What to do with parents?

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PhilipIsles
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What to do with parents?

Post by PhilipIsles » April 17th, 2011, 1:04 pm

While writing my last manuscript, I realized that all writers of childrens literature face the same problem: What do you do with the parents?

I did some research and wondered what everyone thought. The write-up is here, but in case u dont want to leave the forum, here's a summary:

Orphans
By far the most popular solution to this problem

Absence
Sometimes a story is so bazaar it doesn't even need to answer the question of parents.

Leaving Them Behind
When an author sets his story in an imaginary world, removed from the normal, he or she often decides to simply leave the parental figures in the real world.

Does anyone have any other examples they'd like to share? Happy to update the blog and credit contributors :)

Moni12
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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by Moni12 » April 17th, 2011, 1:28 pm

For my first ms the parents were already dead (except the protag didn't know it so it made the second half very emotional, if I do say so myself). In my more recently finished ms the parents of both mcs have a more active role, but are still fairly absent. I can't find the post, but this is something Gail Carson Levine has discussed on her blog.
Honestly, sometimes I feel guilty "getting rid of" the parents, but I think it's easier that way. I want the focus to be on the mc and to just show enough of the relationship to achieve the emotion I'm going for in a particular story.

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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by Collectonian » April 17th, 2011, 7:26 pm

Hmmm...of my two YA area WIPS, the female MC is an orphan due to some violent circumstances, the male MC has a father, but his mother is dead, and the supporting characters all have parents mentioned but unseen.

In the other, most of my characters are either orphans or have a father but no mother and the fathers die during the story. Though I only just realized that now...I have at least three characters with fathers, and no mothers. LOL. Seems to be a trend with my works....even in my non YA stuff. Bet Freud would have a field day...

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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by Louise Curtis » April 17th, 2011, 7:56 pm

In my three MG novels, this is what I did:

1. The parents' strategy for defending the island is clearly wrong (though moral). Protagonist lies to them and sneaks off (after eavesdropping). When they find out the truth, they stand by her side (against pirates, naturally) but immediately get hit by a spear and rendered unconscious for the count.

2. The island (another island) is plague-ridden, so the protagonist is sent away, leaving her parents (the king and queen) behind to do their duty. (Actually, the king is already dead from the plague when the story begins.)

3. Protagonist has special skills (due to book 1) required urgently elsewhere, but it's known that the island melts if her parents attempt to leave (also due to book 1). Thus, she has to leave them behind.

But yes - it's a constant problem. Usually the choices are parental death/uselessness.
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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by Sommer Leigh » April 18th, 2011, 9:11 am

I actually wrote about this last year on my blog: Absentee Parents Archetype in YA Lit. http://sommerleigh.com/archives/540

I talked about why we are seeing more absentee parents from books these days, but the reasons for their absence are all over the board. I think really good parents are sorely missed from literature.
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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by sierramcconnell » April 18th, 2011, 9:41 am

There are so many things you can do with parents.

You can kill them, yes. You can make them evil. You can make them simply non-existant. Or, you can totally have them present, supportive, but completely out of the loop.

Or, you can make them out of the norm, and be as one of the characters. I like this one at times. Stephen is one of my examples because he's Carmine's stepfather, and more of a father than Carmine's deceased father ever was when he was alive. Stephen is supportive, sorta clutzy, but a genius inventor like Carmine despite the fact that Stephen can't read past a third grade level. He likes pictures.

But Amaranth is mostly non-existant. Miriam, another protag's mother is only there for a short stint. Most moms are, I think, because I don't have much experience with moms, save for a little bit where I was sick and someone else's mom took care of me. My own mom was distant and has mental issues. I don't understand parents, so it's hard to write for them.

Most of the time it's more of a...mentor\support role of other people. "The family you have is the family you make" sort of thing.

That's probably why there's more brotherly love than anything! XD

I like random 'parental' figures more than actual biological ones. Those people you go to for support who are more supportive than the parents.
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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by PhilipIsles » April 18th, 2011, 11:37 am

Sommer Leigh wrote:I actually wrote about this last year on my blog: Absentee Parents Archetype in YA Lit. http://sommerleigh.com/archives/540

I talked about why we are seeing more absentee parents from books these days, but the reasons for their absence are all over the board. I think really good parents are sorely missed from literature.
Really interesting stuff, Sommer. I put a link on my entry:)
I think parents are absent because the kids need to make their own choices, regardless of how dangerous or misguided they may seem to whoever is supervising them.

