14th Jun 2012
YA Mothers: What’s the Deal?
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 Collins’ The 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.
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…