Thursday, May 20, 2010

Maggie's Inflammatory Blog Post About Parents in Books

So I believe it is time for me to do an inflammatory blog post about parents in YA literature. I can pretty much guarantee some people will be going HECK YA! when they read it. And I can pretty much guarantee some people will be going BURN IN A FIRE! when they read it. And I can be 100% sure that the latter group are adults.

Allow me to sum up the perennial complaints about adults in young adult books. Sing along if you know the lyrics.

why are they all so bad
where are the role models?
I would never do that to my kids!
parents like that don’t exist and if they did they’d be in jail
what is this teaching kids about adults?
my mom wouldn’t have done that.
supervision? They haz it? O no they don’t.

I was unsurprised to get equal parts love and hate for the portrayal of Grace’s parents in SHIVER. And I gotta tell you, I bet both your booty and mine that I will get even louder reactions for LINGER, because guess what, Grace’s parents in LINGER are still the same people as they were in SHIVER. That means that no, to quote from a favorite movie, they did not improve with age. There is a scene in LINGER, actually, that I debated endlessly. Did I write it the way that I felt the character development demanded? Or did I write something that would be Good and Useful for Teens to Read About?

Guess which one I picked.

And you know what, I will always pick that first option. Writing the scenes to keep the characters true to themselves. Having the characters made decisions that are supported by weight and consequences of decisions and personality up to that point. Why?

I think this calls for a numbered list.

1 - I don’t write middle grade (8-12ish). I write young adult, and upper young adult at that, with significant adult crossover audience. In some of the 32 territories SHIVER’s being published in, it’s being published as an adult book. If I were writing middle grade, I would have morals in the back of my head. If you are writing for middle grade, you are writing for kids. But I am writing for young adults. Emphasis on the adults. When I was the age of my audience, I was reading Michael Crichton and Dean Koontz and other adult books. I assume my audience is as well and that they chose a young adult novel instead of a middle grade novel for a reason -- they want an emotionally mature novel with teen characters. I am not going to condescend to them by treating them as kids. And if I made that decision to write what is Good for Them, I think that’s being condescending. “Yes, you’re practically an adult now. Now let me teach you a little something, dear reader.”

2 - Adults are people too. In other words, all of my characters are flawed, no matter what their age. So why should my characters suddenly grow up and become paragons of virtue? My adults are no more flawed than my point of view characters -- but they are no more perfect, either. And yes, this is a conscious decision. As teens get older, they start to pull parents from pedestals and see that they are more complicated than they ever realized as a kid. You have to come to grips with the fact that we don’t grow up and get all the answers. And you choose to still love and admire them, or not. That was a huge part of my teen life, getting to know my parents as adults instead of as just the idealized figures I had in my head. Why in the world would I not explore that concept in a young adult novel?

3 - Perspective. In a YA novel, your protagonists are teens. The reader sees everything through their eyes, through their filter. So I think this often is going to paint the parents in a less than sympathetic light, even if the parents are doing sympathetic things. Again, I’m going to stay true to my characters. I’m not going to have Grace suddenly step out of her own voice to say, “actually, in this area, my parents were correct to discipline me because I was way out of line.” Uh. Yeah. Not so much.

4 - Agency. I hate to bring this up, as it’s often cited as the only reason for bad parents in YA, and it’s not what most often dictates my choices. But yes, your main characters need to have agency, they need to be the one who solves most of the problems. And that means that helpful adults have to be kept on the down low, or your teen character suddenly has all of his/ her problems taken care of. It means that there are a lot more dead parents, deadbeat parents, and just beat parents in YA than in real life.

5 - Yes, there really are parents out there like that. No, they don’t go to jail. No, you can’t always tell from the outside of the family. Yes, they are more common than you think. Grace’s parents are based upon a real couple that I met several years ago -- upper middle class, college-bound kids, very functional looking from the outside. And definitely not an anomaly in their community.

