Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Thoughts: Does YA Lit have a "Parent Problem"?

There's been some buzz this week about the New York Time's latest piece on YA lit, The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit. I have to say, I find most of Just's arguments lacking.

First, Just casts a wide net as to what makes a bad parent. She cites three of the most popular current fantasy novels, Twilight, Shiver, and The Hunger Games as all having bad parents. I haven't had a chance to read Shiver yet (I've been on a waiting list at the library FOR MONTHS), but the "bad parents" in Twilight and Hunger Games couldn't be more different: Bella's mother is a newlywed who wants to travel with her new husband, but clearly loves her daughter so only leaves after Bella has assured her that it's okay. Her dad simply isn't used to being a dad, and so leaves Bella to her own devices most of the time. Katniss' mother, however, has been in the throes of a dangerous depression for years, ever since Katniss' father died, leaving her rather incapable of taking care of her daughters. Are any of these parents truly bad? I wouldn't think so. Bella isn't a child by the time her mom has remarried, and her mom didn't force Bella to move to Washington; that was Bella's choice. The implication in Just's piece seems to be that "good" mothers always put their children first and their own lives second, which I just can't agree with. Katniss' mother seems like a genuine candidate for clinical depression, a devastating illness that I won't even blame a fictional person for. To me, these parents are just too different to all be considered truly bad.

Just's argument also gets muddled when she says that "it took a surprisingly long time for bad parents to show up in children’s books," but then goes back to essentially the modern invention of YA lit with examples of "bad" parents, with only a brief nod to '60s books like The Outsiders where the kids are orphans "or might as well be." I haven't read any of the books Just lists, but the "might as well be" part tells me that so-called bad parents have clearly been around since the dawn of YA lit.

The 'absent parent,' who is either dead or effectively out of the way, is a hallmark of children's and young adult literature, because truly effective parents would get in the way of lots of adventures. When I highlight books with great family relationships, generally those books have smaller problems to deal with, like questions of popularity in Into the Wild Nerd Yonder. I love that book, but the plot clearly doesn't have the epic scope of The Hunger Games. But I am finding more and more books with great parents; back when the "problem novel" dominated the YA scene, great parents were hard to find, but they're getting easier and easier, which I think would be a much more rewarding subject for a trend piece.
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