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?