In her April 1 New York Times essay, The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit, Julie Just argues that today’s YA literature is rife with bad or ineffective parents. She writes:
…the bad parent is now enjoying something of a heyday… some of the most sharply written and critically praised works reliably feature a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent, suggesting that this has become a particularly resonant figure.
Afflicted by anomie, sitting down to another dismal meal or rushing out the door to a meeting, the hapless parents of Y.A. fiction are slightly ridiculous. They put in an appearance at the stove and behind the wheel of the car, but you can see right through them.
If you have a chance to read the article, check it out. In the mean time, I have a few issues with Just’s broad categorizations and ultimately contradictory essay:
1. Some — maybe even lots of — parents are hapless, ridiculous, and hardly present. Sometimes it’s just who they are. Other times there may be an external explanation. In TWENTY BOY SUMMER, for example, Frankie’s parents are totally ineffective, but it’s not because “YA parents are bad.” It’s because they’re grieving the death of their teen son.
2. The best YA lit — arguably, any literature — is not that which paints the most accurate reflection of reality, but that which resonates most authentically with the intended reader. It’s the whole “perception is reality” thing. Regardless of the reality, lots of teens perceive their parents as inept, mopey, or even downright bad — I know I did. In my thirteen- to nineteen-year-old mind, Mom and Dad were clueless, ineffective, and, you know, stupid. (Not anymore, though! *cough* movingrightalong…)
3. The purpose of contemporary YA lit is not to teach lessons or set moral codes (though in some cases, this may be an unintended outcome, and that’s okay, too), and “good” versus “evil” in character traits, choices, actions, words, and values is a vast area of fuzzy grayness. Just because a parent isn’t smacking a kid Mommy Dearest style or abandoning him in the woods la Hansel and Gretel doesn’t mean she’s not abusing him, and this abuse can be so subtle as to seem like simple lameness or lack of presence. Remember when you were a teen? How many times could a simple look or shrug from your mother make you want to scream, “just listen to me!!?”
4. Like Janet Burroway says in WRITING FICTION, “…in literature, only trouble is interesting.” The epicenter of most contemporary YA novels (or, again, most novels in general) is a problem, issue, or incident from which the story-length internal and external conflicts grow, ultimately changing the main character(s). So if we have a teen main character with model parents who are effective but not helicopter-y, encouraging but not stifling, cool and laid back but firm and strong, in love but not mushy, trusting but not naive, not dead, not sick, not divorced, financially sound, all around awesome people… um, yawn. Where’s the story there? Where’s the conflict? What’s driving the main character to want something, and what’s preventing him from getting it? Where are the challenges that force him to grow over the course of the novel? If the parents aren’t the issue, than it’s happening at school, with friends and significant others, at work, or internally, in which case the role of the parents in the story absolutely takes a back seat.
Just cites Bella’s mother in the TWILIGHT series as an example of this “clownish, curiously diminished” parent, but honestly, when you discover your hottie emo boyfriend is really a vampire who finds it nearly impossible not to kill you, and your BFF is a werewolf who wants to kill your vampire boyfriend, your “loving, erratic hare-brained mother” kind of pales (no pun intended) in comparison.
Just also mentions Sara Zarr’s ONCE WAS LOST, a beautiful story that explores a teen’s struggle with faith and family in the wake of her mother’s DUI and subsequent rehab admission and the parallel story of a local kidnapping that sucks up what’s left of her pastor father’s attention. Just says:
…the father in “Once Was Lost” becomes somehow peripheral, his problems more muted and less interesting than his teenage daughter’s.
Well, duh! ONCE WAS LOST is Samara’s story, not her father’s. We’re in Sam’s head the entire time, seeing things through her eyes, perceiving things through her senses. If Zarr decided to revisit the story from Dad’s perspective, his problems would likely become very interesting, while Sam’s would rightly fade.
5. Contrasting contemporary YA literature with titles from the 1960s and 1970s — while making for an interesting cultural and artistic discussion — is not a way to effectively argue that today’s YA parents are lame. YA literature has exploded over the last decade. Not only did pioneering authors and passionate librarians pave the way for a broader range of stories and topics, but look at the social and economic landscape: Teens today have more direct purchasing power online and off, can more easily connect with friends and other peers for recommendations and sharing, and can even download content without ever having to interact with an adult. This means that there are fewer adult gatekeepers “screening” YA literature, allowing and even forcing contemporary YA authors to explore issues and characters in ways that were previously uncharted or censored. YA lit today is just different from YA lit 40 years ago, just as parents and kids are different, relationships at home are different, television and movies are different… everything is. And 40 years from now, everything will have changed again.
The real parent problem?
In my opinion, the real parent problem in YA lit is not that parents in contemporary YA stories are ineffective, mopey, and bad. It’s that some parents (and other adults) in real life continue to stereotype and generalize YA as ghetto sub-genre that doesn’t teach the “right” lessons… or they just plain forgot what it was like to be a teen.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit, readers and authors. So hop on over and read the article while I work on conjuring up some more bad parents for book three!