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.