Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality
Sat Jul 28 2012

On parents in young people’s literature

This past Thursday marked the first ever #NALitChat – a weekly Twitter discussion about New Adult literature (modeled after the popular #YALitChat on Wed nights). Moderators led us through a 5-question agenda — what is NA, who writes it, who publishes it, etc. — and a thoughtful, lively conversation ensued. I’m looking forward to more in the future.

In this post, I want to pull out one thread that is of particular interest to me:

I asked this in response to someone’s comment that parents could be absent in NA lit without it being as weird as in YA lit. But really, is it less weird? Do parents suddenly evaporate when we turn 18? Or, don’t most of us have to learn how to become more independent while also negotiating the shifting dynamics of our family relationships?

(To clarify: I’m not saying that all books should include 2 great parents. That wouldn’t represent the variety of family situations we see in real life.)

Obviously I’m in favor of including parents when possible. Or at least parental figures. Or at least involved adults in some positive capacity? (The standards just keep getting lower and lower…)

I think too many writers “kill off” parents because it has become the norm, and because it’s easier than trying to represent those complex relationships. But talk about a bad message to send. I mean, critics go nuts about whether there’s too much sex and violence in literature for young people. But what about the idea that life would be better/easier/happier/more exciting without parents? That you don’t need your parents? That they’re inept, or trying to control you, or trying to prevent you from having fun or reaching your goals?


Bottom line?

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15 Comments
  1. Bill Cameron says:
    Sat Jul 28 2012 at 5:59 PM

    I saw your tweet discussion and followed with interest. An important consideration may be the fact that positive adult figures, parents and others, are tragically under-represented in real life. A lot of adults confuse being arbitrary and authoritarian with being good parents or goid influences on children. In addition, kids who do have good, positive adults in their lives are less likely to find themselves in situations which would be the stuff of interesting stories. I don’t mean to say a kid with good parents always has a good life, but there are simply more opportunities for conflict in situations where the adults suck. Which far too many do.

  2. Ben says:
    Sat Jul 28 2012 at 6:33 PM

    Wish I’d been awake for this conversation. It’s good stuff! I’ve always wondered why parents and adults were frequently absent in MG and YA literature. I’ve more than once referred to the genres as “the orphan kid genre” since nobody ever seems to have parents–and I’d wager that a significant percentage are explicitly referred to as orphans in their various tales.

    There *are* some great orphan stories, so I’m not going to knock that approach, but I would love to see more stories where parents had a role to play other than “evil obstacle to achieving the MC’s goals.”

    Thanks for all the great references you guys provided in this long tweet chat. I’ll have to dig into some of these as I slog forward on the new draft–an MG tale with a very present parent.

  3. Trisha says:
    Sat Jul 28 2012 at 9:11 PM

    Disney stories always killed off the moms.

  4. Anthony Lee Collins says:
    Sat Jul 28 2012 at 9:26 PM

    I think this is two separate (though related) questions.

    One is the presence vs. absence of parents (or parental figures) In most cases this is a question of realism, since (like it or not) parents are a major factor in the lives of most young adults. The only teenagers I’ve known, for example, who operated largely without parental supervision (or even presence) were rich.

    But the question of “involved adults in some positive capacity?” is a different issue. As Bill points out, many parents are lousy. In some cases not without reason, but parents in books should run the full range they run in real live, from spectacular to horrible. That’s life.

    More to say about this, but I think that’s going to be a blog post.

  5. Shari says:
    Sun Jul 29 2012 at 7:05 AM

    Such a good point – and one I agree with you on completely. I suppose I’m a bit biased since my recent manuscripts have specifically explored the relationships between parents (especially mothers) and children, but that aside, I think it really strengthens a story to have adults (parents or not) present. Does every family have a traditional dynamic with a mother and father consistently there? No. Should every book? No. But it certainly makes up a significant part of the population, and so what’s wrong with exploring that in novels? It can make for a fascinating read!

  6. Sonje says:
    Sun Jul 29 2012 at 6:00 PM

    As you know, a mother character is a major character in the series I’ve most recently worked on, but that series was not NA. But from my own experience of being a “new adult,” as I remember that time, pushing away/distancing myself from my mother (my father has always been largely absent from my life) was a major component. It was really my first opportunity to do things on my own without being accountable to her at all (since at last I didn’t live with her and didn’t need her to support me financially). I wanted to live my life without her as much as possible, so it makes sense to me that this would be a common theme in NA–and in my opinion, it is much more fitting/realistic to tell a story with minimal parent involvement in NA than in MG or YA where children are still dependent on parents.

  7. Anthony Lee Collins says:
    Mon Jul 30 2012 at 9:30 AM

    FYI, I just posted the longer comment I mentioned above.

