Up Close and (un)Conventional – Literary Orphans

Posted 22 January, 2016 by Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews in Discussion Posts / 32 Comments

Up Close and (un)Conventional - (un)Conventional Bookviews

Up Close and (un)Conventional – Literary Orphans

Welcome to this week’s Up Close and (un)Conventional. This is where I discuss both things that have to do with reading and blogging, and things that just have to do with life in general. This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about literary orphans, or the lack of parents in YA novels. It’s something that sometimes really irks me, because it kind of makes things too easy for the teens – they don’t have anyone around to enforce rules, nor do they have someone who loves them unconditionally and makes them feel safe. It sometimes feels like this has become a trope of laziness, which may be completely unfair to YA novels!

And while I was thinking about the unfairness of my own thinking, I went way back in time, and I realized that a lot of classics feature orphans or child characters who don’t have parents who are present either. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is an orphan, and he is even a child laborer for a long time. Until he takes matters into his own hands and walks all the way to where he thinks his aunt lives. And what about Catherine in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights? Her mother is dead, and her father is emotionally absent, even if he is somewhat physically present. The same happens in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, where Hester grows up with a distant mother, and it’s almost as if she didn’t have parents at all.

Therefore, it’s not as if YA has invented lack of parents in order to shape characters’ personality, or to make the plot unfold in a certain way, with young characters who need to live by trial and error rather than having guidance from parents who love them and only want what’s best for them. That being said, it always makes me happy when there is at least one parent who is present, strong and loving in a YA novel, it makes me feel that the author dared to overcome the difficulties a loving parent can make to a teenage plot, and it’s refreshing to read something that’s a little bit different. What do you think of the lack of parents in YA? Do you have some recommendations for me where parents are around in YA?

Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews
Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

About Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

Lexxie is a grad student in English Language and Literature, an avid reader, blogger, compulsive one-clicker and a genre omnivore. Ever since she learnt how to read she has been seen with a book or two in her hands everywhere she goes.

32 responses to “Up Close and (un)Conventional – Literary Orphans

  1. As a teen, the last thing I would want to see in my YA novels are realistic parents who held their children respnsible. I would want to escape into a world where teens were free to be teens (which is, thankfully, not the world I grew up in).

    So, I definitely understand why a lot of YA suffer from disappearing parent syndrome, but don’t actually mind it.

    (That said, I only really read Dean Koontz and a few odd books as a teen. Not exactly YA, but they tended to have the syndrome too.)

    I couldn’t name a book with involved patents!

    • That’s a very good point (I guess it’s really been too long since I was a teen!) I guess now that I’m a parent, I just get very upset with those literary parents who aren’t really taking care of their children. I almost prefer dead parents to emotionally distant parents.
      Isn’t it interesting, though, that you can’t even think of one that has involved parents?

  2. it’s true htat we never have a lot the presence of the parents in the books or if they’re here, they’re really not there for their children, drinking, dating or else. They’re only more present when it’s adult books and that we follow someone who has a child but not often either.

  3. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre too, what a childhood she had ! And one of my readers told me once that she hated Roald Dahl’s novels because the parents always ended up dead in the stories, lol. I don’t read a lot of YA, but it’s true that in those I have, parents and adults in general don’t seem to be very present.
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  4. Oh man, this is very true. I had to rack my brain trying to think of one YA book where the parents are present and actually…parents. It seems like if the parents are present in YA they’re incompetent and the teen has to take care of them or abusive and the teen has the escape them.

    The only book I could vaguely remember the parents being present and loving their kids is “Whip It” by Shauna Cross (It’s alternative title is Derby Girl, I think). It’s a great book about a teen who lies about her age to join the local derby. The best part is how it focuses on female friendships and support.
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    • The Fault in Our Stars have loving parents for both Hazel and Gus, but their story is so sad anyway… Apart from that one, I really have trouble thinking of YA novels that have parents who are there for their children, Samantha. I’m going to look for Whip It! Thanks for letting me know about it.

  5. I often wonder what started the Orphans in Literature trend…I wonder if it’s not so that the main character realizes that no one is coming to save him and he has to learn to save himself. In any case, it’s certainly over done and I wish more characters had actual parents to deal with! At this point it just is so different than the usual that we (understandably) get excited when a parent is present – which is unfortunate. I wish there was more of a balance!
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    • That’s a great point, Micheline, having the character save themselves rather than being able to rely on anyone at all to move forward in their lives and grow.
      I think it shows a lot of finesse and imagination to incorporate good, loving parents and still have the teen character do what teens do, and get into trouble.

