I’ve been catching up on my back issues of Publishers Weekly and came across this column, which I thought I’d share with you. (This is an excerpt; read the whole thing here.) Ms. Sales is right on. Writers, take note.

The Ol’ Dead Dad Syndrome
Why are there so many dead parents in kids’ books?
By Leila Sales
Sep 20, 2010

I am a children’s book editor. You might assume this means that I spend eight hours a day reading charming bedtime tales about bunny rabbits, but that is not true. I primarily work on novels for older children, and the “in” thing right now is future dystopias. So I actually spend eight hours a day reading about barren wastelands in which teens struggle against fascist dictatorships. Also, their parents are usually dead.

Dead parents are so much a part of middle-grade and teen fiction at this point, it’s not even the “in” thing. It’s not “au courant” or “en vogue.” It’s just an accepted fact: kids in books are parentless.

But I don’t accept it, because you know what? It is not believable that so many kids are missing one, if not both parents. Slews of them! Hundreds! To quote Oscar Wilde, sort of: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose a parent in nearly every children’s book looks like lazy writing.” (I assume that is what Wilde meant.)

What’s so lazy about writing in a deceased parent? I’ll tell you.

First, a dead parent is one fewer character to have to write. At their hearts, most novels are the stories of characters’ relationships with other characters. Combine Wilbur’s relationships with Charlotte, with Templeton, and with Fern, and you more or less have Charlotte’s Web.

But creating all those different relationships is hard work, because they are complex and ever shifting. Having established how a protagonist gets along with her best friend, boyfriend, ex-best friend, piano teacher, and ghost who lives in the cellar, who really wants to add her parents into the mix?…

Second, there’s the instant sympathy factor. It’s challenging to create a fictional character who’s likable despite his or her foibles. This becomes truer the more foibles you want her to have. If you want to write a character who’s snarky, self-absorbed, doesn’t respect authority figures, lashes out—basically, a teenager—then you need to give the reader some special reason to care about her.

Dead parent equals immediate sympathy. No wonder he’s mopey and melodramatic. He’s a half-orphan! For the first hundred pages of The Secret Garden, would you like Mary Lennox at all if her parents were still alive?

Again, I find this a cop-out….

Dead parents will always have their place in children’s literature. If your book is set at an orphanage, then I would hope you include a lot of dead parents. Or if a book is about a teen coping with the recent death of her mother, then, you know, her mother should have recently died. But when authors omit parents for the sake of convenience, I take issue—as an editor, and as a reader. Because a convenient story is not the same as a good story.

Showing 13 comments
  • strider

    Hear, hear!

  • Katie

    Thank you!! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who questions why in seemingly every book (and don’t get me started on Disney-produced media) one or both parents are dead!

    As the adoptive parent of a true orphan I find it not only lazy writing but insulting for writers to assume that they understand the effects of being orphaned. Too often they generalize those effects (i.e. they are all emotionally withdrawn, slow to trust adults, overly reliant on peers, etc.) and reinforce stereotypes.

  • Maverick_Mom

    Perhaps one intended message of such books is that parents have been superfluous all along.

  • Michelle

    For variety, there’s the absentee parent or the distracted parent. Neil Gaiman, who’s writing I love but books I dislike, uses that one a lot. The Tumtum and Nutmeg series has both- a dead mother and a distracted inventor-father. I see it everywhere, and it isn’t just in books for teens. I think another reason authors use it is because parents get in the way of all the adventure and fun. Remove the parent(s) and the kids are free to run amok. It’s just more laziness on the part of the author. Wouldn’t it be more fun if the kids had to find ways to get the job done despite the intrusion of the parent? Sure, but it’s *hard* to think up ways to get around parents without the kids outright defying them and/or lying.

    In the interest of fairness it needs to be said that this is not a new technique. Many, many children’s classics feature parentless children: Pippi Longstocking, Heidi, The Secret Garden, and The Chronicles of Narnia, just to name a few. But it has hit this generation like a literary plague and I do hope authors take note.

  • Amy R.

    SO glad that someone finally put this into words for me! My dd9 has a hard time with this each and every time she reads a book. I keep her from watching violence on tv, and then she reads about dead parents in almost every book she has. It does disturb her, to the point of not enjoying the beginning of most books. If anyone has any ideas on books that don’t start with “Sally was a lonely child. Her parents died in an awful fire when she was 9.” I’d love to hear them!
    Thanks for posting Susan!

  • Alex

    I’m going to have to disagree on this one. The reason middle and high school level literature has so many orphans is because it is coming of age literature. One can’t find themselves with their parents hovering over them all the time. How could one learn to be independent if their parents are trying to take care of them all the time?

  • Maverick_Mom

    Alex wrote: “One can’t find themselves with their parents hovering over them all the time. How could one learn to be independent if their parents are trying to take care of them all the time?”

    Your point is a good one — but there is a vast difference between being “appropriately detached” and being dead. 🙂

  • Madiantin


  • Karen

    Barbara Feinberg takes on this issue, among others in lit for older kids, in Welcome to the Lizard Motel. She also has a nice chapter or two investigating the historical period in which this type of literature began to dominate kid lit and the Newbery book list.

  • Heather Q.

    But what if they die a truly horrible death, like poor James Trotter’s parents who were eaten by an angry rhinoceros? If they must die, they should at least die in a spectacular manner!

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    I’m not sure I can buy the coming of age out. Most of us had to come of age without bumping off our parents first. It is much harder to grow into being an adult without being a tremendous jerk to your parents and siblings or to learn how to restore the relationships you heedlessly trampled while “finding yourself”.

    It would be nice if fiction explored more of the ways of navigating an entry to an adult world that included your adult parents and siblings.

    It was novel when I read a book in the 70s about surviving your parents’ divorce (Blume maybe?). But it just isn’t novel anymore.

  • Cyndi

    Well, I’m not sure about this one. My girls (ages 11 to 21) and I have often talked about this in the past 10 years. I was always asking why I was not in their stories. They, too, always had the parents dead. We have a great family, good home, good relationships, no real problems here. Their answer was that if the parents were really there, the kids could not really do anything. With a tragedy of kids finding themselves alone, they have to rise to the occasion and take care of the family. There is a tremendous problem to overcome. As a young preteen writer, that was the scenario they chose. I don’t think it was lazy writing. The plots were always good and lots of characters outside the family to deal with. And they always ended in triumph over the circumstances. It is true, some of the classics we read did have the children by themselves. When parents are with them, they are protected and secure. Take away that protection, and the situation is indeed traumatic, making for a really good story. As they’ve gotten older, new and more complex plots have taken their place. But occasionally, that theme does reappear. Perhaps that is one of their fears and they are trying to make a plan for the future. hmmm……
    I think I have gotten over it, but it does make you wonder:)

  • K-Sue

    I’ve noticed this, too. I agree with those who point out that with parents to protect and supervise, you are just not going to be able to go out, solve the mystery and save the world. The author has to remove the parents or the children cannot have an adventure. If Mom and Dad were alive, the Boxcar Children would never have moved into the boxcar.

    It shows up regularly in sitcoms, too, especially dead or absent moms. My Three Sons, Full House, etc.

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