Posted by: Trisha Leigh | April 3, 2012

Parents? We Don’t Need No Stinking Parents.

If there is one thing parents excel at, it’s embarrassing their teenagers. I know my parents took to that particular ability like they were born to do nothing else – and they reveled in it too.

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THESE ARE MY PARENTS. THEY APPEAR NORMAL, EVEN NICE. DO NOT LET THEM FOOL YOU.

When I was in high school, pretty much everything my parents did made me want to hide under the bed, but there is one incident in particular that made me want to curl into a ball and die. It was spring, and the screen to the sliding glass door onto the deck had a rip in it. My dad, being the responsible male homeowner that he is, decided it needed to be fixed.

The Problem: My parents both owned sedans.

The Solution: Drape a (hideous bright red and pink floral) quilt over the roof of the Ford Taurus, rest the screen on top of it, and then have the entire family drive THROUGH DOWNTOWN RIGHT PAST MY HIGH SCHOOL with an arm out the window to keep the screen from blowing away like we were auditioning to be the new Griswolds.

I. Wanted. To. Die.

My father took some kind of sick glee in how humiliated the ten minute drive made me. I suspect he chose the most garish quilt he could find, and that the fact that he drove so slow he could have been the Grand Marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade had more to do with extracting the maximum level of embarrassment and not being careful of the (already ripped) screen.

I survived. Yes, we had to make a repeat performance when the screen was repaired and ready to be picked up. I still love my parents, but it was touch and go for a few years there.

Recalling this episode made me think about one of the criticisms people have of YA literature, namely that the parents are often conveniently missing/dead/distracted/immature. The trope allows teenagers to easily get into situations that attentive parents would prevent or at least complicate…like, you know, getting caught in a werewolf-vampire love triangle etal. The last draft I completed, a YA mystery called What I Know About Charlie, featured my first set of normal, involved parents. I also recently finished a beta read for the lovely Anne Riley, and her paranormal YA also incorporated a strong familial influence.

As much as the absent parents are easier (and yes, often they are necessary to the plot/character development/worldbuilding – I’m not blanket criticizing the use of this element), it is refreshing to see families used as a constructive piece in storytelling. There are certainly plenty of kids out there growing up with some form of absent parents, but there are also a wealth of young readers who deal with loving, overbearing, annoying, embarrassing parents on a daily basis. Leaving them out categorically robs us of the chance to write (and read) some honest, humiliating, potentially funny scenes…in addition to highlighting the care and support one’s family can bring to the table in times of trouble.

Want to read some books with strong, well-written, impactful parent-child relationships? Try:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

How To Save a Life and Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz

If I Stay by Gayle Foreman

Fracture by Megan Miranda

What do you think? Does it matter? Are there times you read a book, read that the parents are dead or uninterested, and roll your eyes? If you have other reads that you loved, please share them. I love recommendations!

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Responses

  1. My all-time favorite is “Meet the Austins.” Years ago, a grade school teacher read it to our class, and as recently as last year, I re-read it, and it is still amazing.

    • Oh, the Austins! And the Murrys! And the O’Keefes! Definitely recommend all Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s books.

  2. This is something I always loved about Madeline L’Engle’s books: the family unit was strong. I think it adds so much depth to the story!

  3. Interesting. I never really thought about the lack of parenting in YA, but as I started thinking about the books I’ve loved, they all basically had the element of missing/uninvolved parents.

  4. This is a touchy subject with me. Our parents shape us into the adults we’ll become and the absence of a parent frequently has a bigger impact — but sometimes, it feels too contrived (i.e., Twilight, as you pointed out.)

    This is why I deliberately gave my SEND main character, Dan, a loving family… I wanted his mistakes, his behavior, his choices to reflect HIM – not his relatives.

    But in my current project, I did use the absence of a parent as the basis for a friendship between my two leads, Megan and Bailey. The parents of Chase, Megan’s love interest, are TOO involved in his life. I’ve been trying to play up that disparity as much as I can. Will let you know how it goes. 🙂

    Interesting post and er… sorry about that screen.

  5. Last week, I finally got around to watching X-Men: First Class. Not bad, for that kind of movie. I’m glad it came along for the ride on my cable bill rather than having to pay extra for it at a theatre, but I found it a satisfactory diversion for two hours while I ate pizza.

    But after it was over, I noticed something. I completely and utterly did not buy Magneto’s “You killed my mother,” tantrum. I thought, “Yeah, right. Like that ever happens.”

    Of course, that was a facile, knee-jerk response to a silly movie. The next day when I went to see “We Bought A Zoo” and wept for two hours in a tiny second-run theatre. Afterwards, I thought about how I was crying about a dead mom in one movie but utterly dismissive a character motivated to life-consuming vengeance by a different dead mom.

