"Darkness. No parents." Who coined this accurate summary of pretty much all YA books? Lego Batman. It's a line from his very edgy debut song in The Lego Movie. But the phrase—and Batman's backstory—cuts to the heart of today’s trope. Where are the parents?!
Think of the last ten YA books you’ve read. How did the writer deal with the main character’s parents? Maybe they killed them to give the MC emotional baggage and something to prove. Or maybe Mom and/or Dad were killed as part of an inciting incident. Or maybe her parents just don’t seem to care anymore. Maybe they’re too busy to notice our MC sneaking out. Or maybe a drug-addled parent might sell them for their next fix. Or maybe—see? We could do this all day.
GUIDE TO YA PARENTS
For good measure, here are a few quotes about this trope from the Authors of YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy Addicts and a few extra indie books.
“YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy takes that to a whole new level (killing kings, joining rebellions, searching for treasure guarded by dragons, etc). Most parents would put a quick kibbutz on all this fantasy adventuring. After all, the mortality rate would be way too high!”
“I think parents are very integral to a person's character. Their absence, especially if the event was tragic, is a key trigger to anyone's hero/villain origin story. Practically every character on Shadow & Bone had absent parents. Lol. Probably harder to think of a YA book with actual good parenting.”
“...ya gotta get them [parents] out of the way if the young adult is going to carry the plot on their shoulders.”
Try as they might, every writer/reader of YA, particularly fantasy and science fiction, must deal with this trope. Do I personally like books where the parents are dead/useless/obstacles or (gasp!) even the villain? Heaven help me, yes. Yes, I do. Because this trope moves us, builds tension, and creates sympathy for the MC. It taps into something universal.
Life contains a disappointingly small amount of space travel, corsets, fancy balls, laser rifles, interstellar conflict, and glowing magical weapons. When was the last time you trekked across wild country on an epic quest? It can be hard to relate to many YA stories. But parents? Everyone has parents, good or bad. So, the trope works because we connect.
The rub: raise your hand if you’ve come across cliche parents in fiction. Ug. These are moments when we groan, or close a book, or just never come back to a show. We don’t so much crave something that’s fresh and completely new, we crave something that’s absolutely relatable. So let’s break this down a bit.
Face it—we’ve been watching the parents die since the handsome and roguish Uncle Scar tossed our boy Mufasa from a cliff to be trampled by antelope. Ouch! Or maybe your Hollywood trauma stretches back to the crispy skeletons of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. That’s two dead mothers for poor Luke Skywalker! Don’t even get me started on mentors—highest fatality rate in all of fiction.
Even more aggravating and relatable might be when there are parents, but they’re completely useless for whatever reason. This is the trope some adult readers complain about. They look at the story and say: “I’m not like that. Adults aren’t like that.” But they kinda are. Teens are just beginning to carve out their place in the world. They see injustice and problems and want adults to fix things. Now! But adults weigh the matter and say, look we’ve tried the revolution thing, it doesn’t work.
There’s this false Idea that teens can’t use the reasoning part of their brain as well as adults, because that frontal cortex is just not developed. In reality teen brains can use reason, but stress hormones have a larger effect on their decision making. I teach high school social studies; I completely understand this. Adults that can empathize with teens are much more likely to read YA. IMO.
Things to Watch For
I've heard a lot of cries for books with supportive, loving parents. That’s a great idea. Though, I’d argue that YA has that. It's just that—to teens anyway—support and love looks a lot like gatekeeping, patronizing looks, and calls to be patient. Traditionally, more reasonable adults are found in the mentor. Think Remus Lupin. But we’d all love to see some BA parents fighting side-by-side with their kids, al la Stranger Things.
In my own book Forged in the Fallout, Clayson is raised by a loving father whose health has been declining for years. They live in the Blue Ridge Mountains where they take care of goats and make their own biodiesel. But his mother is absent. It takes only a chapter for him to discover that magic prevents her from being able to perceive his existence. She literally looks right through him and blocks m. But it’s not her fault, and Clayson is determined to break her out of prison and find a cure to the strange curse.
So pile on. How does this trope show up in the YA books you're reading? Leave a comment below. And whether you are trying to escape the clutches of your dimwitted parents or manage your own hormonal teenager, best wishes.
This article was written by Ben Green
Ben Green is the creator of RIMDUUM, a world filled with underground cities, wondrous settings, and nuclear magic. A modern fantasy adventure, with parents.