Julie Just claims that incompetent mothers and fathers are ruling the roost in today’s young adult fiction. Is she right?

The Famous Five’s parents might be loving, but they clearly aren’t that bothered about spending a lot of quality time with their kids, who are left in peace to adventure on Kirrin Island or at Smuggler’s Top. Pauline, Petrova and Posie of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes are orphaned. James of Giant Peach fame’s parents are killed in a rhinoceros accident and he’s sent to live with the evil aunts Spiker and Sponge. All the best books for children get rid of the parents early on – which is why I am intrigued by a theory laid out in the New York Times.

Children’s books editor Julie Just is arguing that “it took a surprisingly long time for bad parents to show up in children’s books … in the classic stories, from Cinderella to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the hero’s parents are more likely to be absent or dead than cruel or incompetent”. These days, though, with the growth in young adult fiction, she believes “the bad parent is enjoying something of a heyday”, with some of the best YA novels reliably featuring “a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent”: Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr, Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye in Robot, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls – even the bestselling Twilight, Shiver and The Hunger Games series.

Hmm. This interests me. I haven’t read the novels she mentions, apart from Twilight (where she’s right – the mother and father are ineffectual, rather hopeless background figures), but the best YA fiction I’ve read of late doesn’t exactly bear her theory out. In Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, not only are hero Todd’s parents dead but so are his guardians. In Siobhan Dowd’s Solace of the Road, Holly Hogan walks out on her foster family. In Anna Perera’s Guantanamo Boy, Khalid is kidnapped when on holiday with his family in Pakistan. The absence of parents works in YA fiction just as it does in children’s books: because the young protagonist is forced to make decisions on his or her own, without the moral compass or preconceptions or restrictions of the adult world.

And – as Neil Gaiman points out – bad parents have always been around. “Remember that in the first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, those stepmothers were plain old mothers,” he writes on his blog. He’s backed up in a National Geographic article, which explains that the Grimms refined and softened their stories to meet demands for “virtuous material for the nursery”: “In the Grimms’ hands, cruel mothers became nasty stepmothers, unmarried lovers were made chaste, and the incestuous father was recast as the devil.”

But then it’s always easy to think up exceptions to a trend, just as it’s possible to think of examples: David Yelland’s The Truth About Leo, for example – the former Sun editor’s first YA novel, about a boy struggling to deal with his alcoholic father, which is just out. I have to say, I think I prefer my children’s – and YA – fiction as free as possible from adult influences – would Treasure Island have been as fun if Jim’s mum and dad were along for the ride, or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or A Walk in Wolf Wood? But what do you think? Trend or no trend? Good or not good? Parents or no parents?

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