6 - Bad parents is not the same as bad adults. Yes, I write bad parents. But not all of them are. And not all of my adults are terrible. As teens grow up, they start making connections with non-family adults, building their own support system as they work out how they feel about the people they have lived with their entire life. I’m not the only YA writer that gives a character bad parents but good adult role models in other places. It’s more subtle -- but in real life, it’s wicked hard for a teen to find these role models, too.

7 - And finally, there is no US vs. THEM. Invariably, the ones crying out for justice against the wronged parents are adults and often parents themselves. The voices are full of hurt indignation that adults should be so wronged. Really? REALLY? A bad parent in a book is not an attack on parenthood or on a reader who is a parent. It’s not a blow against a particular race of humans known as humans. I write my parents as characters -- no different than any other secondary character in my novels. Because parents are adults and adults are humans and teens are humans and it is not teens versus adults. It is character versus character, and I think that’s how teens see it. They don’t crow “wow! the teens are really getting their way in this one! Teens - 1, Parents - 0.”

In short, my name is Maggie Stiefvater, and I write about bad parents. And bad kids. And bad animals. And bad decisions.

And I'm not sorry.

51 comments:

Ellen Herrick said...

Honestly, did all these upset people (adults, parents) think Shiver is nonfiction? Do they think that werewolves are shivering, lingering in the woods out their back door? Jeepers, read Dr. Seuss if you want realistic parents, say the Mom in Cat in the Hat who leaves her kids alone all the rain, rainy day.

Jessica said...

I was unsupervised a majority of my childhood. Honestly, that's probably why I relate so much to the book(s), even now that I'm 30. I say keep up the great work. Thank you for being true to the story (and true to yourself). I'll keep reading. :)

Ally said...

[applause]

Caffenero said...

100% Right
That's fiction, not real life. I'm an omnivorous reader (now as 20 years ago) and I would like the same for my child. "I" am the person that could make the difference for him not a book's character. So I have to be a good example for him and explain him what's good or not.

Jazz Sexton said...

I just finished my ARC of Linger last night. Not only was it one of the most satisfying books I have ever read, it was THE MOST satisfying sequel I have ever read, and that is due to the wealth of character development you put into the novel.

There were lots of moments where I wanted to shake Grace's parents and tell them to open their eyes to the types of parents they are, but I'm glad you stayed true to who the characters are because it made for great drama and true storytelling. My parents were overprotective when I was growing up, but I'm still able to relate to Grace's experiences with bad parenting. At 23, I still believe in bad parenting, bad decisions, and that parents and kids are all people who make the same mistakes. I'm really glad you made this post.

P.S. I've never seen The Money Pit, but I will now after that awesome clip!

seeshellewrites said...

Maggie, at least you don't kill off the parents... not yet right??

lbdiamond said...

Great post! Stick true to your characters--bravo!!!!!

Kt said...

Awesome post! Just to let you know, I think Grace's parents are two of the most real parents I've read in YA. The fact that they are okay people, just bad parents is a perfect blend. Who cares what people think :)

Tammy Owens said...

AMEN! I think you did the right thing. Just keep writing the way you do. We DON'T live in a perfect world and I wouldn't want to read about characters that are always perfect. That would just be boring. IF people have read the Dean Koontz and Stephen King then by all means the characters in your books are mild in comparison. Thats what books and fiction and imagination is all about. If you can't escape into an imperfect world whats the use of reading at all? Way to go Maggie..I support all that write about NOT being perfect.
Tammy

Alison's Book Marks said...

As a reader, I usually chalk up the bad parents to your reasoning in #4, and that's enough for me. Bad parents allow for more growth of our protagonist. We see it across most YA, some more blatant than others, but we need an absentee parent for said teen to find love, take risks, get into sticky situations, and actually (*gasp*) make decisions on their own. THE HORROR!!!

Brava, Maggie.

JSavant said...

Well, I'm in the faction who believes that Grace's parents would fall into the "norm" of parents today. While that's sad to say, it is also true -- especially when it comes to parents of teenagers. And I say good for you for showing not only the black and white but the gray too. :)

Creepy Query Girl said...