  6. You know I feel the same way you do, Lexxie, and I’m wondering if this is because we’re both parents and we give our children the love, support, guidance, etc., that we wish the teens in YA books had. It’s probably a lot to do with how parenting has changed. In David Copperfield’s time, poor parents sent their children off at very early ages to work simply because they couldn’t afford to care for them. And I think it’s rather common, until maybe the 70’s?, that parents had children to help make a living (on farms) and/or believed that children were to be seen and not heard…thus, they were emotionally distant. Now, seemingly, parents are much more present in children’s lives…of course, there are negatives to some of today’s parenting styles. 😉
    I hadn’t thought about literary orphans in classics before, Lexxie, so I appreciate this post. It’s nice to know that it isn’t something created more recently in order to propel YA plots.

    Apparently, I’m quite chatty today. Forgive my long, rambling comments. 😉 Happy Friday, my friend! **BIG HUGS**

    • Yes, I think partly our dislike for absent and ‘bad’ parents is because we are present for our own children, and we want to be able to help and guide them when they need it, and let them be independent when that is OK.
      You’re absolutely right about parenting changing, though, we were probably among the first generation of children who were included as a complete part of the family, with parents who both guided us and kept us safe, while also letting us do things on our own. And you made me giggle a little with your comment about some parents being somewhat too present in their children’s lives, too. Or maybe letting their children getting away with too much, without taking responsibility for their actions.
      I love it when you’re chatty, my dear! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. *BIG HUGS*

  7. I don’t really mind when parents aren’t presents, but it does feel sometimes like authors take the easy way out by not including parents. It can be interesting to see kids deal with parents, whether they are loving and protective or how sometimes those relationships can be difficult too. Especially as in real life I think either of thsoe are more likely than not having parents around, but if it’s well done and makes sense why the parents around and the parents still feel like real characters I am usually okay with it. I guess I just want it to make sense and be believable instead of feeling like the author went for the easy route by not having parents around. I recently read a YA book where someone’s mother got murdered andher dad lost himself in the bottle and I thought at leats that way it made sense why they weren’t there and what happened. It also showed her that situation influenced her and her life.
    I think parent-child relationships can add an interesting dynamic and relationship to the book and having the parents be present can lead to interesting conflitcs as well. Or provide the kid with a loving and caring environment, either way I do think it’s interesting to read books where the parents are present in some ways as well. Great post!
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    • I think it can be very interesting to see the kids (ad their friends) deal with parents – responsible parents can be like an obstacle the teens need wits to get around, as well, even in paranormal stories. And yes, since the trope of no parents has almost become a clichè, I have really started to feel much more for the stories where there are parents present, and that they are behaving like adults.

  8. As I think back to my life as a teen I remember having a very loving and supportive mother who couldn’t always attend things because after my dad died she had to work full time. Back then too we did a lot of things on our own that teens today couldn’t do safely (walking or riding bike to the Dairy Queen, 7-11, or Ames department store [similar to Walmart]). We didn’t have cell phones keeping us connected or think about wearing helmets, etc. Mom would drop me off and come back later to get me if needed, but in between, we were on our own. It was fun.

    Your thoughts started me thinking right away about all the books I’ve read. The first parents that came to mind were Fenton Hardy and Carson Drew. They trusted their sons and daughter and friends to do a lot of major and sometimes dangerous sleuthing. Many times the parents helped in solving the case or gave the case to their famous sleuth offspring. They were there and supportive and reminded the kids to ask permission etc. I know a lot of people do not like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries because they seem to sweet and goody-goody. That’s okay, but here is an example where the parents are somewhat involved as well as family meals.

    Another series I can think of with strong adult presence is the Anne of Green Gables series. Marilla and her brother Matthew are like mother and father to Anne. They have expectations for her and remind her of the rules. Anne still gets to explore and learn on her own.

