Is there a “parent problem” in YA lit?

April 20, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while! At the beginning of the month, Julie Just wrote an essay for the New York Times Sunday Book review called “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit.” In it, she argues that while literary parents of the past were often absent or dead to give the young protagonists the space and autonomy for their adventures, present-day parents in young adult lit are downright bad:

[…] what’s striking is that some of the most sharply written and critically praised works reliably feature a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent, suggesting that this has become a particularly resonant figure.

She cites a dad acting as a single parent who has no idea how to cook (Sara Zarr’s ONCE WAS LOST), a dangerously accident-prone mother and a father who works late nights (Natalie Standiford’s HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT), an overworked and absent mother who works as a surgeon and doesn’t see the signs of her daughter’s anorexia (Laurie Halse Anderson’s WINTERGIRLS), and the parents of characters in popular series such as the Hunger Games trilogy and the Twilight saga.

Just then presents a historical look at parents in young adult literature from its emergence in the 1960s to present day. In the ’60s parents in novels were generally absent entirely and “the teenager’s problem [was], overwhelmingly, other teenagers,” with the focus of the story on survival. But as the prevalence of the “problem novel” grew in the ’70s and ’80s, conflict centered within the family as parents divorced one another or abandoned their children entirely. But still this wasn’t a realistic portrayal:

One study from the 1970s compared mothers in young adult fiction with the ones in real life, based on statistics from the Census Bureau and the Department of Labor, and concluded that less than 3 percent of the depictions were “realistic”: in the novels, mothers were disproportionately seen as being paralyzed at home, while in real life they were beginning to go out and get jobs.

Today’s literary parents, Just says, are toned-down versions of the self-absorbed monsters of the ’70s and ’80s, but still don’t accurately represent parents today. She does see our present ambivalence about what parenting is present in these books: is it just keeping kids fed and safe? Is it being helicopter parents, always attentive to a child’s every need and ready to swoop in and rescue them at any minute? Reflecting on her own experience growing up in the ’60s, she concludes, “Back then parents knew how to get out of the way and let the orphan’s rise begin.”

Rebecca at Crete Teens (the teen services blog of the Crete (IL) Public Library District) reflected on Just’s essay, providing further examples of bad parents in books but countering that with suggestions of good parents, too (which members of the listserv also did, offering Joan Bauer’s books, INTO THE WILD NERD YONDER, FLASH BURNOUT, TWENTY BOY SUMMER, WHALE TALK, IF I STAY, ROCK STAR SUPERSTAR, and KISSING THE BEE as examples).

On the listservs, some people attributed the bad parents in books on the notion that people’s problems are never their own fault but that instead poor parenting is to blame. Others pointed out that when they were teens, they thought their parents were clueless–and that the teens they serve in libraries now feel the same way about their parents, so what we see as a “parent problem” is just the teenager’s emotion-filled take on what parents are like. Many agreed that parenting was more hands-off in earlier decades, which translates to absent parents in older YA lit, whereas today’s parents are more involved and more conflicted themselves–and that we’re seeing that in what teens read.

I think my favorite response to this article, though, has come from the insightful, incisive Liz B. of A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy. She takes a different perspective, asking why adults need to minutely examine the adults in literature for teens–do we see children and teens bemoaning the behavior of characters their age in adult books? She then further picks apart the notion of a “bad” parent: how do we define “bad”? Who defines “bad”? Parents? Their children? How much of a role should parents play in their kids’ lives? Should we be trying to make parents feel bad about being “bad” parents? Liz finally asserts

Let’s get out of the way. Just as parents need to get out of the way for their teenagers to mature into adults, so should we adults who read and review young adult books get out of the way of the intended audience — the teens. Yes, we can read and enjoy those books; but let’s not ask for those books to be written to reflect our reality of adults and parents.

There isn’t some universal notion of a “good parent.” Teens deserve books with involved parents whose involvement is both good and bad for the protagonist. Teens deserve books with absent parents whose absence is both good and bad for the protagonist. Their worlds are much more diverse and conflicted than they were decades ago and the rise of the “parent problem” might not be commentary on parents themselves, but on the increasing complexity of teen readers’ lives.

Over the last year or so my philosophy on youth media has developed into this: young people deserve literature (and movies and music and television and…) that reflects their world. They deserve to be treated like people and to be taken seriously. To age up characters when books are adapted into movies because a movie about teenagers won’t sell as many tickets tells teens that they aren’t interesting. To only give teens wholesome reading that won’t expand their view of the world is to declare them too stupid to think critically or to develop their own values systems. To push only books that hold up some particular standard of parenting or that look for “the return of the admirable parent” when so many teens don’t see their parents as admirable but–sometimes within the same day–as absent or conflicted or too busy or too overbearing or even downright malevolent is to tell them that they are not normal or that their stories aren’t worth telling. And that is the worst disservice we can do to them.

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1 Comment Leave a Comment

  • 1. Fathers in fiction «&hellip  |  June 27, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    […] There’s been quite a bit of reaction to this piece in the blogosphere. I particularly like Gretchen Kolderup’s response on her Librarified blog (incidentally, what a great name for a blog – lovely design, too). I […]

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