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Lake Charles, Louisiana, United States
Hello, and welcome to my blog! I like to write about children's literature, fairy tales, feminism, and pop culture in general. I've recently earned my Ph.D. in children's literature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I also review children's and young adult books for Kirkus and teach English at Sowela Technical Community College. Oh, and I like cats! [Banner image artwork by Yuki Midorikawa]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

From abusive to absent: parents in YA literature


So I'm once again struck by a blog post penned (typed?) by the wonderful Maria Tatar: "Absent Parents and the Orphan's Triumphant Rise." Tatar is actually responding to a fun article in the NYTimes: "The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit."


Okay, let's be clear. Getting rid of the parent, whether emotionally or physically, is a plot device. How can you make a child a hero when he is hardly a free agent in his own little world? If Harry Potter had had a loving uncle and aunt, he probably would have been fairly reluctant to leave them and begin his adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy.


Okay, I am not that stupid. I know that it's not about the simple fact that the parents in YA lit are largely and purposefully absent; it's about why and how they're absent. For instance, the nineteenth century saw the rise of the English boarding school tale. Why? Because English children, by and large, went to boarding school. No, not all of them. Not the very poor ones, and not the rich little girls who had private tutors a la Adele Varens. But, by and large. So this was a concern (being sent away from one's family and forced to live among strange boys and/or girls and to work under the tutelage of unfriendly tutors) for young readers at the time. Now, Tatar and Julie Just (author of the NYTimes article) wonder if the absent, preoccupied parents in today's YA literature are "symptomatic" of what children deal with today.


I don't know. Tatar mentions "helicopter parents" -- you know, the ones who come up to schools and demand to know why their child did not pass eighth grade math when she turned in at least 50% of her homework. These are the parents who make teachers' and coaches' lives difficult. But these are also the parents who give their children cell phones, don't monitor their online activities, and are frequently more concerned about a child's social standing than her personal safety.


Parents must disappear because that is what parents do in children's literature. Stepmothers must be evil witches, right? Uncles and aunts must be cruel, Coraline's parents must be more concerned with their work than with cooking dinner, and Huck's father must be an abusive drunk. There would be no story otherwise. Even fairy tales were based on cultural fears. Be careful, or you just might discover you've married a monster, my fair young pupils. Actually, chances are pretty good that you will marry a monster. Just be thankful he doesn't have a cellar full of past wives hanging from his ceiling, dripping blood all over the new flooring.


I think today absent parents in YA lit do reflect the times. But I think if Coraline had been written 100 years ago, she would have been just as frustrated, just as lonely. Perhaps she and her parents would still live in a big old house, and her education and entertainment would be largely neglected, while Mom and Dad busied themselves with balls and dinners and other vastly important social functions. And perhaps her name would have been Mary Lennox instead of Coraline Jones.


Maybe the times do change, but children don't. Children have been pretty much the same as they've always been. And so have their parents.

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