Parents in Books – a Writing Perspective

Maybe Mother’s Day is still in the air, or it might be the two recent Mixed-Up Files posts on parenting tips, and moms in middle grade fiction; or it might be the mother-daughter book club visit I did recently. Whatever it might be, I have been thinking seriously about moms and dads in MG.

And before I go further, I want to pass out some writer hats. If you aren’t a writer – don’t worry.  Even if you are a parent or educator, or simply a middle grade reader, I have several hats. I’m sure one will fit you.

Because what I want to talk about pertains to writing, and the decisions we make as writers regarding plot, conflict, and the role of parents in MG fiction.

Conventional writing wisdom has been telling us for years to cross out parents from books, and to leave the adventuring, detective work, and problem-solving to the kids.  How else might we explain classics like The Secret Garden, or Heidi, or more recent phenomenons like Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, and The Graveyard Book?  I know as a writer, it’s just easier to leave out the parents. Fewer people to deal with, fewer permissions to grant, easier plot twists to render. As a young child, I understood the necessity of eliminating parents. I scarcely knew what divorce was, and yet in many stories I wrote, there were divorced parents, missing parents, or mothers and fathers who met an untimely demise. Why? Because it was so much easier to get to the real story without them there!

Even so, I’d like to make a case for the parents, and why as a writer, I think they add a dimension to the story that is gaining importance over time. There might be several really good reasons, but I will give you my personal 3. And then I will add one more, which might be a truth that has remained constant, but bears considering.

3 Reasons for Keeping Parents Present

  1. The rise of parent-child book clubs. I have no hard data, but one can easily observe that the number of parent-child book clubs have grown over recent years. Some of these are run through the schools, some through libraries, and sometimes a group of like-minded people form their own. It’s a great way to spend time with your child and devote time to reading. Along with that, is the opportunity to discuss stories that resonate with both adults and young people. Whether it’s about fitting in at school, or dealing with a job loss, or the death of a family member, there are many stories out there that can be approached and discussed from multiple
    perspectives. And in doing so, there might be a great chance for parents and kids to understand each other better.
  1. Multicultural families and their experiences have changed from generation to generation.  As a child of an immigrant family that came to the United States in the 1970s, I can attest to how much has changed from what we experienced then as first-generation immigrants with what my children and their second-generation and third-generation peers experience today.  In the 1970s, it was about fitting in and being like everyone else.

    Today, what “fitting in” means has changed. Interestingly, the Census Bureau reported for the first time that White births account for less than half the number of total births today, clocking in at 49 percent. So while the face of our nation undergoes changes, it makes sense that the stories for and about our children have changed. And what better way to observe that change than through books that include multi-generations of immigrants in its pages?

  2. The need to accept people in our society who may be seem different, but deserve the same level of respect and dignity, and with equal rights to education, friendship, and acceptance. I think this is an especially important reason. In an interview about her debut novel, Wonder (about a 5th grader with facial deformities that attends school for the first time), RJ Polaccio comments, “I hope that readers will come away with the idea that they are noticed: their actions are noted.” More importantly, Polaccio goes on to say that, “I also hope parents take heed and do more interfering in their kids’ lives…They need to remind their kids to be kind and do right exactly because it’s the hardest thing to do at that age.” What’s wonderful about Polaccio’s novel is that she allows us to see the shortcomings of everyone, from kids to their parents, and to those who mean well but still inflict pain through their ignorance. It’s this quality that makes her novel an excellent way for children and adults alike to discuss how we should treat other people.

So, does this mean that all MG books need to spotlight parents? Of course not. Often times, parents in novels can interfere with the immediacy of the main character’s personal growth. And sometimes, kids really do have to solve their own problems. On the other hand, parents being fictionally “there” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The other day I read a post by young adult author, Jennifer Hubbard, on the dynamics of being older and younger, and she notes how “There are so many ways to look at age, and at intergenerational relationships.”

Which brings me to the 4th reason I value parents being in the books I write. I truly believe that our experiences as adults matter and have relevance in a kid’s world. I also believe that for those of us who are parents as well as writers, writing children’s books is a way for us to explore the successes and setbacks of grown-ups when it comes to decision-making. For my ownself, writing has allowed me to consider my parenting decisions, and how they might hold up under the scrutiny of a young person.

As writers I think it’s possible to write what we know, even when it comes to writing for kids — and this doesn’t necessarily mean remembering stuff from our distant past. In her parenting post, Mixed-Up Files blogger Elissa Cruz extends a thoughtful invitation: “Parents, I encourage you to pick up a title and read.”

I’d like to go one step further by saying, Writers – I encourage you to write about parents. Because for all you know, they might be reading.

Sheela Chari is the author of Vanished,  a 2012 APALA honor book and a nominee for this year’s Edgar award in the best juvenile mystery category. She lives in New York.