Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Problem Parent In Young Adult Lit

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.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Colleen said...

There are many things about this piece that annoy me but mostly it is that she finds examples to support her conclusion rather than the other way around. She wants there to be a "parent problem" (whatever the hell that means) and then goes looking for books that will prove it exists. And yet it does not. Some parents are stupid in YA fiction, some aren't, just like the real world. The point of teen lit though is the teen characters - and generally teens are not always so impressed by their parents...part of being a teen.

Anyway, annoying and certainly more about the adults reading YA then the teens.

Celia said...

I found this as a critique about children in books:

There's also Rachel in Friends, who has a baby and then the baby is basically absent most of the time...and children in movies are always super wise or scary smart. (See Jerry Maguire, everything Abigail Breslin is in...)

susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
susan said...

I'm with Colleen, Just found what she was looking for.

I'm really tired of journalists who complain about YA and it's clear that they don't read much of what is currently being written. Worse, they insist on comparing the genre to what they read in their teens.

I read a good amount of YA and I'm often impressed with the parent characters. I recently read Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan and thought how lucky Blake was with his parents. Melanin Sun has a sensitive, loving mother and Bobby in First Part Last has mature, loving parents and does Tao in Whale Talk. For every poor parent Just can rattle off, the rest of us could counter.

But she is missing the point. Parents are presented from the teen's point of view and the stories aren't about the parents, they're about the teens.

tanita✿davis said...

I was just agreeing with you on FB -- the point of Once Was Lost was not so much the father's issues; it's a book for young adults, so Dad's issues -- and Mom's, really -- fade in contrast to how their decisions impact their daughter.

Elaine Marie Alphin said...

I find it interesting that teen readers don't tend to complain about "bad" parents in the books they read. It's something adult readers seem to be far more concerned about. How much of that concern comes from the fact that adult readers identify more with adult characters in the books they read? A "bad" parent could too easily be a comment about themselves.

But teen readers care far less about the adults in their books. They're busy identifying with the teen characters, and do not feel threatened by "bad" parents. Plus, many teens find their own parents less than satisfactory (they'll grow out of it and discover a richer perspective in time), and so "bad" parents on the page do not come as such a surprise.

Young adult books are not about parents. They're about a teen's view of his or her world, and how the reader hopes to make a difference in it the way their parents, apparently, have not.

In the real world, parents and teens are human - most of us doing our best, but falling short of perfection.

Liz B said...

Colleen, did you listen to the podcast, also? Books shouldn't diminish parents? And then the comments that say books should show teens how wonderful their parents are. It's rather sick (and talk about overparenting) -- parents even want to control WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT THEM. Sigh.

Celia, thanks! Didn't all the babies in Friends disappear conveniently -- Ross's son seemed to appear once a year, if they were all lucky.

Susan, often people find what they want (Or don't want.) Such essays like this usually are about what the writer wants to see/read, not the true shape of affairs. For example, in the library one parent would often complain about all the "fantasy books with girls and no realistic fiction for boys." The next parent? "too much realistic fantasy for boys, where the girl fantasy books"?

Tanita, I remain shocked that the father in Zarr's book is used to illustrate "bad" and that Just appears to do it without any sense of irony at all. If that is bad? Well, call protective servies on 3/4 of the parents out there.

Elaine, I totally agree with you! As an adult reader of ya, what i look for is not "is the parent 'bad'" but "are the characters believable? are they fully realized?" Which I find more important than telling fifteen year olds via books, "admire your parents."

Donna Gambale said...

Wow. Thanks for highlighting this article. There are definitely some semi-cliche parental archetypes in YA, but they cover the whole spectrum of parenting, and anyway -- there's nothing wrong with parents being flawed characters!

I only get cranky with authors when they make parents oblivious/absentee for the sake of moving the plot forward. The three sets of parents in my WIP are all flawed -- but it's implicit in my mind as I write them that they're doing their best, even if the teen protags end up needing a little therapy.

And the truth is, when I was a teenager, my quite wonderful parents were the villains in my life more than a few times.

For anyone who's interested, my crit partner Frankie wrote a post on parental archetypes in YA on our group blog back in November. Agree or disagree, this is a rundown of the trends she's found.

Ann said...

The article caught my eye as I was reading through the NYT Book Review. When I came to the end, my thought was, "And your point is...??" What did she intend the reader to take away from her essay? It seemed to be rather unfocused and, yes, she did appear to find titles to support her belief. (It was a little shocking to see that Just is the Children's Book Editor for the Times.)

For one thing, as someone pointed out, many teens believe that their parents are terrible. Perhaps it's good for them to see depictions of parents that are worse than theirs ever dreamed of being. And secondly, some young people certainly do have parents that are out of work, drug addicted, and totally not there. Perhaps the percent isn't right on, but there are families out there that would make Just's hair stand on end. Don't we all see them at our libraries?

It sounds as if the podcast may shine a different light on Just's written words, but this struck me as a whole lot of nothing...

Liz B said...

Donna, I remember when Frankie first posted that! I think many teen protags probably need a little therapy, LOL. The things the writers put them thru! And the combo of how teens percieve parents as well as that some parent's are the greatest (and what is the greatest anyway)? It does seem (not talking about Just, now, talking about the blogosphere) that some readers really get offended at how parents are portrayed. But then I've read, say, librarians who get offended at mean librarians in books!

Ann, definately true that horrid parents could make a teen say "wow, mine aren't so bad after all!"

Liz B said...

Donna, I remember when Frankie first posted that! I think many teen protags probably need a little therapy, LOL. The things the writers put them thru! And the combo of how teens percieve parents as well as that some parent's are the greatest (and what is the greatest anyway)? It does seem (not talking about Just, now, talking about the blogosphere) that some readers really get offended at how parents are portrayed. But then I've read, say, librarians who get offended at mean librarians in books!

Ann, definately true that horrid parents could make a teen say "wow, mine aren't so bad after all!"

Abigail said...

Because, you know, the Brothers Grimm wrote such excellent parental characters...