Sometimes I feel like when we're writing a story- we almost have very little choice in the matter of character development- they are who they are- much like people in real life. Like you, I don't write with a set of morals in mind. And I've always thought it unfair to accuse entertainment in any form for the wrongs in society. It's a reflection, not a cause.

Mel said...

Love your post! I have always wondered where our teen protagonists would go, if they had parents like mine--probably nowhere. (My mother was very strict.) I usually chalk it up to, it wouldn't be an adventure or even a story if the parents were there to fix things. I hope you don't mind, I linked to your article from my blog. I think it is time we hear the author's side of the story!

Anonymous said...

I actually love the way Grace talks to her parents in a particular scene in Linger. I think there are a lot of parents in this world just like them. Does that mean I think all parents are terrible, of course not. In my line of work (teaching) I meet lots of parents of both types and all the world in between.

There was actually an article in the NY Times book review a month or two ago that was all about parents in YA books. I can't remember exactly what it said but if I think it was a lot of the arguments people give you.

It also seems to me that if every book had perfect characters with perfect parents no one would be reading.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

You guys have absolutely amazing comments, and thank you!

Anon and Jazz, thank you too, for the Linger comments. I expect it'll get some folks' panties in a twist, but . . . I am cool with that. One of the many reasons why I'm glad I got published in my 20s instead of my teens when I first started querying - you get a lot braver/ thicker skin!

Jonathon Arntson said...

Awesome.

Brandi said...

You tell em! People are always looking for something to complain about. I think it's incredible how so many can't just see the beauty in getting lost in a good book. It's not meant to be wholly realistic, it's meant to be an escape!

Melissa said...

As a MUCH older adult and parent, I usually think the parents in YA fiction are a combo of #3 and #4. As a teen and even into my early 20's, I saw my parents different than I do today as a parent myself. Having the main characters solve the issues is the point of the book. If it wasn't then it would be adult fiction.

I really can't believe people get so upset over a fictional account. You might look at it that the people were so into the book, they lost sight that it is FICTION.

I say keep it up. I love your blogs just as much as I love the books. You can make me laugh (children are weird animals) or cry (Yes or No). Thanks for being you and sharing it with us.

Kat Heckenbach said...

I agree with you, Maggie, and I am a parent. But I'm also a writer, so I understand the concept of keeping the main character just that--the main character. And yes, they need agency to accomplish that. Just look at all the Disney movies with MC's that are orphaned, or have lost one parent, or run away...and you don't see parents complaining about that.

And I commend you for portraying Grace and Sam as strong, independent, RESPONSIBLE teens, despite flaky parents. You ARE teaching a lesson--that people are ultimately responsible for their own lives. Great kids can come from flaky parents, and the best of parents can raise monsters. What never happens in real life is perfect kids and perfect parents.

Christine Danek said...

Big applause!!! I wonder why people worry so much about this. Life is hard, difficult and nobody is perfect.
Great post!

tammara said...

I'm one of your (cough-cough) older readers, a parent of three (14/19/21), and I agree -- stick to what the characters would DO and how they would BE. Young adults (I count my 14 y.o. in that group) don't want to be preached at or talked down to -- they want to be entertained, they want to read something and connect with the characters -- and hello, what reader DOESN'T want that? When I read bad parents in YA, I think to myself, "Wow, this mom sucks! Good think I'm not like that!" (Maybe I can say that because I'm secure in my parenting??)

I loved Shiver and am anxiously awaiting Linger. Keep it up!

Jen the bibliophile said...

Your character development happens to be one of my most favorite things about your books. I appreciate more than you know, how true to the characters you are. People, ALL people, are flawed and different and have some kind of issue. Reading your post, I got teary eyed thinking of my own parents, and not in a good way. Now that is coming from a 26 year old mother of 2 (1 & 3 yrs). I think Grace's parents make her a more conflicting character and therefore more real. (I'm sure you know all this already though)

You're a wonderful author and I love your blog posts.

elizabeth gallner said...

As a mother who chooses to read many YA novels as I enjoy the genre, I must say I agree with you wholeheartedly. Many years ago Bettelheim wrote a book on the value of fairy tales in their gruesome, repulsive , and often cruel hideousness as they pertained to helping children empathasize with others, think their way out of difficulties and understand that not all adults are good or even trustworthy. For parents that bitch and moan about role models and their desire for their little darlings to read only the white sugar coated castle in the sky characters I suggest they read Grimm and Perrault. They might be surprised at the history of disengaged, and at times, downright hateful parents in children's literature from way back. It serves a purpose developmentally and emotionally for young people. I would prefer my daughter to learn these lessons while reading fiction and internalize them as opposed to having to experience the consequences later in life.

Staar84 said...

Usually absentee parents drive me nuts, but that's because I had WAY over protective parents as a teenager. Grace's parents aren't unrealistic, at least. You can see they care for her and come in when they really need to. I see that they trust her more than anything.

Anyway, the real reason I'm commenting on this is I wanted to say thank you for not being condescending. I read Jurassic Park in the 7th grade, so by high school I had stopped reading YA books because so many of them are obnoxious that way. And most still are, unfortunately (I read a lot of them for work).

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Sing it Sistah!!!!!!!!!!! Awesomesauce!

frootjoos said...

Yes! Excellent points, Maggie. Honestly, sometimes I wish public education included a unit on how to tell fiction from nonfiction... oh what, wait, they teach that? (Why are people still so confused by it...)

Melissa said...

Awesome post Maggie! I've seen some people gripping over this issue (even people I think are young, though I could be wrong), but personally, I know a lot of bad parents. At the very least, all parents make bad decision (they're human). Some, however, are definitely worse than others.

All this to say, if I ever take the plunge and write a YA novel, I'd have plenty of models of the bad or absent parent to draw from.

Rheanne said...

Ug... thank you! Cripes, that is sooo completely true. As a young adult writer myself, I've run into similar problems with adults refusing to give my books a chance because they assume that any book written about teens and from a teen perspective would be-- well, anti-adult. There. Is. No. Conspiracy. There is not some angry underground anti-adult movement going on in the land of Young Adult literature. It's just writers doing there best to portray all their characters, young and old alike, as real, honest to God, living, breathing, entertaining characters. Real people with real faults, problems, and emotions to take us away from our own lives for a while-- and maybe even make us feel better about our own circumstances when we get back. No one wants to read about half sided characters who have all their problems solved for them by some idealistic superior-- True for adults. True for teens. Excellent, excellent points. (:

Crystal Cook said...

Excellent! Right on sista :)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

@Melissa. Thank you. :)

@Kat - oh man, thank you. Yes, that is what I want -- I want readers to take away that Sam and Grace were both shaped by their families but that ultimately, they made their decisions as to who they are. Sam and Shelby, too.

@tammarra -- hahahha! Secure is good.

@Jen -- I'm sorry to make you teary eyed in a BAD way but thank you. Even the best of parents can make so much angst for a teen.

@Elizabeth -- I totally, totally agree (obviously). fiction is the safe place to learn about the world. We can have the real bad guys in between the pages of a book and hope we never meet them outside of them.

@Staar - <3 Jurassic Park.

@Rheanna - so true.

@Everyone - thank you for the amazing comments.

Ella Press said...

Ah-mazing post.

storyqueen said...

I am glad you posted this. And you are so right, when I was in high school I was reading adult fiction...teenagers CAN take the truth...the truth being that not everyone's lives are the same. A bad parent in a story is not an indictment of all parents, it is merely one character.

At the heart of every good story is a deep respect for STORY. (and character!!!)

Good on you!

Shelley

Allison Brennan said...

ROFLOL I loved your rant! I'm a mom (of five) and a writer and I suppose that's why I commiserate with your frustration. I get similar letters about some character developments in my books (like how upset some people are that so-and-so died, accusing me of murder instead of the villain!) Or my supernatural thriller where some people took to task that I portrayed witches in a bad light (the witches in my book were practicing black magic.)

