Saturday, October 2, 2010

On Children's Books and Dead/Missing Parents

I take a lot of pictures of our cats.
Scrolling through my lengthy list of GReader RSS feeds, I occasionally skim over something that doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me at the time but grows in scale later on.  Take the issue of dead parents, for instance.

Over on one of the Publisher's Weekly's blogs, Lelia Sales wrote an entry called "The Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome". The gist of her argument is that leaving out parents in MG and YA fiction is lazy writing. She believes a lack of parents (a) gives you fewer characters to write, (b) creates "instant sympathy" for your MC and, (c) alleviates you from dealing with adults as boring characters.

It turns out Lelia's article has kicked up some dust with MG/YA writers.  Agent and author Nathan Bransford (whose Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow won't be coming out until May '11, dangit) wrote a blog entry entitled "In Defense of Dead/Absent Parents in Children's Literature" last week.  In it, he wrote:
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.
I wondered about this idea when I was working out the main characters to my current WIP.  My hero is a former chimney sweep's apprentice who becomes a lab assistant to an eccentric Victorian Professor/Scientist.  When I first started seeing this character in my mind's eye I knew he was a chimney sweep's apprentice and assumed he was an orphan. 

(In my reading of Victorian-era history, most chimney sweep's apprentices were kids who were given away to businessmen from orphanages.  The working conditions were not just unhealthy, the were downright dangerous, with small kids getting a rope tied around their chest, a broom shoved into their hands and themselves shoved down a very cramped, very dark chimney. 

Most chimney sweep's apprentices did not graduate to become full chimney sweeps.  Most chimney sweep apprentices fell and died before they had the chance to grow too large to fit inside the chimneys)

I spent a bit of time wondering if I should work against type and give this kid a family.  Maybe they were poor, desperate for money and my MC was doing everything he could to help keep his family fed, clothed and housed. (Why else risk being a shoved down a chimney?)  Thinking about it, though, even that seemed clichéd, to me.

Then I started placing my MC in some of the improbably situations I had already begun mapping out in my head.  They were all somewhat absurd and all potentially dangerous.  Very dangerous.  As a parent, I wondered what my reaction would be if my son was being put in those types of situations.  Answer: Regardless of how poor we were, I'd be on the Professor's doorstep demanding an explanation and yanking my kid out of that job as fast as I could.

My stories are on the short side, and this "added dimension"wasn't at all where I saw the stories going.  So, an orphan my MC became.

Here's the thing: to me, that isn't lazy writing.  That's giving my character the chance to be in charge of his own adventure and his own destiny. 

Without parents somewhere in the background, my MC knows it is up to him to make of his life what he can.  There is no "If I can just get back home to mom and dad, everything will be alright!" in the back of his mind.  Without a safe harbor to return to, he has to make one for himself or come to terms with having to ride out each new problem as best he can. 

My MC is goes from working with a brutal, cruel man to working with someone who might just be "barking mad" (as my MC puts it).  Later, my MC spends a scene looking at the back of the front door to the Professor's house, seriously considering walking out for good -- because he can.  (He also thinks it is probably in his best interests to do so)

Unencumbered by parents, my orphaned MC has a certain autonomy to his actions.  He must choose to exercise his own freedoms and to create his own loyalties.  He, alone, is accountable for his actions and for the consequences of his actions.

For my story and for my character, not having parents was a way of making personal responsibility and learning to deal with the wildly unexpected elements life can throw at a kid part of the subtext of the story.

What's your take on this question?  Do you have an opinion either way?  Have you intentionally included or excluded parents in your stories?  Why?  I'm interested in how you've handled the subject..

-- Tom


  1. I think in most MG, it is necessary to find a way to isolate a child. In YA, there is enough freedom and rebellious behavior to write those parents in. Some writers do it well, with engaged attached parents--L'Engle comes to mind, but those are the exceptions that probably prove the rule. I totally support your orphan.

  2. I think a lot of YA is about defining yourself as someone apart from your parents. In part it's rebellion, in part it's a desire to create yourself as a wholly new individual with your own beliefs and perspectives on the world.

    L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time had Meg and Charles Wallace in another dimension, searching for their missing father. In that regard, they were all but parent-less for the majority of the book. (And Calvin's parents are MIA through almost the entire book) The kid's goal was to bring their father back, but there was no guarantee of a 'happily ever after' ending for them. (Rescuing the father wasn't going to suddenly end their suffering and remove all responsibility from their shoulders)

    L'Engle handled it extremely well -- but that's not a big surprise, is it? : )

    Thanks for the support.

    -- Tom

  3. The Sales article infuriated me for a different reason: who plans their stories based on how easy they'll be to write?! We make our characters orphans or from single-parent households for reasons like you gave - they are internally logical, they feel right, they fit the story. Not because we don't want to write in parents. UGH.

    Also, as someone who came from a horribly dysfunctional single-parent family and thus write orphans with EASE, I was affronted on behalf of people like me, who would default to the "stereotype". I felt the article trivialized the difficulty that a real orphan or child with one parent would experience and how hard that is to get right.