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 outâ€”basically, a teenagerâ€”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 issueâ€”as an editor, and as a reader. Because a convenient story is not the same as a good story.