My daughter (14) has read all your books and thinks your stories are amazing, and I trust her judgment.

Ann Elise said...

Amen, Maggie. Amen.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

That's brilliant, Allison!

And yes, Shelley, that's absolutely how I feel.

Anonymous said...

Well, a part of the problem that people saw with the parents in Shiver is that they didn't "buy" the characterization--they seemed loving and loving parents would be concerned with their daughter's life. BUT for the convenience of plot, they were unconcerned. That feels contrived, Maggie.

I want to say that I loved Shiver anyway. So, who cares if people are pointing fingers at a small contrivance. It's a brilliantly written book and I can't wait to read Linger and I don't care if the parents aren't around for convenience sake.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Well, Anon, I would argue that loving doesn't always equal concerned. That is a particular kind of love, but it is definitely not the one I always see. But I have to admit it makes me happy to think that so many people have loving relationships where love is so synonymous with attention and concern that they can't imagine otherwise.

I am glad that you loved Shiver regardless!

Keren David said...

Great post. As the creator of a 'bad' parent in a YA novel I agree with every word. Part of growing up is learning that your parents are human and flawed - some more than others.
I was intrigued by Grace's parents in Shiver, and couldn't quite work them out. Hoping very much to learn more about them in Linger. But actually the ones I really really want to know more about are Sam's parents.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

It's definitely something that I dig into deeper in Linger, Keren.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great post. I loved Shiver because it confronted the topic that parents aren't perfect.
It's important to show parents are individuals. Sometimes they make bad judgements, and sometimes they don't. YA know the difference between fiction and reality. :)

Chloe Mendez said...

Who ever is criticizing Shiver's parents should really think about what they're saying. And maybe even analyze their parenting style. There's another side to this, and smothering your kids is even worse than leaving them alone like Grace's parents did.

animaegirl said...

The only way for a book to be really good is to stay true to the main characters. The 'kids' need something to overcome to make them more mature and what's better than less than there 'parents'.
I say well written and keep up the good work!

Sophia said...

I mean seriously, parents of the world! If you guys are really that upset about 'bad portrayal of parents' in a book about werewolves, I think you guys really need to get your priorities straight.

Becca said...

Honestly, I didn't think Grace's parents were that bad. We see them from a really one-sided view, so you forget that they trust her, they provide for her and they really can't be that bad if she's turned out okay. She's nearly an adult and if she were a real person, she'd look back after a couple of years and say, ya they may have been gone more than the average joe, but they weren't bad. You don't see their interaction with her when she was really young, but you can tell they raised her to be independent, smart and to use her own powers to solve her problems. Not bad imo. Too many kids today grow up not knowing how to solve their own problems and with a sense of entitlement that drives me bonkers. I want to yell at them to grow up and that's just what Grace did. Props to her.

I grew up in a "fend for yourself" kind of atmosphere and blamed my parents for bad parenting for a while, but hey, I look back now and say they did their best for what they knew and I turned out okay. I learned responsibility, problem solving, and a host of other skills I wouldn't give up for "good" parents. There are worse parents out there. A lot worse. And who wants to grow up with a perfect parent anyway? That would put so much pressure on the kid to be perfect.

Kayla said...

This should be published in a library journal. If I ever teach a YA lit class, this will be on the reading list.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Kayla, *blush*

And Becca, yes, so many issues you have with your parents get sorted out in the wash later.

kikikats said...

I agree with you. Teens are old enough to see that the art in writing, especially if they are avid readers and studying literature in school. I took an English course my senior year called Heroes, Myths and Legends and it rocked. I was able to pull apart a plot and analyse the characters. You have to respect your reader on the level they are at or you lose them and you lose the truth in hwo your characters really are. I have yet to read Shiver but I am eagerly awaiting a copy of it. But from what I have gathered frok other readers the stroy would have too many obsticles if her parents were involved as much in her life as a parent should be.

kikikats said...

Sophia...hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Absolutely, Kikikats.

Bee said...

I have just one thing to say to you: YOU KICK ASS.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks, Bee. :)

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