Wednesday, April 27, 2011

P is for Parents: Dead or MIA

If you write or read middle grade books, you’ve probably heard about the “missing parent” phenomenon. That’s the situation where the parents of kids in middle grade novels are MIA: either dead (a Disney favourite), away on a trip, too busy to have any clue what their kids are up to, or out of the picture in some other creative way.

Why? Because in middle grade books, you want your main character (a kid) to solve the story problem.

Whether or not parent characters contribute the conflict or to the problem solving in the story, you still need to consider the parent-child relationship and how it affects your character. In the life of a ten- or eleven-year-old, parents are pretty important. Even if your main character is an orphan, not having parents will colour his experiences and emotional reactions (just look at Harry Potter).

Some things to consider about the role of parents in middle grade fiction:

Be consistent. If the parent is a workaholic, they should be a workaholic right from the start, not just conveniently when there needs to be an obstacle to the main character getting help.

Add some realism. Book parents sometimes come across as either being stereotypes (e.g. the deadbeat Dad in a divorce situation) or perfect (e.g. Mom always knows how to make the main character feel better). Like any other characters, parent characters have goals, emotions and flaws.

How do you deal with the parents in your novels? Any tips for creating realistic parent characters?

Books that include involved parents (*let me know if you have any more to add):

Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs (MG)
Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner (MG)
Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary (MG)
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King (YA)

*As always, if you know of any other great resources on this topic, let me know and I'll add them here.

For a humorous take on different ways parents are handled in YA novels (which also apply to MG) read Frankie Diane Mallis over at First Novels Club.

Anna Staniszewski discusses 4 different ways to deal with fictional parents.

In a guest post at Laura Pauling’s blog, Kate Messner author of Sugar and Ice talks about writing a story where parents don’t disappear.

Mary Kole discusses how family relationships are related to creating tension in MG or YA novels.

Robin Fevers has some thoughts on parents in children's fiction and meeting the needs of readers.

For different opinions and thoughts on this issue by other writers, check out the What to Do With Parents thread at Nathan Bransford’s forum.

More Links:

Tracy Marchini on the role of parents in middle grade and young adult fiction.


  1. This is so true! It often seems easier to just kill the parents off so they'll be out of the way and/or so your MC can get moved to the story place for a good reason.

    For a YA book that handles parents well, try Please Ignore Vera Dietz - the relationship between her and her father is developed so well over the course of the story!

  2. Good timing for this post, as I was just pondering this question for my new MG story. My last idea came to me with the problem already solved, but for this one I'm umming and aahing over how to get round it - as a kidlit writer, it's something you need to sort out before you can start writing and it adds an extra layer of difficulty. Thanks for the links, will check them out!

  3. It is a crazy phenom but how else do you empower the kids. For my story the kids get sucked into an adventure and the whole point is to get back to their family. I also have both parents. No broken homes or dead parents.

    My other story which is contemporary, both parents exist and add to the story but are not part of the driving plot. They work and have lives.

    I've read a couple of MG books lately where the parents or other adults bail out the kids and I don't like it. The best books have the kids saving the day or solving the problem. No rescues.

  4. They're for an audience a bit younger than YA (as are my books so far) but I really loved the parents in Beverley Cleary's Ramona books. They were on the kids' side but they had their own lives and problems and were very human.

  5. What a timely post--I'm in the preliminary stages of planning book 2, character sketches, family dynamics, etc. Parent/parents present? Don't know yet, but this is really helpful. Off to check out the links. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the book recommendations! I'm adding them to the list in the post.

    Girl Friday, I agree it is a lot easier to have this issue decided on before you start writing. I find sometimes it's clear from the plot how involved the parents will be, but other times, not so much.

    Brooke, parents bailing out the kids are definitely not cool!

  7. This is ALWAYS an issue for me. I wish I didn't have to have the parents in the story! But I do believe that they should have a part in the growth of the character too. It brings together a fuller story, more rounded maybe, because it helps the reader better understand them. It's kind of like when you meet a guy and then you meet the family. And you're like 'ah ha! now I understand'. Great links too!

  8. My current WIP is the first one I've ever written that actually had parents! I'm finding it's actually fun to write mother/daughter scenes (and they can be a great source of conflict), but it's certainly an adjustment.

  9. Great post, Andrea! My current MC was an orphan, but was adopted when he was young. He's got a strong relationship with is adoptive parents, yet he finds he has to go against their wishes to achieve his goal (which has something to do with being orphaned in the first place). Hmm. Hadn't stopped to think about it until now. Now off to check out those links!


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