    That last part is what I think most YA is about. Exploring the world and learning on our own from successes and mistakes. The teen years is when we tend to test and push the boundaries of independence. As I recall in a more recent publication, one Jocelyn Fray was a huge part of Clary’s life until she was taken in City of Bones and Clary had to go find her. The same happens to Percy Jackson. He has a great mom, but then mom is taken to the underworld by Hades and Percy has to rescue her and clear his name at the same time.

    Lena’s family is pretty tight with her in Beautiful Creatures. Although, mom is not one we want to have around. Uncle is awesome and fatherly.

    Arthur and Molly Weasley are wonderful parents and a great influence. Of course, they are kind of absent because the kids are in boarding school.

    It’s an interesting thing to think about. Most of the stories are told from the teen’s point of view and many time the action happens during school or business hours when parent and child are not together. Lots of teens go to their friends’ houses at night or the mall, etc. I feel like I’m rambling and am sorry if I have strayed from point. What I’m getting at is while there are those completely absent parents (like in Hush, Hush) who would travel without making provisions for alternate supervision, there are also parents who are there in the background and are ignored by the teen who is trying to learn about life on their own and are currently in the “I know everything and don’t need your help” phase. Since many stories are told from the teen’s point of view…if there were a lot of perfect yet somewhat hovering or helicopter parents involved, how many times could you read, “I wish my mom would leave me alone.”
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    • I agree, Xyra, all of those include parents who are definitely present, but in the past 10 years, parents really tend to either be dead, or never really at home, nor connecting with their teens. While I agree that a lot of the stories are both told from the teens’ perspective, and also during a time of the day when neither parents nor teens are at home, it often seems as if it is really impossible for teens to get a hold of their parents if they actually need them.
      However, as Micheline stated above, if having to figure things out on their own, and fight their own battles is part of the journey, then it does make sense.
      And I would go completely mad if I had to read ‘I wish my mom would leave me alone’ 😉

      • I was thinking it is more than the last 10 years. 🙂 As you pointed out, even the great works of literature have missing parents. Of course, back then there really wasn’t a direct connection with cell phone.

        I would enjoy a good family story. I think Soul Screamers had a pretty cohesive family group. One of the stories I read started out with a great family and they turned into satan worshipers. Didn’t end well. LOL
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  9. As the mother of 2 girls (one is a teen and the other is beyond her teen years), I don’t think that this age group really wants to read about parents. I am sure that the support that they have been given at home has a big impact on their decisions in life but if you asked them they would credit their friends instead. Teens are very much focused on teens and many times the support of their family is simply taken for granted. Just my two cents. Great post!
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    • I completely get what you mean, Carole, and I don’t think that making parents a really big part of story is what I would want. Just having the feeling that the teen in the story knew that if the worst thing ever happened, they could count on at least one of the parents to help them out. And yes, I think the support of their family should be taken for granted, however, the opposite is often what’s happening in contemporary YA these days. The characters rather take for granted that there is no adult in their corner, and that’s what I find to be a little too much.
      Thanks for sharing some good points, Carole.

  10. I do like books where the parents are present, even if they aren’t the BEST parents – it’s nice to see at least one parent around that is trying. The book I just reviewed (We Are the Ants) has a mom that constantly around in the book. She has a tough time but she’s a good mom and she does care. Even having that is enough and different for me. I do think having absent or no parents at all makes it easier for teens to get around in YA books – but you’re right, it’s nice when authors work around this and show that parents are there and they can be supportive and loving without it ruining the entire book for the teen. haha

    -Lauren
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    • I agree, at least one parent who is actually trying to fill the parenting role is a good thing, Lauren. And when things are done with love – even if they aren’t perfectly done – I think that is something the younger character can take with them for later.
      While having more or less absent parents definitely does help the teens get around and do what they do in YA books, I think it is interesting to see what the teens will do to get around their parents’ rules so they can still save the world 😀
      Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Such a great post, Lexxie! I just recently finished reading a childrens/middle-grade book where these very dynamics come into play. Well, not so much with orphancy, but with parents who rob their children of their childhood by forcing them to take on a parentified role. I don’t particularly enjoy these elements, and it’s probably because they touch some old wounds, but I’m certain others will be able to relate to them.

