Friday, April 9, 2010

The Parent Trap

I'd be interested to know what you think of this article from the New York Times Book Review. Julie Just, the children's book editor of the Times, writes about parents and YA lit:

Afflicted by anomie, sitting down to another dismal meal or rushing out the door to a meeting, the hapless parents of Y.A. fiction are slightly ridiculous. They put in an appearance at the stove and behind the wheel of the car, but you can see right through them.

Just posits that the role of the parent has changed in YA lit--from absent (see The Outsiders or Rumble Fish) to horrible parent of the problem novel to, now, inert and two-dimensional. This is a "loss of stature" and a "lowering of stakes," the parents might have their own problems, but these are "more muted and less interesting" than that of the teenagers. The parents float on the periphery, vaguely-troubled ghosts with control of the car keys.

Of course, the world of a teenager is a solipsistic one. The first person of YA lit, while realistic on the surface, creates a sort of expressionism where the only truth is what the narrator perceives, and these narrators are not prone to contemplating the inner depths of their parents' psyches. The parents seems peripheral because they are. After all, the point of being a teenager is separating from your parents. (This has benefits for the parents as well--as my father once told me your child's behavior as a teenager makes you suddenly look forward to sending her off to college. I'm sure he meant that in the nicest of all possible ways.)

Also, there are the dictates of writing stories that try engage with the contemporary world. You can't have every character be an orphan, and problem novels are really fairy tales; if the parents aren't going to be absent and they're not going to be monsters, they need to be gotten out of the way somehow to make the book go.

At the same time, it's a better book that gives its characters dimension. Parents can be peripheral without being flat-Laurie Halse Anderson, I think, is very good at this. In Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca, the mother refuses to get out of bed one morning. She's as ineffectual and peripheral as it gets, yet you get a sense of some wholeness of pain there, and that sense makes for a richer book.

And the flat parent, too, has a purpose. In E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List, the parents are absurdly, hilariously flat--but that's really the whole darned point.

What do you think?


  1. Well, one thing I think is that there's a rather serious misreading of WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson. Far from not noticing her daughter is starving, the mother, a doctor, absolutely understands what's going on and does her strong, strong best to intervene in Lia's death spiral. But she's handicapped not only by her daughter but by her passive-aggressive ex-husband, who not only doesn't see, but has reason not to see because he enjoys differing from his ex-wife. And meanwhile the stepmother is focused on the damage the protagonist is doing her own daughter, and on trying to keep her marriage together. In fact, rarely have I see so many parents sketched so fully and so well, yet so economically, and yet without deviating from the mind of the protagonist, as in WINTERGIRLS.

    -Nancy Werlin

  2. You're right, Nancy. It's been awhile since I read the book--but the ability to portray the parents wholly is one of the many many things remarkable about LHA's work.

  3. A terrific summation of the parents in Wintergirls, Nancy. Thank you.

    When I first read that NYT article I missed the fine print about the writer, and my first reaction as I read was "Not again." I thought it was one of those articles that pop up periodically written by someone who has just discovered YA fiction ("Why, there are some really good books!") and wants to tell the world about her discovery, and in doing so makes some awfully suspect generalizations.

  4. I have been struggling with this in one of my novels, as I have adoptive parents of an older child. They cannot be absent for they are part of the solution to his problems, however they also cannot be main characters for the story isn't about them. So many books remove the parents completely, but is a true contemporary novel realistic if the parents are always missing, dead, gone, deadbeats, etc? I figure if the parents are in the story, even peripherally, then they should be more than a flat stock character.

  5. I think YA sometimes gets held to standards higher than books written for grown-ups. Take a look at the families that populate literary fiction, and you'll find just as many stereotypes and flatness among the secondary characters as you do in YA.

    Do some authors sketch fully rounded fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons? Yes, in both adult and YA fiction. Other times they fall short, and sometimes, as you point out Anne, that may be very much on purpose.

  6. Yes, teens are self-centered, but I'm not convinced that means they don't think much about their parents. That process of separation may in fact require intense thought about the parents. I remember as a teen being fascinated with my parents' backgrounds, and how the extended family pieced together. I was seeing my parents as individuals for the first time, and trying to figure out how they became who they were. All, of course, in juxtaposition to thinking about who I wanted to be.

  7. You were a perceptive and inquisitive teen, Cheryl. I mostly remember my parents as the authors of my misery and the obstacles to my quest for fun, as well as a source of great embarrassment. I couldn't see why they didn't recognize my obvious maturity. After all, I was older than I'd ever been. [Still am.] I thought I was pretty darned grown up.

    As I think back on it, I don't think I thought of my parents as "fully rounded characters."

  8. I find that the younger the child the LESS necessary the parents, and the older the child (teen) the MORE necessary the parents. For ex. in my picture books I never include adults--they are useless, insignificant creatures to a 4-year-old. They only get in the way and solve the problem which is never interesting story material.

    However in all my teen books (all two, plus the one in progress) the parents are very important. Even if it's not about the parents, the teen is becoming more aware of adult hood so adults are on their mind--their relationship with parents (or other adults--teachers, neighbors, etc...) is interesting and full of potential tension, love, hate and all that good story material.

    So that's my theory:
    Picture book: Parents useless
    YA: Parents useful

    MG: can go either way.... (gotta love middle-grade!!)

  9. O.k. now I'm going to sound hard-hearted but I'm also wondering if this has to do with parents who feel left out, and want to get in on the picture. I remember reading the Secret Garden as a child and not being at all bothered about the parents not being there, but as a parent now, it brings me to tears. I hear stories like this all the time. Ask practically any mother how she feels about Dumbo and the scene with his mother and they'll break down in tears. If the book is bad art, that's one thing. But if it's an adult feeling left out because they are not represented, I have less patience. My teen years were very much about separating from my parents. (Different from Cheryl's description of her teen years.) But my sister more closely resembled Cheryl's experience. So perhaps it's the story we're telling and the character's in that story. And the recognition that not everyone is the same!

  10. Well put, Molly! It always comes down to what is right for the story at hand.

  11. Flat characters are never good, parents or otherwise. If they are flat, cut them. So maybe the mom IS relegated to being the teen’s keymaster?

    Well, when we find out the keymaster is always in the garage, working in her corvette that she drag races at the Worthington, MN airport once a month, which closes specifically for the local corvette club, and that she can get it up to 175 MPH but that just isn’t what the specs say it can do and it really makes her mad so she tweaks with the thing all the time, oh and by the way the new slicks just arrived from ebay and would ya bring those out the garage for me honey?

    THAT changes things. I think the danger of flat parents comes from not thinking about them as real people, and thinking of them just as parents. Parents have lives too, as much as the other characters in the novel. That is always one of my favorite parts in a well written YA novel, when the protagonist comes to realize that JUST maybe the world doesn’t wholly revolve around him/her. This can occur when he/she realizes that parents have lives of their own. A little special detail sprinkle goes a long way!