Thursday, March 22, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: P is for Parents

Parents produce a problem for middle grade writers. Strange as that sounds, it's true. Middle grade kids want to read about kids, not parents, but kids need parents (or other supervising adults) in their lives. And while it's true kids want the kids to be the hero in their stories (and the kids should be), adults do need to enter the picture. But it's tricky. So how do middle grade writers solve the parent problem?

Many middle grade books eliminate parents altogether--main characters are simply orphans. Many, many, many middle grade main characters are orphans. And in many of these orphan cases, the supervising adult of the orphan is a horrible or selfish or stand-offish or uninvolved type.

A large number of middle grade books have a single parent (either through divorce or death) for their main character, but usually that remaining parent is busy, busy, busy and fairly uninvolved in the story.

And still other middle grade stories present main characters whose parents are somehow mysteriously just . . . missing. Insert a variety of methods here, some of which could be: kidnapped, magically transformed, lost.

While any and all of these scenarios can be--and are--real in the real world (well, probably not magically transformed), the number of middle grade books containing missing, uninvolved, or dead parents seems much higher than in the real world. Is it just me, or do you think so too? And it leads me to wonder--why?


  1. I do agree. Being an adoptive mom, I get so tired of the poor orphan. I think in a fantasy, it's easy to have the kids go off on an adventure. And that's okay. Because the parents aren't really needed in those stories.

    Seeing Cinderella is a great example where the parents stay in the story in the background. So is The Cabinet of Earths.

    I do think if parents are in the story that they do need to be in the background because in middle grade stories it really should be about the kids. Great post.

  2. Barbara, the parents are also missing in most of the Disney channel shows as well. My kids and I talk about this all the time.

    To date, I have scribed four middle grade manuscripts, and all four have missing parents. :) My latest manuscript even has the mysteriously missing parent, and readers don't get any info on said parent until the climax of the story.

    I hadn't really thought about the why of all this, however. I think maybe I write this way because I came from a single-parent home.

    Interestingly though, my next two story ideas have two parents.

  3. Two thoughts immediately come to mind. First: one of the rites of passage as we journey from childhood to adolescence is finding -- and trying to embrace -- our independence. For me, having fictional parents "missing" or "absent" often seems to be a way to represent that journey.

    Second: so many kids have parents who *are* absent. Maybe not literally, but figuratively -- they are busy with work or other children, they don't know how to connect emotionally with their adolescent, etc., etc. In fiction, these "absent" relationships are often expressed in other, more physical ways -- through death, divorce, etc. But I think kids reading these stories can relate and can share that sense of loss because their relationships with their own parents are evolving.

    My YA book has a nuclear family...but with two very disengaged parents. My middle grade novel (soon to be published) has a single-parent family. Another WIP (YA) has parents who are divorcing. Yep, the problem with parents is definitely present in my writing! ;)

    Great post, Barbara!

  4. Wow! Such thought-provoking responses. Thank you for taking such time discussing the issue.

    And yes, the desire for kids to have independence (and therefore we writers need to keep parents in the background) is essential in MG. Kids most likely don't even notice or care about the absence of parents in their books. It's only from my parental view that I look at the books and say, "WAIT!! Not all parents are dead, missing, or uninvolved!" :-)

  5. I saw an interview with Lynne Jonell on Kare 11 a while ago where she talks about this. She basically says that it is hard to have adventures with parents around to keep characters safe.

  6. Wow!! This is such a rich question! I agree with all of these marvelous comments, too! I especially like what Beth had to say. I feel like absent parents empower the younger main characters as well as the younger readers. Maybe it's a subliminal way to ween children from relying on their parents and to begin thinking for themselves as individuals.

    On the other hand, I also enjoy reading about involved and loving parents (especially fathers since they are commonly stereotyped as "stupid" on television programs and in movies). I feel like having solid parental figures in a book supports young readers who may not have that in their lives.

    Great question. I don't think I will ever read a book again without thinking about these issues, haha!

