was to either a) prove his dad wrong--life *is* worth living, or b) prove to the world that his dad's death could have been prevented. He was still a teenager, though, and still had to answer to his mother. Arguments were plentiful yet there was an underlying loyalty--"I'm not going to leave you too, Mom, so don't worry."

It's not lazy writing and it's not always about the kids wanting to be on their own. It's a real situation. MOST KIDS WHO HAVE A DEAD PARENT WOULD RATHER THEY DIDN'T. If we ignored this in our fiction then we'd be doing a great disservice to those kids who are in that situation through no fault of their own.

Lydia, author of teen lit that sometimes includes dead parents.

abc said...

Long live dead parents! Wait...

Daniel Smith said...

You very eloquently stated your case and I enjoyed reading it. My own WIP features the loss of a father too.

However, I think it can be simpler than that. Humans, child and adult alike, crave conflict in their stories. Having both parents is common, mundane and therefore boring. There are few sources of conflict closer to a child and with as much of an emotional punch as being without a parent or parents.

Stated even simpler, it's interesting to children.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this blog post Nathan! I read books to my nephews regularly and I've noticed the absent/horrible death fate of parents in stories. I've wondered about this and your theories make sense. The type of stories where children are somewhat on their own thrill the imaginations of young readers, firing them up with a spirit of excitement and danger (the idea of being without a primary caretaker). Perhaps they encourage a sense of independence in the young reader by planting the seed that they too can face peril, make choices, and emerge victorious in the end?

Parents, in real life, tend to have a bigger job in raising children other than embarking on a series of adventures with them. The adventurous kids can't save the world/travel in a peach/live with dwarves AND brush their teeth before bed, finish their homework, or consider their options for college. Where's the fun in that?

I just read my nephews The Golden Compass and both parents are alive but they are also dark, villainous, kidnapped, and shady. Neither of them reminds the little protaganist that she has a math test tomorrow.

Alice said...

How can a kid have an adventure if the parent is telling them, you can't cross the street, don't jump off the roof, don't slide down the bannister. Ha. Too funny.

I myself didn't have my dad growing up. Just me, my brother, and my mom. He was killed in an auto accident before I turned 2. I don't remember him. And really it's kind of nice to only have one parent to ask to do something. Go ask your dad or mom can get to be obnoxious. As I noticed it with my friends parents.

To each his own. Families are diverse and wonderful.

Sierra McConnell said...

I remember reading something about how it forces the child to have to take on that role themselves. That the lack of the male or female parental figure, causes them to become that part of the family.

Boy hero? Lacks a father. They're the head of the family or the strength. They learned to be tough because of it.

Girl heroine? Lacks a mother. They're the tough yet sensible and loving matriarch of the family. She's the one who makes sure her siblings are in bed and her homework is done, that the father is fed or (in some cases) the abuse is taken all by her.

At least, that's how it was in the classically wonderful books. Now they've gone soft...

My main characters...Carmine has a stepdad and a mother. His father was a monster of a man and he's dead now. She's...detached...because she's afraid she'll have to kill him. Stephen's more than helpful, and goes with him on his quests.

Mikael...has a mother, but lost his father in a plague. So I guess that I followed the 'became the head of the family' thing there. He's tough, but he's loving. And then he goes on his quest.

ryan field said...

I enjoyed this post a lot. And mostly because I know absolutely nothing about children's literature...or children for that matter.

Laura Pauling said...

Some of my favorite books have dead parents or one dead parent. It creates an emotion in the mc that immediately draws my sympathy. With any overdone element, it's really about the writing, not whether the parents are dead or alive.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

To be honest, I'd like to see the author of a YA book challenge herself or himself by writing decent parents for the hero or heroine. Not dead parents. Dead parents is the classic Disney-esque plot device. Even C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has absent parents.
Yeah, it's magical for a teen to imagine being off on one's own, but as a parent, I take umbrage...umbrage I say!
On the other hand, it is a way to set up inner conflict and pain for your protagonist so...what the hay!

lhowell said...

Dear Mr. Bransford:

This is a tough one. I agree children need their own adventures without
their parents, but I believe books can be written where the parents are
there, but minimal and still have a well-written book that will keep the
children's interest.