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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by J. T. SHEA » April 18th, 2011, 1:44 pm

The absentee YA and MG parent archetype could be as much an opportunity as a problem. Long before I ever heard of it I used it in my YA Steampunk Trilogy as a plot device.

Jimmy, my teenage protagonist, strives to join a great sea-borne expedition in search of a lost city. He eventually gets on board the ship, but so do his parents and kid brother, much to Jimmy's chagrin. Though I gave him capable parents and a happy childhood, just to be different! I did make his kid brother bratty, as a nod to tradition.

So the YA parent problem is one of Jimmy's problems, and he reflects on it directly. The expedition's leaders decide to send back all families with children. Unfortunately their definition of a child includes Jimmy. But fate intervenes, and I'd better stop there before this turns into an outline!

I commend Sommer's typically thoughtful blog post, which also links to the long discussion on these forums last summer entitled THE ABSENTEE PARENT CONUNDRUM IN CHILDREN'S LIT.

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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by Moni12 » April 18th, 2011, 2:31 pm

Also, check out fairy tales. If the mother dies there's an evil stepmother and the fathers rarely play a role; which is really sad, it's lucky those kids usually know how to save themselves.

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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by sierramcconnell » April 18th, 2011, 2:40 pm

Ooh, speaking of which, that reminds me of my little stunted nephilim Edward. His mother was sick after his birth, but he loved her very much. So his uncle murdered her in front of him to teach him a lesson about being strong and to not love humans.

His uncle was very mean, but raised him. And so Edward kills him. XD His father is around, but he's currently...oh...in prison, so to speak. (He's chained in a cave. Edward visits, but it's just not the same.)

I guess that's sort of fairytale parenting. Evil Uncle, kind mother killed, and non-existant father locked away (which he intends to rescue).

LOL. My little Edward. And he's not even the protag!
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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by Louise Curtis » April 18th, 2011, 6:48 pm

The problem with parents is that good parents make children and even YA feel safe, and would deus ex machina every hardship of our lives if they could.

It's handy in real life, and deadly in fiction. Because your ten-year old protagonist needs to be in real danger, and needs to fix it with their own efforts. I'm glad most ten-year olds are non-fictional - for their sakes.
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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by PhilipIsles » April 18th, 2011, 6:57 pm

Louise Curtis wrote:The problem with parents is that good parents make children and even YA feel safe, and would deus ex machina every hardship of our lives if they could.

It's handy in real life, and deadly in fiction. Because your ten-year old protagonist needs to be in real danger, and needs to fix it with their own efforts. I'm glad most ten-year olds are non-fictional - for their sakes.
So true. You might say that the REASON parents need to be removed from the scene in most cases is because they really are the gods in our young character's machines, protecting them by restricting their freedom to make choices and transgress their comfort zones.

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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by Nigel Haberdash » April 19th, 2011, 10:42 am

In my last M.S. I sent them out of town for the weekend. Some guy named Nathan blogged about this topic too.

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/09 ... ts-in.html
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
THE BFG
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.

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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by J. T. SHEA » April 19th, 2011, 2:27 pm

Immediately after my teenage protagonist is finally separated from his parents, the ocean liner he is traveling on is attacked by saboteurs, an entire fleet of Fascist fishing boats and whalers, and dozens of 500 foot long sea snakes. His parents still being there probably would not have made much difference.

Maybe I could also work in a rhinoceros and wildebeests...

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Re: What to do with parents?

Post by PhilipIsles » April 19th, 2011, 2:50 pm

more than anything, I'm really enjoying hearing how everyone is addressing the question in their own stories. For the record, my character's parents drink the kool-aid that the military is passing around to distract/hypnotize/brainwash everyone from whats really going on, while the supporting character's dad, who apparently abandoned him, returns in the middle of the story, only to reveal that he is actually a werewolf, forced to leave his son in order to protect him.

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