In The Outsiders, Darryl, Soda Pop, and Ponyboy’s parents are dead. In The Chocolate War, Jerry’s mother is dead. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s father is dead. Harry Potter’s parents? Dead. Dorothy Gale’s parents? Dead. Bambi’s mother? Dies right in front of our eyes. Yikes!
Either authors have bones to pick with their families, or they have excellent reasons for getting their character’s parents out of the way before a psychological journey commences.
What purpose does an absent parent serve?
If we look at middle grade books like The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne, the Dinosaur Cove series by Rex Stone, or even at television shows such as the new Cat in the Hat cartoon, the parents are alive and well, but out of the picture. In fact, the parents have be absent, because the children are about to embark on a magical adventure. Face it, would you let your children face ninja warriors? Or walk amongst carnivorous dinosaurs? Or let a talking, mischievous cat drive off with them in a flying thing-a-ma-jigger?
If your answer is yes, you need to consider therapy. Otherwise, you can see why the parents in these stories are left out. Instead of hauling their children inside the house and warning them about stranger danger, these clueless adults chuckle in the background, sure their children are playing pretend and would never actually embark on a journey that included swimming with a Plesiosaur.
In other middle grade books, there’s an entire different reason for being parentless. Think Orphan Annie, for example, where the plot centers on Annie finding someone to love who will love her back unconditionally. Or A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, where the three Baudelaire children not only have to deal with their parents’ deaths (in a fire, mind you), but now are forced to live with Count Olaf, who does not appear to have their well-being in his best interest. In other words, if the parents were still alive, there would be no plot. At least, not the one the author intended.
And then we have middle grade books that are similar to young adult books: Coming of age stories. A child is forced to work through his or her problems without parental aid because…well…there aren’t any parents available to them. It doesn’t even need to be a dead parent. Mom could be strung out on wacky tobacky. Daddy might be too busy getting it on with his hot secretary. It’s all the same, really. The parent isn’t around to be the voice of reason. To stop the young ‘un from making the disastrous choice we know they’re seconds away from making.
In Julie Just’s essay in the New York Times “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit”, she mentions other examples of books with absentee parents, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “In the move to independence, the parent is all but forgotten, or occasionally pictured in a fond glow of love and regret,” she writes.
I can’t help but consider how easily pre-teens and teens accept a character with one or both parents dead, missing, or absent and neglectful. Come to think of it, growing up reading books with missing parents, I never found it odd or annoying. And if I think about it further, I realize that pretty much every story I wrote as a child or teen had at least one dead parent, if not two. Completely realistic. Never once questioned it.
Because if there weren’t any parents pestering a kid to do his homework or standing around making sure the dishes got done, then it made the story interesting. Because what did one do when there was no one to tell him or her what to do?
Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford also wrote a post on his blog about absent parents. He sums it up perfectly: “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.”
On the other hand, could sticking a dead or absent parent into your book seem like a plot device? Leila Sales, author and editor at Penguin Young Readers Books, writes: “It is not believable that so many kids are missing one, if not both parents. Slews of them! Hundreds! To quote Oscar Wilde, sort of: ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose a parent in nearly every children’s book looks like lazy writing.’” She goes on to explain how it’s easier for authors to leave out the parents, how it gives the writer one less character to have to write about. Plus, she adds, adults often come off as boring. (Especially when they really, truly are.)
If you’re considering going parentless in your novel, ask yourself this: what purpose is it serving? Is it vital to the plot? Do the parents have to be dead? Can they be unaware instead? Or would it be best for the character that they remain nearby, in case they’re needed?
After all, not every character wants to ride in a thing-a-ma-jigger with a crazy cat at the wheel. And not every parent would let them.
Guest Blogger K.L. Gore resides in upstate New York with her husband and two children. A part-time writing instructor, she gives writing advice on her blog: www.klgore.com. Her stage play Something Blue (not to be confused with the novel of the same title) was performed on the theater stage, and she’s written and performed puppet shows for local schools and libraries. She loves to read just about anything. Represented by Regal Literary, she is now focusing her efforts on YA contemporary novels (although she is sneaking a little MG fantasy on the side).