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In Defense of Non Absentee Parents in Children's Literature

A who's who of significant parent characters in recent kids' books..

Here's a topic I've thought about a lot, as a writer, but haven't spent much time discussing. Of course, others have had plenty to say about it. Looks like it was a somewhat hot topic in 2010, and it's still on the table in 2019.

Maybe the conversations are swirling in writers' groups and social media, and I'm just not catching them. Although to be honest (have you seen the state of Twitter lately?), I doubt it.

I'd love to see stats—compiled by someone else, of course—breaking down this phenomenon with the last 5-10 years of book data. What percentage of middle grade and young adult protagonists are orphans? What percentage are latch key kids? How many live with relatives who just happen to be blind and deaf? (Kidding on that one.) What percentage have parents who are technically present but basically irrelevant?

Without having done any research other than compulsive reading, I'd say those categories account for a big majority of titles. If I had to put a number on it, I'd say upwards of 75%.

The draws are obvious. Kids read to explore, to push the boundaries, to learn about the world and themselves. That tends to happen easier when there's no fictional parent telling your fictional stand-in to avoid strangers and clean her room.

Also obvious is the way fiction mirrors and speaks to reality. Broken homes are everywhere. Numerous kids grow up with parent-shaped vacuums. You don't need to look hard to find pain and loss.

In addition, and perhaps just as significant, it's a heckuva lot harder to write a story with a family that's more or less intact. Not perfect—but present, and engaged. You have to define the relationships. You have to craft dialog. Create a dynamic.

With that out of the way, here's why I think we should see more parents in children's literature.

Glimmers of healthy (you know, relatively) families in kidslit are valuable. They can impart vision for what's possible, if not normal. Of what the reader could someday enjoy or become. Maybe all the more so if the reader hasn't had that experience herself.

Decent parents in contemporary kidslit are rarer than unicorns or white whales. When it comes to fiction, a nice rule of thumb is, All the good parents are already dead. Or they're about to die. Soon. (Wait for it.) Artistic integrity calls us to pursue the rare, the magical, the elusive. The enchanted stag, racing away through the woods. What's so rarely captured ought to be pursued with more energy.

Wise IRL parents give their kids room for adventure anyway. The advocates for absentee parents in children's literature point out that fictional kids need space for quests and battles. After all, that's what their real-world counterparts want as they flip pages. That's a compelling argument, in my mind. However, I'd suggest our imaginations have become warped by legions of helicopter parents and adults who treat kids like fashion accessories. In other words, kids with parents can have adventures too. (The author just has to work a lot harder to make it happen.)

In a world reigned by the good, the true and the beautiful, parents would let their kids go fight an evil dragon while Dad and Mom dealt with a couple work deadlines and some pressing home rehab. (This may or may not be an actual scene in one of my books.)

Acting like nothing cool or dangerous can happen with Mom and Pop around (somewhere) indicates a lack of imagination.

To sum up: There's nothing wrong with the orphans and latch-key kids who throng our bookshelves. However, I'd argue that more kids' books, especially in middle grade, should have parents who fill genuine roles. Well-crafted. Entities with agency. With lifespans of more than five seconds. Not represented only by stereotypes or convenient vacuums.

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AJ Vanderhorst
AJ Vanderhorst
Apr 28, 2020

It's funny, the parents don't get a big role in TMIB despite my having written this! (But, teaser: that changes in book two.) Agreed, Dark Sky's Ashes may set a high water mark for adventurous parental involvement.

Pretty sure I read the Railway Children, but it would've been so long ago that I don't remember the particulars. Amusing how often these unforeseen circumstances crop up in middle grade literature.


Have you read E. Nesbitt's Railway Children? The parents, especially the mother, are definitely there and well-connected to the the children, but necessarily in the background due to unforeseen circumstances.


I just noticed this article for the first time. I agree--parents can and should get in on these adventures too. I recall a few Dad and I shared with y"all in Colorado and other places. I think of your yet-to-be-published novel called Dark Skies. The parents had stellar roles in that one, while not overshadowing the kids. Loved the dragons circling the World War I monument in KC!

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