    So what was the difference? Always one willing to root around in my psyche and then pretend I’ve figured out Something Important, I reflected for a while.

    It occurred to me the mom in “We Bought A Zoo” was an idealized fantasy. She never existed except in soft-focus and lens flares, was always smiling or gazing meaningfully in flashbacks and memories, and was so superhuman she was able to hide the $84,000 needed to save the zoo from her husband while dying of cancer.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love the movie, but it was a bunch of bullshit, emotionally-manipulative frippery.

    So, Magneto. His mom actually showed up on screen and got killed by Kevin Bacon. I suppose that would upset a guy. But in that movie, the filmmakers skipped the soft focus and lens flares and relied on us accepting as a default position that Killing Our Mothers Should Be Upsetting.

    Mind you, that is probably a reasonable assumption. And yet, I don’t feel it.

    Folks who’ve read my stuff are probably aware the parents therein are deeply awful people who should all be shot into outer space, there to be devoured by Cthulhoid demons for all eternity. It’s actually a mercy to my characters when their parents are dead or otherwise absent.

    And the common element in this? Well, me.

    So what do I have against parents? Life history, of course. My actual dad was the best of the bunch, since he ignored me most of my life (by living on the other side of the world) and rebuffed my efforts to get close to him as an adult. He might have been a good guy, but I have no way of knowing. With him gone, I had a series of step-dads, two of whom were violently abusive. And my mom? Petty, cruel, and self-centered are among her better traits.

    Now, this isn’t some kind of plea for hugs and all that. I’m a grown-up who’s worked through the worst of his shit and continues to tinker with the contents of his brain pan. It’s just data in the current context. Don’t feel bad for me, because I don’t.

    It’s just, whenever I hear about good parents loved by their children, I think, “Yeah, but what are you hiding?” I know that’s terrible, but I can’t help it. Intellectually, I have no doubt Trisha’s parents are the delightful, quirky, caring people she describes. But my gut wars with my brain on this matter.

    In a sense, this make my own writing all polemical. It’s also therapy. But mostly they’re stories about circumstances I understand. It’s not just my own parents. I once drove to a friend’s houses in the middle of the night to help him sneak his sister out of the house because she was hemoraging and her parents refused to take her to the hospital. My friend was too scared the call the police, and I was too dumb too, but at least we got her to the hospital and she was okay. Impregnated by her step-father at age twelve, but at least the pregnancy spontaneously aborted.

    That’s just one. I got a million of these, especially when I think of everything I learned during the process of adopting the Spawn, who was born with meth in his blood and had to live with his horrible biological mother until he was three.

    So I can feel sad for an ideal I’ve rarely seen and barely believe in, but I am suspicious that the death of any parent would set someone off on a lifelong revenge kick.

    And when other writers tell tales of absent parents, or dead parents, or distracted parents, I think, “Yeah. Makes sense to me. How else WOULD it be?” Once again, not fair. But then not much is.

    And, of course, when REALLY sets me off patriarchal authoritarians, like that awful woman who went after Maureen Johnson. To me, those people are defending abuse out of some misbegotten adherence to top-down authority.

    So, in the end, the thinking part of my brain celebrates the good parents out there, and wishes there were a lot more. But the feeling part of my brain will probably keep writing the bad/distracted/dead parent stories—at least until I don’t need to any longer.

    What would be great, of course, is if nobody needed to.

    Good lord, I do go on and on, don’t I? I’ll shut up now.

    • My comment is full of annoying typos. Now THAT is something I can believe would set a man on a lifelong quest for revenge.

  6. Hmm. Well, I’m the flip side, Bill. I have lovely folks who yes, have flaws, but raised us really well and we all live close by and get along together. My husband was raised by his lovely folks, (relative, of course -) and now it is really the most important thing in our lives to do well for each other and our kids.

    HOWEVER, I wrote a fairy tale for adults and the main character is a Mom and wife, but we see no other parents anywhere. The young men in the story apparently sprang from the earth. I have no idea why.

    But I do know many folks who had terrible parents for one reason or another, and damn, I know I am lucky. And I will pass that luck on to my kids, And be really embarrassing at all times.

    • Trisha’s point on Twitter is a very important one. “It’s so interesting how disparate our origins can be…and it’s easy to forget.” The wonderful thing about reading is it gives us a chance to feel what someone else’s life is all about. If we each tell the stories important to us, then we open a door for everyone else to a wide range of experience. I know I appreciate that so much. I may have my own filters installed by my own life, but I do believe I’ve grown from what I’ve read as well as what I’ve lived.

  7. And of course, well written and interesting, Tricia! Thank you!

  8. OH! And older books – the Betsy Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, The Saturdays (and other Melendy books) by Elizabeth Enright. Younger teens, sure, but darling and with happy and different families. And you know, Lousia May Alcott.


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