“Dysfunctional Families”: On YA and Responsible Parenting

20 May, 2012 Musing Musers 8 comments

Last week (or was it the week before last?) the YA Rebels discussed parents in YA. Specifically, they addressed a frequent criticism that YA had a disproportionate amount of absentee parents and dysfunctional families, compared to the real world.

Both Corrine Jackson and Daniel Marks brought up an important argument, which is that conflict is what makes a story run. Often, characters are interesting because they’re dealing with a lot of problems in their lives, and sometimes, the parents/guardians/close relatives are what causes those problems. Also, there is a lot to be said about the definition of “a good parent”, since not everyone makes perfect decisions in life.

However, I do think there’s a distinction to be made. While there are books where the dysfunction of one’s family is used to good effect (“Solace of the Road” by Siobhan Dowd), there are also books where that is not handled as well. In fact, the missing/flawed parent so deeply ingrained in Paranormal YA books that everyone now calls it “Disappearing Parent Syndrome”.

Like most things in life, the distinction between the two is a matter of presentation. In “Solace of the Road”, the protagonist, Holly Hogan, runs away from her foster family and goes on a trip to find her mother. The missing parent, in this case, is the thing that drives the action forward, even if Holly’s internal conflict is much different. Compare that to “Evermore”, a Paranormal YA where the MC is the sole survivor of a car accident that killed her parents, her sister and the family dog (T.T). That kind of background would have played a vital part in the MC’s life, but the handling of the issue, instead of meaningful, comes across as shallow and tear-jerky.

The reason why the missing parent works in Solace is because the handling of the issue feels genuine. Holly’s experiences and thoughts always seem to go back to her mother and the influence she had on Holly’s life. The reader can see her pain and loneliness, and also the delusion that gets her through most of the book – that if she reaches her mother, everything else would be better.

Now, I know what some of you might say: “Solace of the Road” is a contemporary YA set in the UK, while Evermore is a Paranormal YA, and that the reason why Ever doesn’t focus so much on her parents is because she deals with a lot of other things. Um, no. The reason why Ever doesn’t think that much about her family is because she is written as a shallow, image-obsessed girl, who only remembers the tragedy that befell her when she wants to make the reader feel sorry for her.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Many MCs in Paranormal YA use the lack of parental supervision to do stupid stuff, cuddle with their boyfriends and then whine about the unfairness of life. It’s not a real issue, which is what people really object to when they talk of “Disappearing Parent Syndrome”.

Of course, the matter of dysfunctional literary families also ties back with the matter of censorship and whether parents should shield their children from books that are bad for them. Again, there’s a lot of gray areas here, and to me, the question isn’t so much whether they should as it is what you mean by “bad” books.

I don’t believe that kids should not read about darkness. In fact, it is my hope that everyone would be able to read “Speak”, or “Gone, Gone, Gone”, or “A Swift, Pure Cry” because those are beautiful, amazing, thought-provoking books. I think that it’s important that teens read and discuss them, among each other and with their parents, because it would help to understand some really fundamental things about life.

I do, however, think that parents should try to read books before giving them to their children – not necessarily to ban them, but to know exactly what is going on there. I believe that books like “Halo” by Alexandra Adornetto, or “Wings” by Aprilynne Pike, should come with a disclaimer, because they represent a very distorted view of the world, which might not be apparent to some younger readers. I’m not saying that kids are stupid, but read out of context, a lot of the descriptions in these books can come across as glorifications of… less-than-healthy lifestyles.

Because when you come down to it, responsible parenting isn’t about blinding your kids to the problems they may face later in life – it’s raising their awareness, and giving them the best possible tools of dealing with those issues. And if the protagonist of the book they’re reading just so happens to lack that guidance, then their struggle would become all the more important and more worthy of a discussion. Am I right?

I'm a student in the midst of exam period and a reader of all that is YA. In my weekends, I like to write books and look after with my Weasels of Doom (excellent for dealing with fanfiction.net trolls. I also occasionally lend them out to the security at New Beijing Palace). Find her on GoodReads.

8 Responses to ““Dysfunctional Families”: On YA and Responsible Parenting”

  1. Emily (Ed and Em's Reviews)

    I love this post. I added the ones that you said made it work to my to-read shelf! And I like to read stories where the characters have really supportive parents, especially in paranormal, but there are some books that have “disappearing parent syndrome” that work. It really just depends on the story and the way the author writes it.
    And the Evermore series was awful. I’m just saying.
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  2. Fangs for the Fantasy

    I think there’s an added problem in that it often sets up many disturbing dynamics

    We don’t just have a heroine meeting the boy of her dreams HEA will follow. We have the vulnerable, alone heroine with no support network and possible abuse/trauma survivor meeting a (often much much older – especially when vampries et al are added to the mix) boy and skeeviness ensues.