My children's book "An Adventure with Joshua and Hoppy Frog" available
through, teaches children self-worth. As you know frogs are
not the cutest little creatures, but Joshua and Hoppy Frog learn that
beauty is all in the eyes of the beholder. Grammy (Joshua's grandmother)
teaches this graciously and beautifully in the story to Joshua and Hoppy
Frog. Grammy kisses the frog on his nose, he blushes. Joshua and Hoppy
Frog become best friends.

At one of my booksignings, a teacher from Canada purchased my book and
later called to tell me how my children's book affected an autistic
student. She gave me the greatest compliment, she said for the first time
this student sat through a book calmly and was intrigued. Interesting,
she expressed that this student liked Grammy.

I am currently finishing the final touches to my second children's book,
"An Adventure with Josuah and Rocky the Otter" this book teaches courage.
And Joshua's parents are in this book.

I look forward to reading your book.


Timothy Power said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine said...

I think that the abundance of dead parents is very similar to what we are seeing now with the abundance of dystopian novels for teens.

If your world has no over-riding parental force, you have the ability to make decisions for yourself and make changes to your life.

Similarly, when the bureaucracy & laid-out life plans that kids today see themselves buried under are completely destroyed, teens become able to change their society as a whole.

Post-apocalypse is to society what a dead parent is to a family.

(And my two favorite examples of authors who deal amazingly well with parental relationships are Dana Reinhardt in all her books and E Lockhart in her Ruby Oliver series.)

Ninja Of The Mundane said...

I think the people who point out that a dead parent (or parents) gives a child protagonist an immediate sympathy are missing what's obvious in their words — it's an UNEARNED sympathy. Characters should earn our sympathy through their deeds or the development of their character, not through contrived circumstance. In that, Leila Sales is absolutely right — it's a cop-out.

The children's and YA books I loved best had children who persevered in spite of the presence of their clueless-at-best, antagonistic-at-worst parents — it gave the conflicts not only an element of realism but of rich complexity. I understand that crafting these complex conflicts it's not easy, but writing quality fiction isn't, either. It's not right to reward shortcuts around that.

The problem of unearned sympathy is actually far worse in adult suspense/thriller novels. Think of all the "supermarket suspense" novelists out there — Tami Hoag, Sandra Brown, Alison Brennan, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Gardner, Lisa Jackson, Rick Mofina, Kevin O'Brien, etc. Every single one imbues the protagonist with a built-in tragedy. Either the hero or heroine saw her parents/siblings/children/best friend killed, or was the lone survivor of a torture-rape serial killer, or is dealing with cancer, or some such contrivance. In every case, the sympathy is unearned, just assumed. And worse, that assumed sympathy gives the protagonist an unfettered license to behave irritably, petulantly and anti-socially because their victimization, I guess, gives them the right to run roughshod over everyone. By virtue of their tragedy, they've earned the moral high ground wherever they are.

I find this unbelievably cheap. Because what have such characters really earned from us as readers? Nothing, as far as I can see. Same with kids. Kids aren't likable because they're tragic. They're likable for what they do and likable because what they do makes them what they are — brave, strong, forthright, perseverant etc.

I agree with Sales' overall point, and I appreciate Nathan clarifying that: That you don't have to get rid of the parents. But how the parents were gotten rid of has to fit naturally into the story and fuel the growth of character within the character as its own living subtext. Just saying: "This kids parent's were tragically killed, therefore you must love him or her and excuse everything he or she does" just doesn't cut it. THAT is lazy writing.

Jim Thomsen said...

I think the people who point out that a dead parent (or parents) gives a child protagonist an immediate sympathy are missing what's obvious in their words — it's an UNEARNED sympathy. Characters should earn our sympathy through their deeds or the development of their character, not through contrived circumstance. In that, Leila Sales is absolutely right — it's a cop-out.

The children's and YA books I loved best had children who persevered in spite of the presence of their clueless-at-best, antagonistic-at-worst parents — it gave the conflicts not only an element of realism but of rich complexity. I understand that crafting these complex conflicts it's not easy, but writing quality fiction isn't, either. It's not right to reward shortcuts around that.

