The Problem Parent: Julie Just on the adults in young adult fiction

Monday, April 5, 2010

Julie Just has an interesting essay in this weekend's New York Times Book Review—a piece that offers not just a history of sorts of young adult literature, but a stimulating rumination on the role that parents play in stories written for younger readers. " the classic stories, from 'Cinderella' to 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,' the hero's parents are more likely to be absent or dead than cruel or incompetent," Just writes. "In fact, it's the removal of the adult's protective presence that kick-starts the story, so the orphan can begin his 'triumphal rise'...."

But the sands have shifted, Just suggests, with many recent, highly lauded books starring parents who are, in Just's words, "mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab...." Hmmm, I thought, looking back over my own shoulder at, for example, Undercover, in which Elisa's much-loved and attentive dad is away on a consulting assignment, leaving a wife who, yes, it's true, tends toward the distracted. Then there's Rosie's mom in House of Dance—abandoned by her first husband and now looking for love in all the wrong places, leaving Rosie's dying grandfather to step into the void. In Nothing but Ghosts, Katie has lost the mom she loves to cancer and now cares for a dad who, in his absent-minded fashion, cares enormously for her. In The Heart is Not a Size, Georgia's parents are a well-meaning, involved presence, but they can't cure Georgia of her panic disorder (they do not even suspect that it exists), while Riley's (also undetected) anorexia springs in part from her reaction to a mother who is nothing if not distant.

Just's essay has me thinking, this morning, about how my young adult plots are ultimately facilitated by the role I've given to the fictional parents. Elisa could have never consistently escaped to that pond to write and to skate, for example, had her mother been paying more attention; she therefore would have never come to see the beauty in herself. Rosie would not have grown to love her grandfather—or found a way to honor him—had her mother been a better mother, or daughter. Katie, without her special relationship with her dad, would have never successfully wrestled with the mysteries of loss. And had Georgia been raised in a different kind of home, with a different set of values, on a different foundation, she would not have found what she had to find in Juarez—which was a sense, among other things, of her own inner strength and possibility.


Lilian Nattel said...

I think the change has a lot to do with social change. Given accident rates, illnesses, etc, orphans used to be a common phenomenon, and so an easy way to kick off a story.

Karen Mahoney said...

Sarah Ockler wrote a wonderful response to Julie Just's piece, too:

A Starlit Suicide said...

I actually went out to specifically purchase Nothing but Ghosts, but it wasn't available at the store! Is there somewhere online I can find it? I went to Borders. I'd really love to read it, and OMG! I am thrilled beyond imagination at the comment you left me. Seriously, made my life lol. Now I can easily push through the last twenty days of my plan to finish my novel.

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