Where Are the Parents?

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.

'The Geography Lesson' (Portrait of Monsieur Gaudry and his daughter by Louis-Leopold Boilly

‘The Geography Lesson’ (Portrait of Monsieur Gaudry and his daughter by Louis-Leopold Boilly

Why?

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.

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About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her www.katherinelongshore.com

14 thoughts on “Where Are the Parents?

  1. Dawne Webber says:

    I think having parents “heavily in the background,” as you said, is the reality for most teens no matter what kind of relationship they have with their parents and it’s something they can relate to in YA fiction.

    I look forward to reading your novels. I’ve always loved the Tudor history, but I’ve never read a book about their early lives.

  2. Doesn’t that guy look vaguely like the tenth Dr. Who? Maybe you’re about to discover some great science fiction in Tudor England.

  3. ceejayare says:

    This makes me reevaluate a lot of the books I’ve read over the years. Parental relationships are not something I ever took much stock in, possibly because most of them were mostly non-existent in the traditional sense. I suppose this just gives me a reason to go back and re-read all those books.

  4. Sally says:

    Interesting post on an otherwise neglected topic. Completely agree with you on the idea that YA novels need to give the kids independence from parental interference to make the stories appealing to teenagers. What writers have to be careful of though is to give a believable (and not too far fetched) reason for the parents to be MIA otherwise the story doesn’t feel ‘real’ and that ruins the reader’s experience.

    • Yes, it’s finding the believable reason that can be the difficulty, Sally! Though I’ve also read novels (Huntley Fitzpatrick’s THINGS I THOUGHT WERE TRUE) comes to mind where the parents are alive and present and important, but the protagonist still has a certain amount of freedom.

  5. courtneymck says:

    In one of my first college literary history classes, the professor looked around and said, “You’re all about 18, right? Good. At least one of your parents is dead, and you’ve lost more than one sibling, many in infancy or early childhood.” The historical reality of early mortality makes it very likely that teenage characters in historical fiction would have lost one or both parents by the time they reached mid-late adolescence, but that’s not a common experience today, which adds another wrinkle for those of us who write historical fiction. When is parental mortality legit, and when are we trying to get the parents out of the way?

    • Excellent point, Courtney! We don’t want death-by-convenience. Of course, the loss of a parent can add depth to a character, too, and contribute to the story arc–but again, we don’t want to be gratuitous. It’s a fine line.

  6. It’s always so interesting to me that parents don’t understand the reason for all the absent parents in children’s literature and fairy tales. Who ever had an adventure with Mom hanging over her shoulder? But then, people like us have a different perspective on things, don’t we? 🙂

    I thought you did a particularly great job with mother/daughter relationships in “Manor of Secrets” and showed how the relationship with your mother can color how you respond to the whole world (Charlotte).

    Another book that handles parents really well is “Shakespeare’s Secret” by Elise Broach. Mom and Dad provide shelter and food and information about history, but the kids are free to explore the world and get into trouble on their own. Excellent contemporary MG!

    • You’re right, Maryanne! Getting rid of parents falls into that same rabbit hole as “make things really bad for your character”. Not something we’d want in real life, but we crave it in our stories.

      I must pick up Shakespeare’s Secret! Sounds like something my history-loving sixth grader would enjoy.

      And thanks for your kind words about Manor!

  7. Even as an adult, when I spend more than a few hours with my parents I can feel my behavior and personality warp subtly to the soft pressure of who they think me to be. It’s not malice on their part, or weakness on mine, just the natural gravity of being around someone who has imperfect understanding but deep investment. As a child, with a much more fluid and ill defined identity, I needed to be alone or wandering to properly imagine a better version of myself.

    Fictional parents present the same kind of issue, a limiting of the power and significance a child can assign themselves and their situation. Think of the kids finding a body in “Stand by me” with their parents in shouting distance, it’s no longer a quest that connects them in unspoken ways, it’s an ugly problem to be solved.

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