Emancipating Minors, YA Style

During the recent blog tour of Monster in the Hollows, Becky Miller explored what she believed to be the book’s primary weakness: the fact that Janner, the main character, was “passive or reactive” throughout most of the story. “I believe,” she wrote, “in this climate of literature the young adult in the young adult novel needs to be the agent making things happen.”

As a rule, the hero should always be proactive. Naturally, then, many writers separate their young protagonists from their parents’ care and authority. It’s harder to make things happen when your mother is still making your bedtime happen. Remove functioning parents, and children and teenagers can act entirely on their own. Below is a list of how different writers have accomplished this; orphaning characters is only the most obvious way.

(1) Grady in The Charlatan’s Boy, by Jonathan Rogers. He has no last name, no mother or father, and he can trace his life no further back than his oldest memory: riding in the back of the charlatan’s wagon, looking at himself in a mirror.

(2) Jack in the Dragonback Series, by Timothy Zahn. After his parents died long ago, his crooked uncle took him in. Now his uncle is dead, too, and Jack is trying to make it on his own – and, ideally, go straight.

(3) Tipper in The Vanishing Sculptor, by Donita Paul. Her father is the vanishing sculptor and her mother is, well, the scatter-minded noblewoman. That makes her the responsible one.

(4) The Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. Their parents sent them away during the bombing of London, so when Lucy began finding countries in cupboards, it could not be appealed to a higher court. The children made the best they could of it.

Later on, of course, they – as well as other English children – were simply pulled into a whole other world from their parents.

(5) Shasta and Aravis in The Horse and His Boy, by C. S. Lewis. Shasta ran away when he learned that his adoptive father was planning to sell him into slavery. Aravis was also a runaway, escaping an arranged marriage. They fled to Narnia and the north for freedom.

(6) Sara Cobbler in The Monster in the Hollows, by Andrew Peterson. Stolen from her parents and put to work with other kidnapped children, she became leader of an armed revolution and the heroine of the Fork Factory.

These are all sci-fi and fantasy books, mainly because the only YA novels I read are in that genre. But I wonder if speculative fiction, drawing as it does from folk stories and fairy tales, is even more likely to separate the young from their parents. We all remember the old stories, with their evil stepmothers, absent fathers, orphaned heroes …

4 thoughts on “Emancipating Minors, YA Style

  1. Great post, Shannon. I recently read a contemporary YA — in fact, two. One had the protag in a boarding school. The other had the main story take place at school or at socials where the protag’s parents weren’t present.

    D. Barkley Briggs The Book of Names takes his two YA main characters through a portal a la Lewis. I forget how the Miller brothers managed it in Hunter Brown. Anyway, I enjoyed your summary and find it interesting that so many writers do capitalize on the separation of the young protag from his parents.

    This might explain what Sarah Sawyer noted in one of her posts — that family isn’t often celebrated.

    Becky

  2. I think it does help account for how infrequently we see functioning families. Still, I guess there’s more to it. It wouldn’t surprise me if some YA writers create division between parents and children in order to connect to their readers. In adolescence people start to break away from their parents emotionally and want independence; writers may also assume (most) teenage readers are feeling embarrassment or rebellion or anger toward their own parents.

    YA fiction can portray the family negatively in their presence – and, on the other side of the coin, positively in their absence. Jonathan Rogers did that in The Charlatan’s Boy. Grady says that the great question of his life is, “Where did I come from?” His complete ignorance of his family is ignorance of himself. In losing who they are, he has lost who he is.

    Ah, now I’m going on. Thanks for commenting. I always appreciate it.

  3. This is actually something that I’ve been thinking about lately. Trying to have a proactive YA character in a typical functioning family setting without the child appearing rebellious or disobedient or somehow smarter than the parental figures is a challenge.

    I’ve noticed this habit of family division in my own writings. Not because I have anything against families, but in my attempt to avoid this negative portrayal of families, I tend to have my YA characters separated from their families. I guess that’s one of the reasons I found Andrew Peterson’s novels so good! He presents family in such a positive way without it seeming forced.

  4. Peterson’s novels are three-generational; an uncle is a major character, too, so that expands it even more. Even Peterson, though, broke up the ideal two-parent family, and Artham suffered painful rejection from Nia and Podo until he saved everyone’s lives two or three times.

    Family division is so often a plot necessity, especially in YA fiction. Whether it reflects negatively or positively on families depends on how each author handles it.

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