To Parent or Not

It’s one of the most common topic of discussion for YA and MG fantasy – what to do about the parents?

The orphaned hero is become so cliched that people do tend to roll their eyes automatically when they see it, but writers seem to be left with little choice – either create some elaborate scheme to have the parents out of the picture, or just kill them off, because if the parents are around, much of the tension for the young protagonist is removed.

Oddly enough, I’m not a huge fan of that whole “remove the parents” idea, though. I know that it’s mostly because I am a parent now. But it’s also because while it makes it trickier for the protagonist to be the one driving the story, it also adds another level of tension – how does one go about having magical adventures when one’s mother is right there reminding one to keep safe and be smart? And what does a mother (or father) do when adventure finds one’s child – go with the natural instinct to protect one’s kid, or stay in the background and allow the kid to learn through experience?

These are the sorts of themes I really do enjoy seeing played out in books.

DSC_0009Edward Eager and E. Nesbit both handle parental presence well in their books. Usually, the parents are completely unaware of magic, and that unawareness becomes in itself another obstacle – the mother in Half Magic thinks she’s going mad because of all the magic she’s witnessing; Anthea has to go to extreme measures to hide from her mother that the magic carpet took the baby away in The Phoenix and the Carpet; Granny gets her hands on the magic book in Seven-Day Magic and leads the children on a madcap adventure they can’t escape until they get the book back, because she thinks she’s just dreaming … and so on and so forth. My favorite Eager parents, though, are Martha and Katharine, both of whom had magical adventures when they were children, and aren’t afraid to set their children straight when it comes to magic. And in The Time Garden, when the children travel back in time and end up in one of their parents’ magical adventures, and have to rescue them, it gets thoroughly delightful (side note: I wonder at what point in time did Martha, Katharine, Jane and Mark look at each other and realize, “OH! Those strange children from our desert island adventure that time – those were OUR KIDS”?) and mayhem-y.

I read a duology recently where the daughter was kidnapped to a magical realm to help free her father from a spell there, and the mother went back voluntarily to rescue the daughter. I thought the concept was fabulous, except in execution, the mother spent most of her time as a prisoner in the palace, dithering about what was best to do, while the daughter escaped her kidnappers and had wild piratical adventures while on her way to rescue her father. It was a bit of a disappointment, because I really, really wanted to see a YA book that had an equally strong mother and daughter – in the same place but separated, both having awesome adventures.

I guess maybe someday I’ll just have to write that story myself.

What are some good example you can think of for parental inclusion in YA or MG adventures? Do you prefer to read stories where the children have to work with or around the parents, or where the parents just aren’t there at all? Would you want to read a story that features both kids AND adults being awesome?

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8 thoughts on “To Parent or Not

  1. I don't mind the parents being there or not–though I'm tired of "dead parents." It just seems like an easy out to me. In my YA novel, I kept the parents, but left them "out of the loop." So they were ignorant, and it gave the MC yet another difficulty and another level of tension–keeping everything from his parents.

  2. Though Diana Wynne Jones does have a few orphans, she's the first example I think of of parents that are fully present in stories, too– mostly because EVERY one of her characters is so thoroughly developed, and the parents all have their own problems and arcs and colorful quirks to make them interesting (and also not likely to jump in and solve every problem). She also has a lot of abysmal parents –they're not dead, they're just useless or occasionally the antagonist.I've been toying with the idea of a rather DWJish Active Sympathetic Dad character who is kind of a co-protagonist with his main-protag teenage daughter…Of course, the nice thing about YA is, you make one character able to drive, you have a lot more leeway for nonparental adventures.

  3. I agree, Connie – leave them out of the picture if you need it for the story, but no more cheating by killing off the parents (unless, of course, you really truly NEED the protag to be an orphan to drive the story – that's a different matter altogether).

  4. I was thinking about DWJ after I wrote this, actually. Certainly Dark Lord of Derkholm is the most recent of hers that I've read that gives the parent as much of a role as the kids, and is in fact the one thing tying everything else together. Chrestomanci, too, and Milly, fit in very nicely to the children's tales without interfering or acting as too much of a deus ex machina, while at the same time not being useless. I think my favorite parental inclusion of hers, though, has to be Fanny, the not-so-evil stepmother of Howl's Moving Castle. She's a very minor role, but so different in the end than how we see her at the beginning, and I love that.

  5. And there's J.M.Barrie, whose characters suffer amnesia once they reach adulthood and forget that Neverland ever existed (the Peter Pan book ends with Wendy's daughter going off with Peter, and Wendy as an adult sort of scratching her head, having this vague memory of having experienced something like it as a child.). Please do write that story of the strong mother-daughter- I want to read it!

  6. I always hated the end of Peter Pan – most especially the implication that becoming an adult automatically means you lose your ticket to Fairyland. Grown-ups need fairies, too! Maybe even more than kids, honestly. Kids can make their own Fairyland; we need all the pixie dust we can get.

  7. I always think of the A Wrinkle in Time series…where the parents are either in peril or else seem to be kind of scarily unaware of what's going on with the kids. Like, hey, mom, I just got back from BIBLICAL TIMES and almost got trapped in the flood! What's for dinner? L'Engle's Austins series isn't that way, the parents are always present (but it isn't scifi, either). This is a really interesting question…I guess the kids wouldn't be off having these adventures if they had totally involved parents, because the parents would do everything they could to prevent it, wouldn't they?

  8. Mrs Murry, honestly, kind of bugs me as a parent. Her airy way of telling Meg, "yes, life is miserable for you right now, but you just need to live through it and you'll be fine" drives me nuts. I adore the Austin parents, though – they blend parenting and letting their kids grow up almost perfectly. I could see Mrs Austin letting her kids have fantastical adventures and then helping them deal with the aftermath (sort of like the Professor helping the Pevensies in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, after they returned from Narnia).It is a fairly complex paradox, though!

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