YA Mothers: What’s the Deal?

14th Jun 2012


Most teenagers have their issues with their parents. The curfews, the embarrassment, the refusal to let them go to the biggest party of the year… But if you’re a character in a young adult novel, you probably have it a little harder than most. Parents, as central to the teenage experience, are also central to the theme of YA novels.

But, in recent years, there’s been a particularly depressing trend developing with Young Adult mothers. More and more often they appear to either be dead or useless, leaving the teenage protagonist to more or less fend for themselves.

Of course, it could be argued that having a useless mother is much better than having a dead one, not least because there is always the hope that the mother might turn out to be less useless.

In Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games, Katniss develops the hunting skills that serve her so well in the arena because of a long period of depression her mother suffered after Katniss’ father was killed in a mine accident.

Not only do her mother’s shortcomings make Katniss self-sufficient, they also make her angry and over protective of her younger sister.

So protective, in fact, that Katniss takes her sister Prue‘s place in the brutal Hunger Games. If her mother had been the hunting kind, if she had rallied after her husband’s death and provided all that Katniss needed, it would be a very different book.

Ditto Karen Mahoney‘s Iron Witch and its sequel The Wood Queen. Protagonist Donna has a troubled relationship with her mother, not least because her mother has been locked in a mysterious curse by the wood elves, a curse that manifests itself as an illness similar to dementia.

But Donna can remember the way her mother used to be, and it is this memory, and her determination to get her mother back, that drives the second book.

Wildthorn by Jane Eagland sees Louisa imprisoned in a Victorian madhouse, a decision that has been taken with the assistance of her mother.

Her mother’s distrust of Louisa’s tomboyish ways and the belief that what she is doing is the best for her daughter are the strongest threads that run through Louisa’s sense of betrayal. Her mother has failed her, and now she has to find her own way out of the situation she is trapped in.

In these books, the feeling of isolation felt by the central characters, their need to complete their quest in order to save themselves or those close to them, is a vital plot point.

It allows readers not only to identify with them as regular teenagers with the usual problems, but also to find a voice for their own feelings of isolation. It is a vital part of the Young Adult experience, the sensation of being cast adrift, and these books only serve to emphasise it.

But not all Young Adult books have to kill off the parents to accomplish this. In John Green’s Looking For Alaska, Miles Halter leaves his stable, loving, middle class family to go to an Alabama boarding school.

His roommate, and new best friend, is the upstanding young citizen he is because of his hardworking single mother. And for Miles and Chip, it’s lucky that they have grounding, because soon their closest friend dies in what might not be an accident, and it is this sense of family that helps them to pull through.

In Lauren Kate’s Fallen, Luce loves her parents, and feels guilty for the years of worry she has caused them by seeing mysterious shadows. She finds herself at a reform school, missing her family but constructing a new one out of a strange bunch of renegade characters.

Rachel Caine’s Clare Danvers, heroine of The Morganville Vampire series, spends a lot of time in the first novel calling her parents. But she also spends a lot of time protecting them, shielding them from the daily horrors that she begins to face in daily life. By the time her parents relocate to take care of her, Clare is a different person, a girl who is thoroughly ready to live her own life.

Which is probably how it should be. Young Adult readers, if they are not, like me, twenty-eight and already set up in a life of their own, are on the cusp of leaving their childhood behind.

About to leave for university, to go travelling or just to move out, readers faced with characters their own age who are making it in the big wide world are bound to find comfort. After all, if Clare Danvers can pass her classes being stalked by a vampire, A Levels don’t seem quite as intense.

In short, if you’re in a YA book and you’re lucky enough to still have parents, you have it a little easier. Or, at least, you have someone to wave you goodbye.

What do you think about YA mothers? Is the absence or lacking of parental guidance a positive thing in YA fiction, or is it a bad representation of reality? Let us know your take…

Helen Dring

(Image via lindsay.dee.bunny)


  • Sophie Mayer says:

    Julie Bertagna’s Exodus series has some amazing mothers in it: real, complex, loved and imperfect. The main character, Mara, fights with her mother initially, but – through the example of the Treenesters – becomes a good mother herself (spoiler, sorry!) The third book, Aurora, is all about negotiations and reconciliations between mothers and daughters (as well as other parent-child pairings, by affinity as well as biology). There’s a terrible mother in Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, but a great mother.

    In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner suggests that the terrible step-mother of fairy tales (who’s the model for these novels, at least in part) is not really a step-mother, but a mother-in-law (both belle-mere in French), and these stories are told out of, and prepare girls for, moving to their husband’s parents’ house on marriage, and facing a power struggle with the lady of the house.

    Beyond that, there’s also the Freudian aspect of wish-fulfilment: authors get to kill off their mother. For female authors, I think that’s sometimes also killing off what they might perceive as the mothering part of themselves.

  • Becca says:

    “Harry’s status as orphan gives him a freedom other children can only dream about (guiltily, of course). No child wants to lose their parents, yet the idea of being removed from the expectations of parents is alluring. The orphan in literature is freed from the obligation to satisfy his/her parents, and from the inevitable realization that his/her parents are flawed human beings. There is something liberating, too, about being transported into the kind of surrogate family which boarding school represents, where the relationships are less intense and the boundaries perhaps more clearly defined.”
    ~ J. K. Rowling, 31 March 1999 Salon.com interview

    Absent / useless parents make for good character development – as you say, Katniss wouldn’t be who she was if her mother had been better. And Buffy wouldn’t have been out slaying vampires at all hours if her mum had played a bigger role and actually wondered where her daughter was! As J. K. Rowling says, it’s liberation, and autonomy. Which is what teenagers dream of!

  • Lauren says:

    I think it’s mostly the ‘dark romance’ novels where the mothers are a bit inept, it helps add to the troubles of the young people. It wouldn’t be the same if they loved being at home and got on really well with their parents.

    That being said, Cassandra Clare creates great women in The Mortal Instruments series and the main character does get on with her mum most of the time. The other characters mums are fantastic though.

  • I too am ‘guilty’ of the dead/absent/druggie mum in my YA writing. Good writing is about tension, and although there is plenty of tension in even the most normal kid’s life, having the ‘child alone’ theme ups the stakes and the obstacles. It just makes for a better story (in many cases).