Sensical Adultlessness (A Guest Post by Heather)

7:00 AM

Today your lovely guest-blogger is Heather @ Sometimes I'm A Story. She's kinda fabulous, so do treat her well while I'm gone, and leave lots of comments because this is an awesome post. *poofs again* 

Greetings, bloglings. In the absence of your leader, Aimee offered me the chance to post—how exciting is that? Let’s do this. I’m supposed to talk about books. YA books, probably, and something about them. Say, the adultlessness most YA protagonists seem to experience. Parents have this tendency to be absent, dead, or useless in YA. You’d think since most of us aren’t the victims of radical wizards driven by vague prophecies, parents would be a logical set of characters to include in a book. Right? Or… maybe not. Maybe including parents would be really weird.

Let’s talk through four YA examples, each with different parental situations. Each protagonist goes through an active cycle of growth relating to their families, which looks something like this:

Realization — Reevaluation — Action — Growth —Construction

Now, to meet our cast.

Active Parents*: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

in an alternate world, Janner’s family must escape the invading and decidedly evil Fangs of Dang

Useless Parents: The Giver by Lois Lowry

in a dystopian future, Jonas bears all of history’s memories, but questions whether he should keep them secret

Absent Parents: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

in a dystopian future, Connor runs for his life from a government that wants to distribute his body parts

Dead Parents: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

in alternate Russia, Alina masters her power as the sun summoner in the court of The (evil) Darkling


Realization—the MC finds a separation or betrayal that displaces them from a comfort they called home; it sucks Janner learns he was born to spend his life protecting his younger siblings. Jonas asks his parents if they love him; love is not specific enough for their feelings towards him. Connor deduces that his family will go on a vacation because he is about to be unwound. Alina remembers that she suppressed her powers so she could stay with her friend, Mal.

Reevaluation—then, they must answer a defining question: is what I think or want more important than what my family thinks or wants? Janner obeys his mother and grandfather, accepting his destiny. Jonas believes in personal freedom over his family and the government’s mandated equality. Connor values his whole life, and doesn’t accept his parents’ judgement. Alina leaves Mal behind and favors using her powers.

Action—personal action then either refutes or affirms that relationship to family Janner mostly protects his siblings. Jonas takes a baby and escapes from his community for freedom. Connor goes AWOL and hides from the government in the Graveyard, where he works. Alina hones her powers.

Growth—because of those beliefs and actions made, they become a fuller person in the change Janner becomes more responsible and self-sacrificing. Jonas experiences the real world, and learns what it means to truly love someone. Connor blooms into a leader and someone willing to make sacrifices. Alina strengthens her body and emotions so that she can take political action for her country.

Construction—now, as a fuller person, they build something with a lasting impact for themselves and others Janner secures an important role within his family. Jonas approaches a new community where he and the baby will live free from oppression. Connor takes control of the Graveyard and provides asylum to incoming AWOLs. Alina avoids hurting her country further and begins a quest to defeat the Darkling permanently. This kind of turned into Robert Fischer’s story in Inception. I love that movie. Anyway. Parents versus no parents. Jonas, Connor, and Alina versus Janner. Each one of these characters, whether twelve or eighteen, comes of age in these stories. The question is—why? In the case of Jonas, Connor, and Alina, it is independence. As they grow independent of their families, they separate themselves from values they don’t value. It doesn’t mean they separate from their families forever—Connor and Alina cycle back—but their growth is personal, something decided and built for themselves. For Janner, it is interdependence. As he reaches adulthood, his identity becomes rooted in who his family asks him to be, and who he asks them to be in return. He builds something with and for the people who he’ll always be with. Put like that, Janner’s story sounds weird. At the end of sixth grade, the middle school’s principal visited and drew us a graph that looked like this:

Middle school, he said, is when your friends begin to become more important than your family—it progresses that way until you have a family of your own. For YA characters, that intersection point is where their ideas—beliefs, knowledge, goals, tastes, values—become more defined than “whatever mom and dad say.” It’s in our teen years when we really start exploring what we believe, instead of what our parents do. My dad has said something to me many times over the years: “if we don’t raise you to be an independent adult one day, then we have failed as parents.” When he says that, he means eventually he wants me to be able to stand on my own two feet. He can give me tools and guidance, but my decisions and beliefs will and should be my own. So, why would it be weird if parents had a stronger presence in YA? Maybe it’s because that would keep characters from finding distance from their families. They wouldn’t enter the cycle, and those differences wouldn’t develop into values. Connor, Alina, and Jonas? They grow up. Self isn’t compromised for family. Janner? Janner grows into a family, and has no self outside of it. And that… that is weird. Maybe authors are onto something after all.

