There has been some discussion in the book world lately about the prevalence of absent and/or dead parents in children's literature. In an interesting article in Publishers Weekly called "The Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome," editor and author Leila Sales argues that dead parents in children's literature are not only troublingly common, they can sometimes be symptomatic of lazy writing--after all, it's easier to write a book if you don't have to figure out the main character's relationship with their parents.
Now, you may be less than shocked to learn I have written a children's novel with an absent parent (or at least a parent who is either flying around the universe or currently living in Milwaukee who could say really??). Wherever he is, Jacob Wonderbar's dad is not living at home with Jacob.
Although I am biased on this subject, I definitely agree with Sales that there is a certain appeal to just getting the parents out of the picture so the kids can go have their adventures. Roald Dahl perhaps knew this better than anyone when he had James' parents run over by a rhinoceros at the beginning of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, and Sophie is already living in an orphanage in the beginning of THE BFG.
And yet despite my good luck in the parental department (I had the incredible fortune of growing up with two relatively normal parents who managed to raise me to adulthood without getting run over by rhinoceroses), virtually all of my favorite books as a child involved kids having to fend for themselves with dead or otherwise absent parents:
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH
ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS
BY THE GREAT HORN SPOON!
THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ
and many many more
The tradition has been carried on in modern children's classics such as A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (orphans), HARRY POTTER (orphan), and THE HUNGER GAMES (fatherless), not to mention in movies as diverse as "Star Wars" (thinks he's an orphan, father actually a deadbeat/Sith) and "The Lion King" (father killed by wildebeests).
And it's not exactly a new tradition. Early and medieval stories across cultures, from Cinderella (orphan) to Aladdin (fatherless), feature characters who lack one or more parental units.
So what is up with all those dead parents?
I'm not a psychologist or an anthropologist or even a cultural historian (though I play one on a blog), but I am a former twelve-year-old, and I can remember how thrilling it was to read books where the kids were off on their own, fighting and outsmarting adults, dealing with harsh landscapes, facing their deepest fears, making unforgettable friendships, and, while I didn't know it at the time, learning how to be adults.
Around the age the books in this list are so appealing, we're starting to imagine life without our parents, we're starting to develop our own opinions and thoughts, and we're starting to realize that our parents are not always right about everything (eventually we'll learn that they were right about more than we realized at the time).
Dead parents, I would argue, are an externalization of this nascent independence. We're starting to imagine life on our own and love to read about kids who have been suddenly thrust into that position. A tradition this common cannot be accidental.
Now, that's not to say that we don't need more authentic (and living) parents in young adult literature. Sales rightly points to the incredible SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU by Peter Cameron as an example of a richly rendered life with two different, compelling, divorced, and refreshingly alive parents, and my client Jennifer R. Hubbard presents a richly rendered two-parent household in THE SECRET YEAR.
But even still, it's inevitably going to be a rare book that features a happy, stable child with happy, stable parents. We're always going to be drawn to stories about children having adventures on their own, or, as in the case of SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU and THE SECRET YEAR, living in broken or flawed families during troubling times.
There's a reason that when you reach "happily ever after" it means the story is over.
Nathan Bransford is a literary agent in the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown Ltd. and the author of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, which will be published in 2011 by Dial Books for Young Readers. He blogs at http://blog.nathanbransford.com.