That’s right, I mean you, character in a YA or middle-grade novel. Do your parents know you’re out fighting evil at this time of night? And/or solving mysteries, and/or romancing and being romanced?
Of course they don’t. Because they’re either dead or wholly irresponsible.
These are sentiments you’ve probably seen before: the pitiful plight of parents in a lot of YA and MG books. My sense is that parental survival rates are up in these stories, but this means that authors have had to come up with other ways to keep those pesky adults out of their kids’ hair. Because a present, responsible parent is unlikely to allow a kid or teen to do dangerous and exciting – or especially romantic – things. Plus, if our protagonist has an adult to back her or him up in difficult situations, that drains a lot of tension. This isn’t to say that NOBODY in the realm of YA and MG has an active, non-clueless (clueful?) parent. It’s just saying that parents like this are approximately as common as two-headed snakes. Which are a thing, you know, but not a thing you see every day.
What struck me recently is that many writers seem to use different professions as shorthand for the ways in which their characters’ parents aren’t there for them. It’s always stood out to me when characters have artist parents, for example, because they tend to behave in a certain way that does not tally with my own experience having two parents who are both visual artists and extremely down-to-earth and practical. Then, I noticed that artists weren’t the only ones being picked on. So without further ado, let’s decode a few parental professions!
Artist – Extremely common. The Artist parent is basically an adult child. She wafts dreamily through life with paint smudges on her face. She loves her child and will occasionally offer emotional support and valuable, if flaky-sounding, insight, but she also relies on others to do basic things for her. You get the impression that, if left alone for too long, the Artist parent might forget to eat. Then, when her hunger became intense enough to prompt her notice, she would discover that the only thing in the refrigerator is a pair of high heels because some fleeting, forgotten impulse inspired her to put them there last week on a bed of now-wilted lettuce. She would consider going to the store for more food, but be unable to find the car keys. Things would not end well. Example: Grace’s mother in Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater.
(Note that this is true only for artist parents. An artist love interest will not be flaky, but deep. He will see the world in ways no one else does and have a beautiful soul. Example: Wes in The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, Noah in Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan.)
Blue-Collar Worker – This parent is typically a tough-love type when around and awake, but that’s not often, since he works long hours at a menial job and then falls asleep fast on returning home. The book’s protagonist will be grateful and feel guilty that the Blue-Collar – usually a single parent – is working so hard to support them, but is also likely to sometimes be embarrassed about him, and feel ashamed for feeling that way. Example: Thom’s dad in Hero by Perry Moore.
Businessperson – Ah, the classic. Realistic, yet vague. This parent will have an office or, if rich, a study, in the home and also one outside of the home, and will only be seen outside of these two places when traveling from one to the other. The home office will likely be forbidden to others, especially when the parent is not there. If so, it will contain important information that the kid or teen featured in the story will need.
Doctor – Much like the Businessperson, but this parent will either be more sympathetic (if she works long hours because she just care so much about helping people, leading her to come home mentally and physically exhausted) or evil (if she is evil). Either way, she will not be supervising her offspring effectively.
Lawyer – Again, like the Businessperson, only in addition to the home office and work office, he will sometimes appear in court. The case itself is unlikely to actually be covered in the novel, but the Lawyer will be even less available to his child or children immediately before going to court, because he will have to pull all-nighters to prepare.
Politician – This parent is the political leader, or wannabe political leader, of a country, kingdom, or large community of some kind. For this reason, she will be too busy overseeing affairs of state and/or clinging to power and/or running for office to spend much one-on-one time with a kid. She will be aloof and unapproachable. She may also see her child as a pawn. Side effects of having this parent include a desperate need to prove oneself. Examples: Cleopatra in Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Shecter, Claudia’s dad in Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Samantha’s mom in My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick. (Incidentally, how great a name is “Huntley Fitzpatrick”?)
Trophy Wife – I do not remember ever reading a YA or MG book that included a trophy husband as a father, so for now will assume this is a women-only gig. This parent is shallow and self-absorbed, and may be manipulating her husband. She is quite likely to actually be a stepparent, one who kind of sketches out the book’s protagonist, who is likely closer to her age than her husband is. If she is into charity work, there will be a slightly bitter contrast between her involvement with her charity of choice and her lack of involvement with any kids or teens living under her roof. Examples: Cassel’s mom in Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy, Suzume’s mother in Shadows on the Moon by Zoë Marriott.
Writer – You’d think they’d get off easy in novels, wouldn’t you? After all, studies show that nearly one hundred percent of novelists are writers. But no. The Writer parent – a very common parent type – is a combination of the Artist parent and the Businessperson. He has only one office, which is at home, and rarely ventures outside of it. He cares about his progeny, but doesn’t often put in an appearance to prove it, and is likely to be more than a little whimsical and impractical. Example: Auden’s father in Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen. And, come to think of it, Remy’s mother in This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen. It’s like Sarah Dessen hates writers or something.
I would love to see some kind of study on the most popular parental professions in YA and MG books. Do you have any others to add to the list?