I’ve heard this question a few times—from parents—about YA literature. The parents are often nowhere to be seen. One (or both) are dead or incompetent or neglectful or just plain oblivious.
I think part of it is because many teens want to experience life on their own—they crave independence and the ability to make their own decisions and mistakes. This can be hard to do when a parent is there, asking about homework and soccer practice and your day and your friends. YA novels are a safe place to explore what it might be like to live on your own—perhaps at a boarding school (I love boarding school books and always have) or a futuristic dystopia where all the adults are busy with something else.
Of course, for most of us, our parents are part of who we are. Their experiences and interactions with us are woven into the fabric of our psyche, like it or not. So I try to give the parents in my novels a bit of weight, just to explore that aspect of my characters’ lives. I tackle parent/child relationships by putting the parents heavily in the background.
Luckily for me, gentry in the Tudor era usually outsourced the actual parenting responsibilities. They performed the duties of conception and childbirth and then handed the baby off to wet nurses and rockers and later to some other household that would teach the child how to be a good aristocratic housewife or nobleman. Henry FitzRoy, the king’s illegitimate son, had a household of his own at the age of nine as Duke of Richmond and Somerset. My teenaged characters basically live at boarding schools (yay!), just ones that include treachery, adultery and executions.
But the absence of parents doesn’t negate their presence—if that makes any sense at all. In Gilt, Kitty Tylney feels keenly the lack of parental feeling—she believes her parents just want her off their hands. In Tarnish, Anne believes her father’s love is tied only to what his children can do for him. Mary Howard lives in the shadow of her mother in Brazen—terrified of becoming anything like her—and clings to her belief that her father will always be her ally.
You never meet Kitty’s parents in Gilt. Anne’s father appears two or three times in Tarnish. And Mary has one interaction with her mother in Brazen. But the parents hover like ghosts in the background, affecting the way the characters speak, the way they interact with others and how they react to certain situations.
I feel a bit guilty writing all of these uncomfortable relationships between parents and children. I’ve always had a very good relationship with my parents. I never felt that they pushed me too hard (because I could always push myself harder) or limited me too severely (I admit, I was a boringly reasonable teenager, though).
When I came to write Manor of Secrets, I knew I wanted to include a sympathetic relationship—even a strong one—for one of my characters. Janie loves and admires her mother (her father, in a classic YA turn, is conveniently dead) and wants to remain close to her. They talk and work easily together. They protect each other. Story-wise, this could be boring, because story is built on conflict. So I made Janie’s love for her mother part of the larger story problem without making the relationship itself a problem.
It’s difficult to cut parents completely out of a character’s life—and sometimes disingenuous. Parent/child relationships can be strained or easy, loving or troubled, but it’s difficult to make them nonexistent—even when the parents are not in the picture. Parents and parental relationships are powerful and can be powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox. Use them wisely.