The P-word in YA

Let's talk "Parents" in YA.

It was in a young adult workshop, during grad school, in college, that someone asked me why none of my work had fathers or male parental figures.

        What?! I thought. What are you talking about?

        The question to me was shocking (but also enlightening), because I’d never before noticed this parent-less pattern in my work. 


        All of my protagonists had been raised by mothers (who were often not at home). The fathers had all left or died or been unknown. I never questioned this area of my writing. I was just forever seeking new and innovative ways to “kill” off my father figures (!).

        The reason can likely be attributed to the fact that this was all I really knew. Growing up, I never had a paternal male influence (the closest would have been my brother who is eight years older than me). I was raised by my mom who often worked between sixty and seventy hours a week to keep my brothers and I housed, clothed, fed, heated, plugged-in, and educated. Because of her demanding work schedule, she was often not at home (like the moms in my YA stories). As a young person, if I had wanted to spend time with my mom, I would often accompany her to work. She took on many jobs over the years (including house-cleaning, banking, office work, calligraphy teaching, pottery studio assisting, newspaper delivery, bill-collecting, etc., etc.)

        Writing YA without parents (or without parents who are overly present) just came naturally to me, without question (or consciousness). 

        Many now complain that this has become a trend, that YA material doesn’t have parents or that YA work always comes up with reasons to keep parents at bay. I guess in some ways that’s true. More and more, I notice stories without much parental influence. But, in many ways, this makes sense to me. I feel there’s an obvious reason that young adults are at the forefront of the dramatic action: because the stories revolve around how the young adults see and respond to their world. 

Should there be parents? Yes, probably. But I personally don’t tend to get too hung up on this requirement as a reader of YA.

In my work now, I do include parents, but, admittedly, it’s still hard to find room in my stories for the “dad” figure. This whole “father-figure” concept is one of the items on my checklist for revision (along with my overuse and love of the word “just”). Things I check: Do I mention the male parental figure enough? Is he just a stock character, there to serve the story? Or is there more to him and the relationship he has to my main character?

This is a tough one for me, and I often wonder if the male parental figure ends up serving my story at all, or if I should instead take him out, as I did in grad school. 

The moms in my stories are also pretty preoccupied by other things (work, relationships, volunteering, or otherwise), not finding much space on the page. And, when they do find page-space, they’re often flawed, often needing to arc/change/grow/learn just as much as my main character. 

Intentional? No.

Real? Yes, very much so. 

For me, anyway*.  

(*Upon reflection of my most recent two books for the purpose of this post, admittedly, the parents are mostly absent. Jane Anonymous features a vacant/disengaged father and a flawed/out-of-touch mom, who disconnects as a way to cope. In The Last Secret You'll Ever Keep, both parents have tragically died; the main character lives with her aunt who is mostly checked-out/disengaged. I know, right? Send help.) 


  1. I agonize over whether or not to include parents in my books sometimes. You know, though, when I was a young reader, I never noticed if the parents in books, movies, etc. were around or not. I wasn't interested in them!


Post a Comment