Ah, the "problem parent in young adult lit." Or so says the recent essay in the New York Times, written by Julie Just.
Before I go on, let me just rant -- do we ever see children and teens comment about their representation in adult books? Whether they are absent, or too good, or not available? Please send the links my way if you have. Sure, it is interesting to see how (x) is portrayed in books, with x being just about anything: parents, school, college, siblings, work, economics, etc. What isn't interesting is when the approach is so "me, me, me" by the writer. That is, the adult reader who reads young adult books and cares primarily about how the teens they read about perceive the adults in their life. It's like eavesdropping on kids in a mall, wondering if the teens think your clothes are cool or if your haircut is too "soccer mom." Adults, if your primary interest in books is how adults are portrayed? Read adult books.
I'm not saying Just does this. I'm just saying that's a rant I've been wanting to make for a while.
Just looks at what has become a popular topic in the blogosphere: how parents are portrayed in teen books. Just notes that "the bad parent is enjoying something of a heydey."
Having just finished Wait Till Helen Comes, I am quite aware that bad parents have always existed in books for kids and teens.
What is interesting, though, is how we define "bad." What does it mean to have a "bad" parent? Would teens define this differently than an adult, and is that part of the issue of when an adult reads a young adult book and gets insulted? Just uses the example of the father in Sara Zarr's Once Was Lost to illustrate today's "bad" parent: "In a typical scene, from “Once Was Lost,” by Sara Zarr, a dad whose wife is at a “recovery center” after a D.U.I. needs help shopping at a supermarket. He shouldn’t be filling the cart with vegetables, his 15-year-old daughter says. “It’s all . . . ingredients,” she explains patiently. “Who’s going to cook this stuff?” He stands by in confusion as she selects precooked chicken breasts."
Before going further, I greatly appreciate the fact that a father is being taken to task for not knowing how to cook. One of my personal pet peeves is when a parent is judged "bad" based on sexist roles; thus, the mother who does not cook is usually code for "bad." But to step further back -- really? "Bad" is now about not cooking? As you may recall from my reading of Once Was Lost, I have a different definition of "bad": "Just like Sam's mother isn't "teh evil" because she drinks, neither is Sam's father "teh evil." Neither of these parents are portrayed as bad, terrible, no-good people; rather they are real people, not perfect, with flaws, people who try and do the best they can."
Just provides a historical overview of parents in young adult lit. (Agree or disagree with her take on various parents and books. That is part of the fun of commenting on an essay.)
This is where things get interesting. As the reader decides the take away from Just's essay.
Just leaves part of this to the reader -- is the problem not with the "problem parents," or the books, or the depictions, but is the problem the real parents?
Just says, "many contemporary young adult novels seem to reflect genuine confusion over what the job of parent consists of, beyond keeping kids fed and safe. This isn’t surprising, after a decade in which “overparenting” became almost a badge of honor and you could sign a child up for a clay-modeling class only to find that you, too, were expected to stay and make coil pots." Let's ignore, for now, that such "overparenting" is true only for those who can economically afford those mommy and me classes and also is about a society making more and more demands on what it means to be a "good parent." Though this brings me back to the passage Just uses from Zarr's book -- "good" is not about simply clothing, feeding, housing a child. It's also increasingly how it's done, and god forbid the parent does it "wrong."
For now, let's say that the teen readers are those who were overparented. Who is to say that is "good" parenting? Who is to say that the overparenting Mom who does get carted off to rehab won't leave behind a father who doesn't cook, much like the family situation in Zarr's book? Maybe that is the point? That viewed from a teen perspective, as a teen book should, the overparent is flawed (or, to use Just's word, "bad." Which, as I read and reread this essay, I suspect isn't so much Just's word as the word she sees others use.)
Or -- if you say, rightly, that some of these book parents are too absent to overparent -- maybe the only escape a teen (or twentysomething) has from a parent who calls their schools, colleges, and jobs to complain, adjust work arrangements, argue grades, and ask for raises, is to escape by reading a book where, blissfully, the parent does not intrude at all.
Certainly, I could quibble about the books Just uses (or doesn't use); I can enter into wordplay about what it means to be a "bad" parent. I can question the title of the essay (and wonder if it was Just's choice.)
But at the end? I don't read Just as saying that the depiction of parents in books today is "wrong". She observes; she comments; and since at the end, she says "Back then parents knew how to get out of the way and let the orphan’s rise begin" I doubt Just is arguing that young adult books are "doing it wrong" when it comes to parental portrayals.
Let's get out of the way. Just as parents need to get out of the way for their teenagers to mature into adults, so should we adults who read and review young adult books get out of the way of the intended audience -- the teens. Yes, we can read and enjoy those books; but let's not ask for those books to be written to reflect our reality of adults and parents.
Edited to add: I still am not convinced that Just meant to trash YA literature with an "oh noes look at how the parents are portrayed" rant. Having read the comments to the article, I wish the takeaway would have been clearer to the reader. Because right now? They are mainly "oh noes look at how YA books suck".
Edited to add: Listen to the podcast. "What I thought I was seeing more recently was the way parents were being portrayed, the lame parent." Absent, distracted, "running out to a meeting". "A sense in which parents are caught up in their own lives" and "this makes them the bad guy." Notes that "you have to remove the parent to get the adventure," so now how do you remove the parent? Busy solves the "narrative problem" of removing parents but "it goes too far" because the parent is diminished and the reader/children do not have respect for the parent. (my emphasis added) Then talks about reaction to overparenting and "anxiety about what it means to be a parent". In 1970s "used to fending for ourselves" and "now its a higher standard for parental involvement". Just notes that When You Reach Me may mark a return to the "admirable parent."
So sigh. Just does intend to say there is something wrong with books that "diminish" parents. And while she talks about the different standards for parenting today, and even laughs at it when looking back at the 70s, she does not question today's standard and does not tie it back to today's young adult books or an adult's perceptions of themselves in young adult books.
The return of the admirable parent?!?
If you also listened to the podcast and think I misstated something, please let me know.
Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy