For Mother’s Day, I dug into bad and good stepmother portrayals. In honor of Father’s day tomorrow, I’m going to talk about another fictional parenting trend: bad parents, or missing parents, or neglectful parents.
Many people ask with a certain amount of umbrage why every major book these days has lousy parenting. The easy answer is because there has to be.
Most of these books have tween or teen protagonists who go haring off on adventures. If these tweens or teens had decent parents, then they would be grounded. Or protected. Or had a parent helping them. Or they wouldn’t have the chutzpah to go off on the adventures in the first place.
The YA adventure books that we grew up with had loving, if distracted, parents. I’m thinking about L’Engle’s series and the Murrys. Often the children enlist the parent’s help, or even have to go rescue their parents in her adventures. In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, the protagonist, Will Stanton is one of many, many children. This makes it easier for him to hide his adventures from his understandably distracted parents. However, even the Narnia books left children without their parents to set them off on their adventures, so this is not a new trope.
Thinking about The Hunger Games, Katniss’ father taught her how to live in the woods, and scavenge food for her family, but his absence is what made her into who she is. If he hadn’t passed away, she wouldn’t have survived the games. In Harry Potter, there are parental figures (the Weasleys and Sirius, Dumbledore, and even Snape, arguably), but Harry’s whole story hinges on the fact that his parents died to protect him. The Weasleys give us a good idea of what Harry’s parent’s might have been like, in terms of willingness to help, desire to protect, and ability to guide decisions.
I was pretty horrible to my protagonist’s parents in Salvaged. I did that on purpose to add to the darkness and horror of the world. To make Careen feel even more alone, and to shake her trust in the rest of the world. If she had had healthy happy family relationships, she would have been well-adjusted. Where’s the story in that?