Several years ago, when I was first dipping my toes into fiction, I took a children’s writing course in which I wrote a proposal for a young adult novel. The protagonist was a teenager coping with lots of family drama on the home front. Her mother was obsessed with her other daughter’s burgeoning acting career and her parents’ marriage was coming apart. My writing teacher chastised me about my subject matter. Didn’t I understand that parents should not figure prominently in YA fiction? Teenagers were preoccupied with romance and relationships with peers. Get those parents out of there!
Romance and relationships with peers really do matter to teens and play a prominent role in my own work and YA fiction generally. But I’m glad I didn’t listen to this particular writing teacher. I knew from experience, my own and those around me, that relationships with parents also play a huge role in the tensions, pressures, and conflicts inherent in growing up. And after all, tension and conflict are the stuff of fiction. Who wants to read a book where everything is going well?
Moreover, parental expectations and pressures often have a dramatic impact on teens’ romantic lives, not to mention their worries about educational and career paths. In my forthcoming Leisha’s Song, for example, academically gifted Leisha has been raised by a devoted African-American grandfather who has her entire future mapped out for her. He has his heart set on her becoming a physician, and he has strong feelings about her only dating African-American boys. So, when Leisha finds herself falling in love both with classical singing and a white boy, she’s in a double bind. She doesn’t want to disappoint the only parent she’s ever had, but she also wants to follow her own passions.
I’m hardly alone in mining parent-teen conflicts in my writing. Currently, I’m reading a wonderful debut novel, American Panda, by Gloria Chao. Seventeen year old Mei Lu, the daughter of Taiwanese parents, is a freshman at MIT whose parents are also counting on her to become a physician and marry within her identity group. Only an Ivy League Taiwanese boy is acceptable. But Mei Lu hates biology, dreams of opening her own dance studio, and finds herself attracted to a Japanese classmate. Her parents have already disowned her older brother for not following their approved script for his life, and she doesn’t want to suffer the same fate. Like Leisha, Mei Lu is in a bind rife with tension and suspense.
These conflicts resonate with real life teens because they reflect what they are going through. On the surface, teens may appear to be living their lives largely independent of their parents—spending most of their time at school, hanging with friends, or participating in extra-curricular activities or part-time jobs. But parents remain influential players (and sometimes powerful antagonists). Teens long for both connection to parents and the freedom to forge their own identities. It’s tricky business rife with potential problems.
So no, I don’t think parents should necessarily be off stage in YA fiction. Parents still figure prominently in the experience of growing up.