Have you ever noticed how all of the teens that star in your favorite YA books have really oblivious parents?
There’s Charlie, Bella’s dad in TWILIGHT, who doesn’t pick up on the fact that a vampire is sneaking in through his daughter’s bedroom window every night. (Charlie’s oblivion is actually the subject of a Book Country discussion thread that I find totally hilarious.) SHIVER’s Grace might have survived a wolf attack as a kid, but her parents still leave her up to her own devices almost all of the time, meaning she and her paranormal boyfriend have nightly sleepovers in her room.
This isn’t just true for YA Paranormal: Even in the YA Contemporary novel (and our inaugural #BCReadalong!) THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, the main character (also named Charlie) has parents who are very prominent characters in the story. Yet they tune out a lot of what’s going on in Charlie’s life in terms of drinking, drugs, romance, friends, and drama. This is also true of another one of my favorite YA books of all time, GIRL by Blake Nelson–Andrea’s parents are just totally unaware of all the stuff she is out doing with her friends. It’s not quite as extreme as in TWILIGHT and SHIVER, and certainly, both Charlie and Andrea’s parents are wonderful, realistic, well-drawn characters, but it got me thinking about the role of adult characters in YA books. What should a writer do with them?
Some writers + editors feel that spending a lot of time with a parent, teacher, or other adult is not a good idea in a YA book. You want to keep that intense dynamic going amongst the young protagonists, and to involve adults and their back stories runs the risk of getting into the dreaded territory of the boring–adult concerns like paying bills, going to work, buying healthy groceries, getting enough exercise and do the laundry can really deflate all the fun of a YA novel. As Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds says about the adult characters in YA: “TEENS RULE, ADULTS DROOL.”
That’s why YA writers figure out ways to keep the parents busy, so that the YA protagonist has some space to get up to the trouble that ultimately drives the plot of the book:
- YA protagonists are often the children of very busy or overburdened single parents (see: THE HUNGER GAMES, YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS, THE WIND BLOWS BACKWARD, I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU, BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU, MY LIFE NEXT DOOR, THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER, THE PRINCESS DIARIES, etc.). The parents have varying degrees of interest in their kids’ lives, but they simply don’t have time to monitor their kids’ behavior as closely.
- Even more dramatically, many YA protagonists are orphans, such as in THE 5TH WAVE, VENOM, DELIRIUM, IF I STAY, and of course, HARRY POTTER.
- The parents of some YA protagonists are in the middle of getting a divorce–such as in PARANOID PARK–or have some other drama going on that makes them unavailable (like in GOSSIP GIRL, where some sets of parents are simply too rich and powerful to worry about their kids for too long).
But parents are a HUGE part of a teen’s life—not just the teen’s day to day routine, but also who teens are and who they want to become. Whenever a YA book is evenly remotely YA Contemporary, I think the writer needs to do a lot to make sure that any absence of parents is well-explained, or better yet, to involve the parents in the story in a really interesting way. In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, Hazel’s parents are beloved, quirky characters. They went a long way in making the story believable, and in the end, its believability was what made FIOS such a tear-jerker. And in a book like YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS (by Meg Medina), the main character, Piddy, is on an emotional journey that requires her to really think about how differently from her mom she wants to end up. To get Piddy to the end of that journey, Medina really does have to delve into the day-to-day of Piddy’s mom’s life. Medina handled these sections with such grace that it convinced me that it really is possible to make a parent’s backstory interesting in YA.
Thinking about this illuminates a concept that is important in all fiction writing: the idea that each character should have a purpose. The reader is spending time getting to know these characters, and there should always be an entertaining payout for that: a plot twist, character development (who the protagonist is vis a vis the influence of a supporting adult character in their life), even just some comic relief–anything that will pay their way into the story. This is important to remember no matter what the story, whether it is supposed to be realistic, fantastical, or for kids, young adults, or adults.
Can you think of any YA writers that really do a great job with their protagonists’ parents? Head over to the Book Country discussion boards to chime in.
While we’re on the subject of parents in YA fiction, we also want to share some choice clips of the ever-oblivious-but-lovable Charlie and Bella on Bella’s wedding day (from TWILIGHT: Breaking Dawn Part 1 via Lionsgate VOD):