I confess that the characters in my YA novels tend to have lousy experiences with their parents. And I know it’s a common criticism of YA. But I don’t think it’s an entirely fair one. Yes, more parents are “missing” in YA literature than in life. Then again, fiction has higher instances of huge blessings and crushing problems across the board, and for good reason.
There’s a danger inherent in making stories too much like real life.
Case in point, vacations. Everyone wants to go on a happy vacation, where everything works out perfectly. Nobody wants to read about one. Perfection is a joy in real life, a snooze in fiction.
No conflict, no story.
So…starting with Pay It Forward, which was my first YA crossover. Dad’s a lout, and is gone. Mom’s an alcoholic who climbs on the wagon and then falls off again. But she loves the kid like crazy. I made her an alcoholic for a reason. Because that makes Trevor one of those kids who has to more or less raise his own parent. Which, in my experience, leads to unusual incidences of maturity.
A curse in real life, an opportunity in fiction.
In Becoming Chloe, Jordy and Chloe live on the street. Their parents are out of the picture. We meet Jordy’s parents, though. Later. They’re a real horror show. Dad has major issues that make him a danger to his own son. Mom has her head up her butt too far to protect him.
So maybe that’s why Jordy protects Chloe. Maybe that’s why he takes care of her the way he does. Because he knows how it feels when no one has your back.
The Year of my Miraculous Reappearance: alcoholic single mom again. Yeah, that does keep coming up. Then again, I’m a recovering alcoholic, sober 23 years, and they do say to write what you know.
In this case it was the perfect opportunity for Cynnie to deny away her own budding alcoholism. Because Mom is worse. And when she finally does get a handle on it, and Mom doesn’t, it felt like the perfect way to make my point that we really can change…but only ourselves. We can’t so much change the people around us.
In The Day I Killed James, Theresa tries to get help from her single dad, but the best he’ll do is hire her a shrink. And her mom ran off years ago. Which leaves her alone with her guilt issues. Because guilt is a whole different ball game when there’s no one around to offset the voices in your head. There are people in the vicinity, but she has to be willing to let them in. And we can see how she’s a bit like her dad in that regard.
We learn an awful lot from our parents. And that’s not always the good news. They can only teach us what they know. They can only teach us what somebody taught them.
In Jumpstart the World, Mom is a total disaster. But she needs to be, for the sake of the story. Because it’s a tale of independence. And in this case, necessity is the mother of it.
In Diary of a Witness, Ernie has a single mom who adores him. But she’s a little on the hysterical side. But, you know what? That matters a lot less than the fact that she adores him. Ernie and his best friend Will are being bullied at the same time, and by the same people, at school. But it breaks Will. And it doesn’t break Ernie. Granted, no two people have the same resistance. But that was less my point. My point was more that it doesn’t matter so much if your mom is a bit hysterical. Or if she doesn’t manage to quit drinking the first time out of the gate. Or ever. Parents can be deeply flawed and still give their kids what they need. Because what kids need is love.
They may want many things, but what they need is love.
So sometimes as authors we can give them what they need. Like parents who are deeply flawed but ultimately loving. Other times we have to withhold what they need so they can go out and fight and claw to find it for themselves.
Nothing is so rich, in my opinion, as watching a character make his or her own way through the world. Which may go a long way in explaining why, in YA fiction, parents so often stand back out of their way.
That’s conflict. And conflict is story.