    • I actually think that reading about those situations where a child is basically acting as a parent might work better if that wasn’t what happens in such a big number of YA and, apparently MG books, Claudia. And while in some cases this really moves the plot forward, and makes for some great character development, in other cases, it just feels like a cop-out so the teens can go out at night, fight vampires, and have the people who are supposed to care be completely clueless.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  12. I don’t read a large amount of YA, so I don’t have a lot to pull from, but I do see where lack of parents do seem to give the writer something to write about for the teen or younger character. If you look at Disney movies, I think The Incredibles was the first one where both parents are featured. Before that it was one, if any.

    Great topic.

    These are the few that I’ve read that weren’t orphans, that I can remember.
    -The Replica series by Jenna Black
    -Faeriewalker series by Jenna Black
    -The Blackwell Pages by Kelley Armstrong and Melissa Marr (middle grade)
    -Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (orphaned very young and adopted by werewolf pack, so I don’t know if this fits for you’re asking for or not)
    All of these are trilogies.
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    • I hadn’t thought about Disney movies at all, Melanie! But I guess a lot of them are based on fairy tales, which deal with the evil step-parent, or the orphan who has to make it on their own.
      I’ve read the Faeriewalker series, and you’re right, there are parents there, I had forgotten about it, because it’s been along time.
      Thanks for sharing some YA series where there are parents included in the story.

  13. I agree that a lot of parent seem to be completely removed from YA. Honestly, when I think back to my teen years my mom(a single parent with a useless husband) was there but not even part of my daily life. I did have a abnormal childhood. I think caring more about your social life than your relationship to your parents is almost a right of passage into adulthood. It would be nice to see parents in the picture, but not completely absent once in a while in a YA story.
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    • I agree, I don’t think the teens care all that much, at least for a while. However, in so many YA books, there are either physically or emotionally absent parents, and it has kind of become part of the trope for those stories now. I think that’s why I am pleasantly surprised when I read one where there is at least one parent who is not only there, but who cares, and tries to help. Even if the teen character might not appreciate it, I as a reader appreciate that there is someone there who would at least try to catch them if they fall 🙂
      My mom was a single mom when I was a teen, too, and while she wasn’t at home all the time, we did have a relationship, and I always knew that if I was in trouble, I could count on her to do her best to help me!

    • You’re right, of course, we often only see some aspects of the characters’ lives, but I think some stories make a point of emphasising that the teenager has no parents, or shitty parents more often than not. I am always pleasantly surprised when there is a parent (or an adult that helps the teen out selflessly) even if the parent isn’t a part of everything the teen character is going through.
      Thanks for stopping by, Kim.

  14. Fran C

    As a child I believe the only teen books I actually read were Sweet Valley High & SVTwins.
    I was always jealous of the parents in that book. I thought they were awesome. They were there but they weren’t interested in the twins life. If That makes sense.
    Now I don’t mind if there is blood parents or a guardian or an adult that they look up to as long is the relationship is kept realistic.

    Even if there’s nobody because the person is a ward of the state, a run away, or an orphan.
    There is normally one adult figured that the person looks up to. Even if they are 14 and the adult is 18 or 19.

    That said I believe there is no “norm” as far as parental figures go in ya books.
    It’s normal to not have parents just like it’s normal to have parents. Those parents are married and happy and “” normal” or they are totally dysfunctional or they are never around or there is only one. There are all kinds of dynamics now so there really is no right or wrong way to include a parental figure in the story. I hope I’m not rambling LOL

    • I actually read a lot of ‘adult’ books when I was a teen, and I think the only books I read that had kids or teens in them were detective books, like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden etc. Now, though, there is such a huge market for YA books, and I think that’s great! I love a good coming of age story, even if I did all that a very long time ago myself 🙂
      I think I know what you mean about the parents in SVH and SV Twins. They were there if needed, but mostly let the characters live their lives, so as to not interfere with the story being told. And that’s great! I don’t think I’d enjoy a book in which the parents were too involved, kind of taking over the narrative. But I have become quite fed up with fictional parents who don’t interact with their kids at all anymore, or who are counting on their kids to do the jobs of adults – taking care of younger siblings all the time, cooking, cleaning, all things that parents need to teach their kids to participate in, but that is still the parents’ responsibility in the end…
      Thanks for stopping by! I love that you have a slightly different perspective than me, maybe I’m not reading the right YA books – I mostly get crappy parents, or no adults at all in those I can remember off the top of my head.

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