Why are there so many dead parents in young adult fiction?

I was lying in bed this morning trying to remember the last young adult novel I read in which the main character didn’t have at least one dead or dramatically absent parent.

I couldn’t think of one.

Here’s my list of recent YA reading (mostly by Australian authors):

Talk under water (which I just started) by Kathryn Lomer – dead/absent parents

Risk by Fleur Ferris – dead parent

The incredible adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil – dead parent

One would think the deep by Claire Zorn – dead/absent parents

A monster calls – dying parent

And I started to wonder – why is the dead parent such a powerful theme in YA as to be almost ubiquitous with the genre? I’m not sure of the statistics but surely some people manage to make it through to adulthood without losing a parent?

Here’s a few reasons why I think this trope pops up over and over again. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  1. Character complexity

Readers like to read about, and writers like to create, characters who are complex and layered, who face challenges, who have secrets and who experience internal as well as external conflicts.

One quick and easy way of doing this when your character is a teenager, (though obviously not for the character themselves), is for them to have lost a parent.

A dead parent gives rise to a whole plethora of possibilities for character complexity – unresolved grief, guilt, breakdown of family mythologies, being forced into early independence, financial strain, geographic relocation, and changed family dynamics being just a few.

The loss of a parent/s is often one of the deeply defining elements to a main character in YA.

  1. Themes of grief, loss and mortality

Most people, at some point in their teenage years, will experience grief and loss, and confront the reality that things end, and that people leave or die.

Whether this is in the form of loss of a parent or not, the ‘dead parent’ trope allows writers to explore these issues through their characters and perhaps have their characters reach a point of insight or new understanding.

The process of moving through grief, as it is often represented in YA fiction, involves confronting pain; reaching out to others; making authentic choices – characters discovering who they are and what they truly want in life; and re-negotiating the relationship with the remaining parent/family in light of the loss.

These are all healthy actions for anyone seeking to build resilience and a sense of meaning in life, regardless of whether they are grieving the death of a parent.

  1. Parents are fallible and vulnerable

At some point, most people begin to question their family mythologies, and see their parents, perhaps for the first time, as human beings – capable of failure, capable of taking real damage.

The death of a parent is an ultimate, shocking, indicator of fallibility and vulnerability.

Beyond that, the death of one parent exposes the vulnerabilities of the other, who may be still grieving and must now bear the responsibilities that were previously shared.

In seeking to understand their loss, characters in YA fiction (as in real life) often find themselves seeking to confront the reality of who their parent was, as opposed to the mythology they may have created around them.

  1. The need for independence versus the need for protection

The years before adulthood can be a time in which you lurch between a desperate desire for complete independence and needing the care and protection of your parents.

Characters who have lost a parent may be forced into a particular kind of independence. They’ve had an important safety-net taken away. Some find themselves in the role of caregiver to the surviving parent, despite their own grief. Others might throw themselves into destructive behaviours as a way of dealing with their pain. They are tied down by their past until they are able to find a way to confront it and move forward.

This often features as a sub-plot which must be resolved for the main character to achieve a freedom, self-knowledge and optimism at the story’s end. The main character must find a way to meet their needs both for independence and for protection.

So I did finally manage to think of a YA book I’ve read recently in which both parents were present and alive: the wonderful Cloudwish by Fiona Wood.

Let me know what you think about all this.

Are dead parents overdone in YA?

Can you recommend any great YA books in which all the main character’s parents are alive, happy and accounted for?

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