  8. Meghan Ward says:
    Mon Jul 30 2012 at 11:58 AM

    As a parent, I’m so happy to read that there are 20-somethings out there who want their parents to be a part of their lives, who aren’t focused solely on escaping them like I was at that age. When You Reach Me sounds great, and I hope that strong parents with independent goals continue to play large roles in YA and NA books.

  9. Kristan says:
    Mon Jul 30 2012 at 8:47 PM

    Bill-
    I hope this doesn’t come across as argumentative/contrary, but I’d be genuinely curious to see number validating “tragically under-represented.” I suppose that would be hard, since “sucking” is a subjective opinion, but without evidence, I have a hard time buying that a majority (as in, over 50%) of adults are negatively impacting young people.

    “In addition, kids who do have good, positive adults in their lives are less likely to find themselves in situations which would be the stuff of interesting stories.”

    Now that’s a thought I’ve had myself on occasion. And it may be true. But I think it’s also true that almost any story can be interesting when told right. ;)

    (Also, to re-clarify: I am not trying to say that there can’t be books with “bad” adults. Absolutely there can! But right now it’s just so hard to find books with “good” ones.)

    Ben-
    Wish you’d been there too! And yeah, ditto to your remarks.

    Trisha-
    Heh, someone on Twitter brought that up too, and it’s so true. And I cry EVERY TIME. Bambi, Tarzan, Up… (Well, in Up it wasn’t the mom, but it was a mom figure.)

    Anthony-
    Good point on there being 2 distinct (but related) topics here. And funny that you mention rich kids as being the exception to involved parents, because I see it poor families too (where parents are stretched thin with their own jobs and problems). So it’s sort of the two extremes. But I think most people are in the middle…?

    I enjoyed your post, esp the Anna Karenina quote. (So true!)

    Sonje-
    “I wanted to live my life without her as much as possible, so it makes sense to me that this would be a common theme in NA…”

    Yes, agreed, but just because you wanted that doesn’t mean it just instantly and easily happened, does it? (And even if in your case it did, I would argue that that’s not how things commonly go.) There’s often a period of adjustment, for both parents and kids, in that post-18 time in regards to how the relationship should work now that everyone involved is (technically speaking) an adult.

    “…and in my opinion, it is much more fitting/realistic to tell a story with minimal parent involvement in NA than in MG or YA where children are still dependent on parents.”

    Absolutely it makes more sense in NA than in MG or YA. I don’t dispute that at all.

  10. linda says:
    Mon Jul 30 2012 at 9:52 PM

    Thanks for sharing the great discussion! Parent-and-child scenes always make me cry in kid movies, too, even in cases when I thought the movie was dumb. I cried when Rapunzel met her parents, when that mom in Mars Needs Moms gave her helmet to her son (and I didn’t even start watching the movie until 5 minutes before that scene), when Manny the Mammoth got separated from his daughter Peaches in Ice Age 4… I am such a sucker for those moments.

  11. Kristan says:
    Mon Jul 30 2012 at 9:53 PM

    OMFG don’t even get me started on Tangled, lol. I cry so hard during those last 5-10 min. And I’ve seen the movie a dozen times…

  12. Anthony Lee Collins says:
    Tue Jul 31 2012 at 7:06 AM

    Good point. Yes, I think that the extremes (poor and rich) are where the relationship can be more distant. This is all very general, of course, and I’m sure there are many exceptions.

    In terms of Sonje’s point, I think that if you’re pushing yourself away/distancing yourself from your parent(s) (which happens with almost everybody, in one form or another), your parent(s) are still a major factor in your life — in your thinking if not in your immediate vicinity. If I define myself by the ways in which I’m different from my father (for example), then I am still defining myself in relation to my father. The relationship is stil as important, it just involves less contact. Most people move on from that stage, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

    My recent stories have focused a lot on parenting, by the way (including really good parenting, with a very strong and positive parent-child relationship — with adopted parents). My most recent story, Stevie One, ended up having a major theme of difficult parent-child relationships, and I think the next one may go even further in that direction.

  13. Jon says:
    Tue Jul 31 2012 at 12:10 PM

    Huh, I never really thought about this, but now I will. Follow up: Why are there never any moms in Disney movies? Are we afraid of strong parents?

  14. Kristan says:
    Tue Jul 31 2012 at 12:13 PM

    Anthony-
    Re: your response to Sonje-
    YES. Exactly. And there’s almost no avoiding that. We define ourselves in part in relation to other people, and parents are the first people in our lives.

    Jon-
    Honestly, with Disney I think it’s a(n arguably cheap) way of gaining audience sympathy very quickly.

  15. Hardest Types of Characters to Write « Maggie Madly Writing says:
    Wed Aug 15 2012 at 2:00 PM

    [...] on their lives. The influence of parents makes for a more believable story. Anthony directed me to this post about parent characters, and how they often end up killed off because the writer didn’t want [...]

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