The problem of unearned sympathy is actually far worse in adult suspense/thriller novels. Think of all the "supermarket suspense" novelists out there — Tami Hoag, Sandra Brown, Alison Brennan, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Gardner, Lisa Jackson, Rick Mofina, Kevin O'Brien, etc. Every single one imbues the protagonist with a built-in tragedy. Either the hero or heroine saw her parents/siblings/children/best friend killed, or was the lone survivor of a torture-rape serial killer, or is dealing with cancer, or some such contrivance. In every case, the sympathy is unearned, just assumed. And worse, that assumed sympathy gives the protagonist an unfettered license to behave irritably, petulantly and anti-socially because their victimization, I guess, gives them the right to run roughshod over everyone. By virtue of their tragedy, they've earned the moral high ground wherever they are.

I find this unbelievably cheap. Because what have such characters really earned from us as readers? Nothing, as far as I can see. Same with kids. Kids aren't likable because they're tragic. They're likable for what they do and likable because what they do makes them what they are — brave, strong, forthright, perseverant etc.

Jim Thomsen said...

I agree with Sales' overall point, and I appreciate Nathan clarifying that: That you don't have to get rid of the parents. But how the parents were gotten rid of has to fit naturally into the story and fuel the growth of character within the character as its own living subtext. Just saying: "This kids parent's were tragically killed, therefore you must love him and excuse everything he or she does" just doesn't cut it. THAT is lazy writing.

emily said...

And don't forget the lovely "max and ruby" series, (books and tv show). Watching two young bunnies that can't be more than 9 and 3 live alone and do mundane things like, take the bus across town by themselves, or, cook on the gas stove, is always fun. hehe

Steph Sinkhorn said...

I admittedly got a little eye-twitchy over some of the implications lately that having dead/absent parents is "lazy writing" because the author doesn't have to develop a parent/child relationship. I feel like it implies that the only reason writers choose to give parents the axe is because we just don't wanna write in another character.

To which I say bullocks. That attitude completely ignores 1.) the nuances of the psychological break of kids moving away from their parents and doing things on their own, and 2.) the fact that every kid DOESN'T grow up in a traditional two-parent household. I didn't. So, what, I'm supposed to always include a healthy nuclear family or else I'm being lazy? Please.

I absolutely agree that it's important and valuable to have fiction that shows all the nuances of parent-child relationships, including the good and healthy ones. But there are real, valid reasons for an author to choose absent parents as part of their narrative.

Anonymous said...

Here's a little trick you can play if you've omitted the parents:

If you pick your spot (usually nearer to the end of the story) then you can bring the parents in, temporarily, and for some reason, I have no idea why, it will often be a magical moment.

Remember that scene in Catcher In The Rye when Holden was in Phoebe's bedroom, and suddenly she jumped up in bed from having heard the parents coming in. Temporarily, the parents were in the story - it was a fleeting moment (and note how it happened near the end of the story), but that scene was charged with electricity. What made that scene particularly engaging, I think, was that Salinger kept the parents on the periphery - we never actually saw them.

It can be a very powerful trick to play - you avoid having to deal with the whole parent/child relationship nonsense, while simultaneously putting the kid back in his place: doing this serves to remind the reader that the 'adventure' is only temporary, and that normalcy will have to return.

Even something as simple as a phone call home can temporarily shatter the bubble in which you've placed your kid.

But inevitably, I think it's really just about getting away from the parents - why? - because they can drive you crazy.

Laurie at mizwrite said...

Plus, kids don't want to read about parents! Parents are boring characters in a YA book. Kids want to read about interesting KIDS, doing cool, save-the-day kinds of things.

Even Charles Schultz made all adults (teachers/parents) monotone and/or invisible!

J. T. Shea said...

If Mr. Wonderbar Snr had been living at home with young Jacob, the kid might have got a healthy sensible upbringing, never been tempted to trade a nutritious food item for a dodgy spaceship he had no qualifications to drive, and there would be no Cosmic Space Kapow.


You parents were only RELATIVELY normal, Nathan? Relative to whom? Why am I getting visions of a rhino rampaging through rice paddies?

