Oh fathers, where art thou?

whos_your_daddy darth vader

(This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the article, but… Star Wars!)

MC = main character

Direct quotes are credited in-text.

Warning: This post is a little longer and more “thinking intensive” than our usual 🙂

In light of recent Father’s Day we wanted to spotlight father characters.  However, after a little thought, we realized that there are very few books that highlight the father figure.  It seems all too common that the parents, although they play an important part in the character’s history and development, don’t usually play a large role in the “meat” of the story, or get much “page time”.  Not to mention they usually get a bad rap.  Being the curious mind that I am, I wanted to know more; Why do parents get so left out? Where are the awesome parents? Why do they get stereotyped? How important are the roles of the parents? Now, I am no scholar but I do have some thoughts.  So I did some searching, article reading, mental reviewing of books I’ve read, and discussing with other readers.  The articles I am pulling from are all well written and well sourced. After I read them I almost felt like not writing this, just quoting them and pointing over there and saying “Hey! Go read these!”  But then I thought, “No, I should do this.  I could use the practice in constructing my thoughts and building a cohesive puddle of ideas…” So here I go! 🙂

The focus of YA books are, of course, the young characters (the ones the intended readers can relate to) and their journey to manhood, true love, a better place, self-finding, or what have you.  This is the opportunity for the MC to learn great things. Unfortunately, achieving this seems to require putting the parents, and for the most part adults in general, in the back seat, in a bad light, or even fully out of the picture.  This issue is as old as the YA genre itself, which may be older than you think.

Novels for the young folks started becoming a “thing” in the mid 60s and into the 70’s. This coincides with the emergence of the famous/infamous “hippie” movement, which encouraged the independence of youth and the idea of rejecting expectations and creating your own identity and future.  Never mind that it turned into a giant bandwagon of lost, broke, hapless, non-individual individuals seeing life through rose-colored glasses, both literal and metaphorical.  From this era we get the still-popular The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, as well as Robert Lipsyte’s Contender.  These first books stemmed from classic narratives of the orphan triumphant, as seen in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and countless fairytales, but with a new flavor of raw survival. The MC is not tied to a past, and is responsible for, and answers to, no one but himself.  Conflict lies not with adults and not really with the status quo, but rather with his peers, the other teens. (Just)

Following the conquering orphan came the sub-genre of “problem novels”.  In the late 70s, early 80s the inept, falling apart, greatly flawed, and irresponsible parents had their YA debut.   Similar to the way that the recent sub-genre of “sick lit” deals with the journey and challenges related to illness, in problem novels the “dramatic conflict occurs not in a vacant lot but in the home, around the dining table”, such as divorce, abuse, and neglect(Just). Mothers often take the fall for home issues, especially leaving, as the females can be pinned with the “emotionally unstable” tag.  Contributing to the stigma is the black cloud of “the evil stepmother” from tales of old.  However, fathers also have been colored a very dark shade of sad.  Tucked into many a page is a father bleary-eyed and hung over, stumbling and yelling and drunk, cold and oppressive, out of sight and out of touch, or simply missing in action.

Julie Just makes a great comparison in her article for The New York Times.

“However toned down, the hapless fictional parents of today aren’t necessarily more believable than the slightly scary figures of the classic problem novel. What they are is less consequential. In the transition from Ma in “A Place Apart” (Paula Fox, 1980) to the father in “Once Was Lost”(Sara Zarr, 2011), deferring to his exasperated 15-year-old daughter in the supermarket aisle, there’s a loss of stature and a lowering of stakes. Ma, a widow, is openly grieving and visibly poorer after the sale of the family home; she’s emotionally unreachable at times and unapologetic about it. By contrast, the father in “Once Was Lost” becomes somehow peripheral, his problems more muted and less interesting than his teenage daughter’s.”

Having a bit of history of parents if YA helps put some things into perspective, but it doesn’t really answer the question of why?  The easy answer: Parents are plot tools.  To have a good story every character must earn their page presence, be it by comic relief, confidant to the MC, foil to the protaganist…   So very often parents get pinned with the job of setting up the MC for a great story, and then are quietly tucked away until needed to bump the story along.  (Obviously, and thankfully!, there are exceptions.)

Parents, real and fictional, are a springboard for their children, who, in YA books, are the focus, and in the real world, are the MCs of their own story. There are two sides to this coin, parents helping the MC to achieve great things by supporting them and rallying behind them, and inversely, giving them a lower starting point and a harder journey by being abusive, absent, or even the active antagonist.  Undeniably, main characters with a troubled or complicated past offer opportunity for a highly interesting journey for the reader.  On the flipside, well constructed, positive parental figures, that don’t even have to be active in the story, can also shape great MCs who might still face great challenges and undergo trials and need to deal with big things and little things and make a great story!

Lorraine Franqui for Girls in Capes addresses the issue of YA fathers, specifically, becoming plot devices who typically fall into one of three categories: fallen hero, absentee enabler, and manipulative villain.  Example after example shows the father’s anger, or fears, or regrets, or absence, or death, setting the protagonist on their journey to whatever fueled by contempt, respect, or revenge.  While this isn’t totally a bad thing, it isn’t great either.  The father is bumped from his job of being an active and involved parent with a mature voice, to a building block of the back story, the whys and wherefores of the MC.

I feel that Franqui really puts a finger on the meat of the issue.

 “There are many types of fathers in the real world: great ones, mediocre ones and even bad ones. It’s not like there’s no variety in the representation of fathers in YA or that there’s a massive lack of really great ones, but the types are neatly defined categories and the representations aren’t always the most favorable. Not all fathers stay heroes in their children’s eyes, but YA should acknowledge fatherhood is a complex universe in itself and that parenting doesn’t come in a neatly defined and predetermined quantity of flavors. …[T]hey have a more central role in their teenaged children’s life than just inconvenient obstacles or occasional, highly limited motivators…”

The YA world isn’t just lacking good fathers, it’s lacking real fathers. Now, I know not all real fathers are good fathers, too many aren’t, but readers could benefit from seeing the MCs have relationships with their parents that is actually part of the story.  A relationship they can relate to their own lives.  Unfortunately, when you write ‘normal’ adults you toe the line of  “the dreaded territory of the boring adult concerns like paying bills, going to work, buying healthy groceries, getting enough exercise and do the laundry”, notes Lucy Silag from Book Country.  But is it possible to find a happy medium? Can someone write parents, married or single, who are sane, responsible, quirky, moody, people with decent fashion sense, but really bad jokes, that always get lost, are concerned with keeping a budget and scared of change, that are firm believers in ordering pizza on Fridays and encourage adventure and self-discovery, who are likable and relatable but can also enable the MC to face their challenges knowing they are not alone?

Some stories we read because all we want is to escape reality for a little while.  But some stories are read because we need the characters, and we need to see their struggles and how they survive, to see *that* they survive.  We read to see ourselves in these characters, and know that we can survive.

Do you have any books to recommend with great, or well written parents?

Want to share your thoughts?

From The New York Times, Sunday Book Review

The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit

By Julie Just, July 2010


From the Book Country blog put out by Penguin Press

Young Adult Contemporary Guidepost #4: Parents in YA Fiction

By Lucy Silag, August 2013


From Girls in Capes blog

The Father Formula in Young Adult Literature

By  Lorraine Alcevedo Franqui, June 2013



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