  7. The lack of loving, involved parents in fiction is something I find myself thinking about a lot--not just for MG, but YA as well. For both genres, parents are either evil, indifferent, or just plain absent, and that annoys the heck out of me. Those types of parents have a purpose for some stories, sure, but I don't want that to be the only kinds of parents I see in stories. I've always been very close to my mom and want there to be more books for younger readers that reflect that kind of relationship. (I know I definitely appreciated seeing that in books growing up the few times writers dared to write that way!) It creates another thing for characters to care about and potentially to lose in some form when the Big Bad--or simply life--rears its ugly head, giving a book more of an emotional oomph than it may have had before.

  8. I'm a thinking our mg mc's need a level of insolation or independence in their books and parents absent facilitate that. Also, it allows our young readers to focus completely on the mc's independence? Some good food for thought here! Thanks for getting us thinking, Barbara!

  9. Yes, absent parents, like red-headed heroines, seem more common in fiction than in life. :)

    Parents today are more present in most children's lives than they once were. When I was a kid, we could run and play in the neighborhood all day and not come back till the streetlights turned on. (I was more sheltered, but this was what a lot of kids got to do.) Now, everything is scheduled and parents hover more. More parents might be dead now or divorced and living across the country in fiction just because there has to be some way to free the kids up to have an adventure. I've not killed off parents before, but in my current WIP, one kid has a dead father and another has two uninvolved parents who spend a lot of time in Europe. The widow of the dead father is a super-involved mom, though. It's taken some attention to scheduling to get the kids in a place where they can carry out the plot.

  10. Wow, I loved reading all the comments today! My thoughts have been shared by everyone else, but the other thing I think is that it is easier to write and have an independent MC without adults around. Sort of like the easy way out. No adults, no need to worry about them getting in the way or trying to solve problems the MC should be solving. (Granted, it is still hard to write and NOT have the adults around. You still have to explain WHY they aren't around.) I hope this doesn't come across wrong, my thoughts aren't coming out very clearly.:) Anyway, great choice for P!

  11. I'd echo Deb's comments. A lot of soul-searching and fast growing up has to happen with absentee parents. It allows for a lot of dramatic things to happen that simply couldn't if the parents were there. Having an involved, loving set of parents in kid's life is great, but isn't very dramatic. Often, it's not a commentary that kids in books do better without parents, it's simply a plot device.

  12. Ooooo! These are such awesome responses; each one is like it's own little blog post.

    Absent parents are absolutely a plot device, and independent mc's are essential to mg. Up for discussion, however, is what other ways besides traumatic happenings are there to weave these things into mg.

  13. as roald dahl said - kill the parents!

    along with the adventure, i think the one- or two-parent home also creates empathy. i came from a one-parent home, but remember feeling a tug of sympathy when i read about orphans, or a kid who lost one parent. even though my situation wasn't that different, the character became exotic and sympathetic to me...

  14. Great discussion. I knew I was bucking the trend by including the parents in my early middle-grade chapter book series (Dream Seeker Adventures). While I've left the action and adventure to 12-year old Patrick, he is aware that his parents are there for him. Patrick resolves the conflict, experiences growth, within the security of a two-parent household. His parents provide instruction or rules to dream seeking (Patrick experiences dreams as reality) but it's up to Patrick to follow them (or not) and to deal with the consequences. I've had good feedback from kids on the level of 'intrusion' by Patrick's mom and even one reader who wanted to see more of the dad.

    That said, my next work is middle-grade and I've tried to channel Roald Dahl in creating the most awful modern-day workaholic, oblivious parents. Go figure!
    Lisa Ard,

  15. Oh this is so good! One of my writer friends used to call this the Dead Parents Syndrome. Particularly prevalent in Middle Grade fic. I had a perfectly happy childhood with two loving parents yet when I wrote my first novel, the mom had died ( although the sisters had a very good substitute parent). In my current WIP, both parents left this earth long ago! When I worked on this manuscript originally, at a terrific Highlights Founders weekend with Carolyn Coman, she advised me to write that the parents had departed long ago so the wound wouldn't be so raw.
    I'd like to add to the category of Great Parents in recent (ok, brand new) middle-grade fiction-- PLUNKED, a mostly baseball novel just out. I'm giving away an ARC on my blog right now. The parents aren't intrusive, but they are pretty wise, and quite funny too. I also liked the mom in Dead End in Norfelt.
    So happy to have discovered your blog, Barbara!

  16. Hi Barbara,

    Your post prompted me to write about what I think the role of parents should be in middle grade fiction:


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