    There’s also a problem that so many of these characters come from horrendous backgrounds (sometimes even ridiculously over the top to the point where I just roll my eyes now and flick on “oh tortured horribly while her sister died in front of her, yawn, join the pile”) but are untouched by it (or just need the magical loving to fix it all).

    It’s shallow, you’re right. It’s grautiotus. It’s quick, simple shorthand for us to feel sorry for the protag – kill a parent or 2, no characterisation needed

    It’;s something we’ve ranted on as well http://www.fangsforthefantasy.com/2011/10/traumatised-youth-in-urban-fantasy.html because it’s everywhere – YA, Urban Fantasy as well. Dead parents, traumatised youth – and either fragile, vulnerable, easily exploited love interests, or brave heroines who rise above it no matter what and think PTSD is cheating at scrabble.

    And agreed through the roof about raising awareness – don’t censor, but do say “look this situation? This world? This heroine’s actions? WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG ZOMG SO WRONG”
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  3. Lavi

    Excellent post! I’ve also been wondering about this issue with the parents. I think it is also a means to simplify the book. If I sound against YA, it is because I am, but I will try to be as objective as possible. Most of the crappy YA books are also very simplistic in plot, character development and conflict, and when I say simplistic, I mean almost lacking. The missing parents are not only an excuse for emoness (which is actually insulting to the real drama and pain that orphans feel in real life), but also a method of enabling a false feeling of independence and lack of responsibility. I mean, where are the pesky adults that could possibly get in the way of the dysfunctional relationship? Where is the mother a daughter should look up to? Either missing, dead or a bad example and therefore estranged. Also, since usually the biggest danger in these books is that there are a few asshole demons/faux monsters running around, the missing parents allow for all the drama to focus on the love interest and love triangles, not, say, on the fact that usually, when an enemy wants to hurt someone, they target those closest, ergo, the family. No family, no responsibility, and thus, the shallow tweens are not intellectually and emotionally stimulated and can go one fighting about Team Stalker or Team Weirdo.

    Now, a less aggressive possible explanation (but this is not for YA, it is usually for more mature books). The orphan has always had a morbid fascination because of the fact that they are forced to mature faster, they are forced to discover their way in life alone (or at least, more alone), and to develop their personalities and overcome fears, difficulties, issues without the guidance of those closest. An orphan’s life is dramatically more difficult and draining and thus we want them to succeed, we want to see them find a semblance of a family, fulfilling romance and equilibrium. Still, this is made extremely hard when we are punched in the face with weak heroines we (or at least I) wish had died instead of the parents.
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  4. Maggie Flynn

    I loved this post! It’s so frustrating how a lot of stories just cut or skimp on a parental presence and background when interaction with parents and authorities figures have a lot of potential to show character and demonstrate character development beyond the rebellious teen stereotype. Learning to deal and process what authority figures have to say as opposed to automatically resenting them is one of the first steps to becoming more mature. The protagonist wouldn’t necessarily have to agree with the authority figures, but it would be nice if a few of them would acknowledge them as more than obstacles.
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  5. TG

    It’s hard for me to take talk of ‘Disappearing Parent Syndrome’ seriously, because I think of it as just one of the established conventions of children’s literature (or British children’s lit, anyway, – I haven’t read much American children’s lit): In order for your young characters to have adventures, you free them from adult interference by either making the kids orphans or sending them to boarding school. Which, of course, Harry Potter took to the extreme by making the main character an orphan and at boarding school :-P. And if it was good enough for CS Lewis, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Hodgson Burnett etc, then it should be good enough for children’s and YA authors today.
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    • Katya

      @TG: Funny you should mention British children’s lit, because I personally find it to be better than American in its portrayals of characters and issues. “Solace of the Road” and “A Swift Pure Cry” are written by an Irish author. So is the Numbers trilogy. Not entirely sure about Blood Red Road, but I absolutely adore anything Philip Reeve writes.

      I don’t know if it’s a regional thing or not – it’s just that British children’s literature seems to handle issues of missing parents way better than some American books. Harry, after all, misses his parents greatly, and their deaths play a role in establishing his character. Same as in “The Mortal Engines” or “A Swift Pure Cry”. Roald Dahl has a different approach: he made Matilda’s parents utterly unlikeable, but their resistance only made her more interested in learning.

      My point is, parents, good or bad or missing, play a role in shaping the characters. The problem with “Disappearing Parent Syndrome” is when they don’t. In books like “Evermore”, their deaths kickstart the adventure, but the MC thinks of death as an abstract, not a real thing which has happened to her.
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  6. Julie@my5monkeys

    This is a pet peeve of mine of the parents being gone . Granted there are some books with parents and others where the parents have been working or disappeared.
    I understand with paranormal books that you need the MC to figure things out on her own, and I understand that there are friends or a boyfriend to help while experiencing this ordeal. But not all households have that enviroment, and not all families are the same.
    Its like with TV shows on the disney channel and the parents are dumbed down.
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