What do you think are some reasons parents aren’t dominant characters in YA novels

Heather is first and foremost a velociraptor, but when she’s not wreaking her revenge on the world, she blogs at Sometimes I’m a Story and Wandering in a Blur. She also loves to beta read, watch movies, and drive. Also, Pinterest. Pinterest takes up more of Heather's life than is probably productive or strictly necessary. For excessive blog promotions and the occasional original tweet, you can find her on Twitter.


  1. This is a really good point. I'd never thought of it that way before.

    BUT. I think it's safe to say that the majority of teens do grow up with active, present parents, and yet grow to be independent adults (often *because* of their parents' influence), instead of becoming like Janner-- so I still think there is room for more active parents in YA.

    Also, YES to Inception. LOVE that movie (especially Fischer).

    1. I agree; at least in developed countries, we tend to have parents in our lives more often than not—and our parents do contribute to that. But often, it takes their parents' guidance AND letting go for them to grow up into adults. So yes, parents could take a more active role in YA, but it will definitely take a different turn than perhaps your typical coming-of-age story.

      And yes. INCEPTION ALL THE WAY. Forever. The end.

  2. It says something about my obsession with Inception when tears came into my eyes looking at that one gif... :P Fischer was always my favourite character. Anyhow, great post. I haven't really given thought to the absence of parents in YA books before now.

    1. That ending is super heart-blasting, no? He was interesting because he was kind of the victim, but even though they may have ruined his business, they also gave him something special, and better. Thanks for reading, Lily!

  3. This is a really great post. It's unique, or, at least, I've never thought of things about this before. Really enjoyed reading; thanks! :D

    1. Will definitely be checking out your blogs!

    2. Well, I'm glad to have got you thinking. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy what you find!

  4. Hmm... Interesting ideas. I always thought that YA excludes parents because the teens reading the books want something out of the ordinary?

    For instance, in the Percy Jackson series, I liked how Percy's mom is viewed in a positive light. She is a nurturing, caring parent, & Percy truly loves her. BUT--the scenes with her are the "normal" moments... The instinct is to say, "Okay, this is nice & all, but I want to get to the exciting stuff!" I think that is pretty natural.

    But, I don't think it's healthy to constantly be presenting parents in a negative way in these stories. It nurtures an "us vs. them" mentality in the fictional realm, which can bleed through to reality. Just my thoughts... lol! :)

    1. Perhaps—although, depending on when and where we are, the average lifespan can be 28, so there's not necessarily a universal normal. I also think of fairy tales, where the protagonists are often orphaned or only have one parent standing. This may well have been normal at the time, since people only lived to forty, anyway. So, I guess it depends on the context of the culture reading it.

      I do like Percy's mom as well, and Sally was one of my favorite characters. Still, as you say, mostly her role is one of normalcy and support—almost all of Percy's adventures are independent of the time spent with his parents.

      I don't think parents have to be presented in a negative way for them to be absent, though... Maybe you do have a point, and parents should be there more positively. I just haven't found a book yet that has a completely active parenting role that isn't akin to helicopter parenting.

  5. Replies
    1. Glad you think so. Thanks for reading, Karissa!

  6. I do think this makes sense, even though for me, who has two alive parents who actually are a part of my life, I don't relate to a lot of YA characters (in that respect at least) I liked this post, heather. I've never thought about parentlessness as a plot device and characterisation in YA novels before. I always just assumed it was easier for the author because then their character can do whatever the author wants them to without being impeded by parents.

    1. I have two alive and active parents, too, but I think that I still relate with orphaned characters sometimes... Because when you start to realize the difference you have with your parents, you do end up feeling kind of alienated. I feel like I should have said that better in the post. Still, I agree that it totally is way easier to not have parents around, because I don't need those characters in my life, but I also firmly believe it's an important part of characterization, too. Thanks for reading, Shar!

  7. This is an awesome post. WHY DOES EVERY BOOK HAVE THE MISSING PARENT SYNDROME?! Oh. He's dead. How *ever* so convenient. One book I really liked, because they emphasized the importance of parents, was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Ari and Dante was beautiful, and it's parent's were living, breathing with an IMPORTANT role in Ari's life. Same goes for Dante too. Lovely post, Heather <3

    1. I know what you mean; I feel like parents are missing because of convenience quite often. Still, parents do have important roles in people's lives, and it's good when they're able to contribute to the lives of the MC's without taking away from their maturity levels and such. Thanks for reading, Nirvana!


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