Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Mother Problem In Young Adult Lit

Julie Just has written a an enjoyable survey about the re-emergence of bad parents in fiction meant for young adults. Her piece, called "The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit," is not really about bad parents but about bad mothers.

Just begins:

It took a surprisingly long time for bad parents to show up in children's books. Did you ever notice how few there are, compared with, say, the self-centered and murderous parents in Greek mythology or the Bible? In American literature, children's and adult books didn't sharply diverge as categories until the 20th century, so it's not clear whether we should even include that mean, kidnapping drunk, Pap Finn.

Maybe you can think of more recent examples than "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885) — the gallant, no-good father from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1943)? — but in the classic stories, from "Cinderella" to "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," the hero's parents are more likely to be absent or dead than cruel or incompetent. In fact, it's the removal of the adult's protective presence that kick-starts the story, so the orphan can begin his "triumphant rise" (as Dave Eggers put it in his memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," after it actually happened to him). In the move to independence, the parent is all but forgotten, or occasionally pictured in a fond glow of love and regret.

It's not only the "triumphant rise" of the orphan which mattered in the old (and not-so-old, as in Harry Potter books) solution of dead parents. The trick of killing them off allowed the fairy-tale teller or author to depict evil adults having control over the children without angering the parents of the children who read the stories.

Or so I think. Hence the vast number of evil step-mothers (but where were the evil step-fathers?) in old tales and hence also the uncles having custody of their nephews in Walt Disney's world. Isn't it very odd that none of the Disney mice or ducks have parents?

Just believes that the bad parents have finally been allowed in through the front door in young adult fiction and that they may have become much more common than the actual number of bad parents. That wouldn't surprise me at all because children do have both negative and positive feelings about their parents and the former may feel like something one should not dwell on? Teenagers, in particular, often go through a stage of finding their parents impossibly controlling or inadequately cosseting and so on, even if there is no real basis for those feelings.

But is the open entry of the bad parents really about parents? I don't think so. Let's mine Just's piece for some examples:

On bad mothers:

In Natalie Standiford's "How to Say Goodbye in Robot," the mother — a haunting figure — has become strangely accident-prone, tripping over things, "catching her hair in the fan"; "We were used to Mom hurting herself," the narrator says.


In Laurie Halse Anderson's best-selling "Wintergirls," about a dangerously anorexic high school senior, the mom is a sought-after surgeon too pressed to notice that her malnourished daughter is a bit shorter than she was four years earlier.


In "Twilight," the only reason Bella meets the supernaturally good-looking Edward in the first place is that she has moved to her father's place in gloomy Forks, Wash.; that way, her mother can follow around after her new husband, a minor-league ballplayer. "I stared at her wild, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic hare-brained mother to fend for herself?"


"It was like she was dead," Rusty-James says of his mother in "Rumble Fish." "I'd always thought of her as being dead." (In fact she's in California, about to move into a treehouse with her boyfriend, an artist.)


In Cynthia Voigt's superb Tillerman series (the second novel, "Dicey's Song," won the 1983 Newbery Medal), a "sad moon-faced" mother abandons her four children at a shopping center, and they walk the length of Connecticut looking for a relative to take them in. The most memorable "bad guy" had become, in many cases, the mother, matching in pathos what the wicked stepmother once conjured in malevolence.


One might vaguely remember real mothers like the beautifully observed Ma in "A Place Apart" (1980), by Paula Fox, seen through "a smoke screen," cigarette ashes patterning her sweater, or her neighbor, "a restless ghost" who takes special pills twice a day.

On bad fathers:

Maybe you can think of more recent examples than "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885) — the gallant, no-good father from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1943)?


In a typical scene, from "Once Was Lost," by Sara Zarr, a dad whose wife is at a "recovery center" after a D.U.I. needs help shopping at a supermarket. He shouldn't be filling the cart with vegetables, his 15-year-old daughter says. "It's all . . . ingredients," she explains patiently. "Who's going to cook this stuff?" He stands by in confusion as she selects precooked chicken breasts.


The husband of the accident-prone mother is never home at night. It's not that he's with another woman; he's working late at the Johns Hopkins bio lab.

The father in "Once Was Lost" is referred to more than once in the article and a bad father is mentioned, together with a bad mother, here:

In Neil Gaiman's novel "Coraline," from 2002, the lonely title character wanders into danger in a creepy new house because the parents are busy and preoccupied. "Go away," the father says cheerfully the minute she appears. This theme was made more explicit in the 2009 movie version, in which both parents seem to be transfixed by their computers. "Hey Mom, where does this door go?" Coraline asks, and her mother replies without looking away from the monitor: "I'm really, really busy."

But mostly the article is about bad mothers in young adult fiction.

Does that reflect what can be found by reading the books themselves? I suspect so. Mothers are held to higher parenting standards than fathers and children spend more time with them, too.

The point of this post is not to criticize Ms. Just's review. As she points out, mothers are clearly the new villain. But the shifting focus from general bad parents to very specific examples of bad mothers and back again is confusing.