BTW, I'm a former twelve-year-old too. What a coincidence!

Maine Character, in TREASURE ISLAND Jim Hawkins does not really have to rely on himself and no one else. He joins a crew of treasure hunters and must at times rely on them, ill-assorted though they are. At other times they must rely on him. Some of them, at least, become a sort of second family to him. Jim is also the only teenage character in the novel.

The teenage protagonist of my YA series has two parents, both alive and well, and well balanced. They even embark (literally) on an expedition with him, along with a kid brother. Then things get complicated...

DeannaC said...

I think having one, or both, parents absent makes the reader feel sympathy for the child. How can you not fall in love with an orphan? It just makes it easier to feel for the character.

Also giving the divorce rate these days a majority of people can relate to growing up without one or both parents.

Julie said...

I'm late to this post because I don't check you daily, Nathan. But I did once write a long essay (over twenty pages) on fairy tales using the Jung collective unconscious theories.

Most of the time the lack of a (good) parent is about the child's desire to be in charge and therefore, rejection of the need of a parent. But, they also are not completely ready to be on their own, especially in the beginning. So they have an idolized parental figure: the fairy godmother in Cinderella, Obi-wan in Star Wars, the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, etc. These idolized parental figures often give the MC something needed in order to ultimately face the shadow (bad guy) and ability to make the final decision/act that makes the MC triumphant.

Ironically, at this point, the wiser and more independent MC sometimes returns to the parent they rejected before. I'm thinking of the movie Pleasantville here (one of my personal favorites).

Lindsay B said...

I've critted some MG stories where the parents are around, and it's just hard for the young hero to come across as a protagonist when parents are around to keep him/her in line. Most moms and dads don't want their twelve year olds driving the action in some great escapade. :P

Wendy said...

Nathan, you've said most of what I would have argued in the first place. To add to these arguments, the reality is that there are many, many children living in households without a parent. So not only is it about coming to the cusp of adulthood, it *is* also about living without a two-parent household. And, really, if we think about it, throughout history, how many mothers died in childbirth, fathers went to war, etc., etc. When I think about it, isn't the two parent household an atypical phenomena?

Kimberly Kinrade said...

As a single mom of three very young girls,I would never let my children run off to these kinds of adventures on their own. Writing around a parent who is actively involved in the lives of their children is difficult if the children are meant to stretch their wings.

It's the children's version of a call to action. The loss of the mentor or guide. Killing Buddha, if you will. It's very archetypal, just disconcerting when considering the larger ramifications of those literary choices. Still, at any age, a hero or heroine cannot fully embrace their adventure under the wings of a loving and ever-present parent.

The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne does a good job of mitigating this, by giving the children solid parental influences while allowing them the reasonable pleasure of playing in their backyard woods. The "magic" of their adventures resolves any time issues very Narnia like experience, so they are never really gone for a period of time that would be deemed suspicious by said parents. And usually they have hot chocolate waiting for them when they return home. It's a good compromise and my children enjoy these books a great deal.

Lum said...

It seems a little perverse to me, too, but I also write about orphans, and I adore reading books about orphans. Kids in jeopardy, or depending upon themselves, automatically give the reader something to root for.

And after all, we're only killing fictional people who never existed in the first place. In the scheme of things, including the scheme of children's literature, it's probably not the worst thing. :)

~Alice M. Roelke~ The Space Station Murders, May 2011
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Lanette Kauten said...

While my MC was adopted, during the entire book, both her adopted and her natural parents are very much alive, but they have the good sense to not get in the way too often. A teenage satyr still has to make her own way in the human world.

NancyF said...

Both of my parents died when I was 7 years old so, as a kid, reading about orphans who accomplished great things or took part in amazing adventures offered me a lot of hope. Now, as a writer, I almost always create protagonists who are parent-less, whether they're children or adult characters. It's not out of laziness but because I "write what I know." Creating a character who has been shaped by the complexities of losing their parents comes naturally to me because that's who I am.

Besides, I'm totally convinced that you have to be an orphan to do great things in life. Just ask Spiderman or Batman or Anne Shirley...

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