Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why I'll Never Kill My Parents

I'll probably catch a bit of heat for this, but I have a huge pet peeve when it comes to children's books: I hate dead parents.

Most times, dead parents are used as a device for writers to allow the child character to go off and have adventures that no sane parent would allow. For me, it's a huge problem because most of these literary children never have another thought about their deceased parents.  Granted, a child that was orphaned at 10 is not still going to be moping and crying at 16. But even if that child was adopted by a loving family, the lack of parents will influence them in countless ways.

I should know. I was that child.

Every person reacts differently in a given situation, but even a child that never knew their parents will think about them at different milestones or tuning points in their lives. When I learned to drive, I remembered sitting on my father's lap and steering the car on country roads. I wondered how he would have taught me differently, if I would have even been learning on the same streets, in the same car. When I had my first boyfriend, I wished my mom could have met his mom because I knew they would have been friends. I wondered what advice she would have given me and how it would have differed from my adoptive mother. To this day, every time I bake cookies, or smell fried chicken, or see a violet or a duck, or hear certain songs on the radio, it triggers a memory of my parents. I don't break down and cry, but I think about them, every day, in so many little ways.

Novels are stories about turning points in a character's life. Too often characters don't ring true because writer's don't give them that added depth of reflecting on how their turning point would have been different if their parents were around. J.K. Rowling did this masterfully in the Harry Potter books. His parents were woven into the storyline countless times, in a way that was meaningful and real. When Harry looked in the Mirror of Erised, I desperately desired my own. And the photos where he could see his parents moving about? Priceless. Rowling understood the emotions surrounding the death of a parent, probably because she experienced that loss herself as she was writing the books.

Many things can be imagined in a novel, but false emotions regarding dead parents never sit well with me. It's hard to write a book with realistic, living parents. But it's a challenge more writers should attempt. Because when we were children, every day was an adventure. And even when our parents were around, we found ways to have those adventures, safe in the knowledge that our parents would be there to bail us out if things got out of hand.

Maybe it's my own fantasy, my way of making my parents come alive in the pages of my stories. Maybe someday I'll be a good enough writer, a brave enough writer to honestly portray the raw emotions of a character without parents. But another part of me fights back. Aren't there are enough dead parents in children's books?

I think I'll keep mine alive.


Rosi said...

Interesting post. I finished read a book today in which the dead parent is really a driving force -- A Smidgen of Sky by Dianna Dorisi Winget -- and, I think, handled really well. In my two (as yet unpublished) novels I have no dead parents in either, but in one the MC thinks his mother is dead. I hope I've handled it well. This certainly is something for all writers to keep in mind. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

dolorah said...

Dead parents is too popular in childrens books. I don't know that many kids with dead parents. I want my grandkids to read books that help them through life - even if it is written in a fantasy world.

I loved the title of this post.


Anne Gallagher said...

This is a very moving post, Sherrie. I agree with you, in so many books without parents, the kids don't think about the deceased at all.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will remember this for a long time.

Dianne K. Salerni said...


I am kind of embarrassed to admit now that the book I just sold is a dead parent book. However, my characters thought about their parents quite a bit and were greatly affected by being left alone, without family.

I am currently planning book 2, and the MC finding family he didn't know he had plays a big part. But you've reminded me how emotionally raw it needs to be for him. I shouldn't downplay it -- and I should let it drive his actions even more than I was originally planning.

A timely post for me!

Faith E. Hough said...

This is very interesting, and it's wonderful to get your take on it. I'm a huge sucker for books WITH parents, because I think if you can maintain tension and allow your characters to be heroes even when their parents are there, you're a great writer.
That said, I have written two manuscripts where characters have lost one or both parents....they certainly don't go on as if nothing has happened, but their loss defines who they are and what they need throughout the story. Much of that comes from stories my dad told me of losing his mother when he was young... Maybe I'm writing these for him, in a way.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Very wise & thoughtful post. The whole dead parents trend in kids books has bothered me for some time. You nailed it.

Kristan Hoffman said...

First, thanks for baring a part of yourself to write this post. It feels very... personal, very special, and I feel privileged to read it.

Second, even though I have two living parents, I have always agreed with your stance on there being too many dead parents in children's lit. This is how I feel to a tee:

"Because when we were children, every day was an adventure. And even when our parents were around, we found ways to have those adventure..."

Most of the time, killing off parents (or any, character, really) seems to be a convenience for the writer, as opposed to a necessary or germane part of the story. I have a lot of respect for writers who don't take the easy way out, and instead juggle all the different characters and interactions.

(Note: I'm not saying there can never be dead parents. Obviously -- obviously! -- some people do experience that. But not to the same proportions as we see in YA.)

(Hey, can we flip the ratio of orphans with the ratio of diversity as seen in YA? Then I think we'd be on the right track.)

Sherrie Petersen said...

Rosi: There are novels where the emotions surrounding death feel authentic. And when it's done well, not just used to manipulate the reader, those are stories that I cherish.

Donna: I agree. The ratio of dead parents in books far outnumbers the reality. I love that you want to find books that help your grand kids through life. They're lucky to have you.

Anne: Thanks. I've been thinking about this post for a long time, but it took a while to get up the nerve to write it.

Diane: I'm glad this post was a timely one for you. And now I'm curious about this new story of yours :)

Faith: I'm also a sucker for books WITH parents for the same reasons as you. I love that you're writing stories for your dad. What a great way to honor him.

Karen: It has bothered me for a while, too. It just took a while for me to be able to say something about it because it hits so close to home.

Kristan: I don't usually warm to math, but I like your idea of flipping the ratios! Not that I see that happening any time soon...

Laura Pauling said...

Thanks for sharing. When something hits home for us then it's hard to see how it's handled in fiction.

For me, it totally depends on the book, the premise, the tone, the themes...whether a dead parents works and whether it's done well. I don't know why but I've never had a dead parent in my stories. An absent parent, yes. Poor relationships? yes. But for me those are causes of conflict b/c most teens and/or kids have issues with their parents.

prerna pickett said...

beautifully written. Thank you for sharing such a personal story.

Rebecca Gomez said...

I think this is a wonderful post, Sherrie! I'm with you on this one. I've always felt that there should be more YA books in which the parents are living.

The MC in my most recent project has both parents, but no siblings. Having two responsible parents in her life made for a few challenges for my character and for me as a writer.

And thanks for the little glimpse into your childhood. I can see your words sticking with me for a long time.

Barbara Watson said...

I, too, have problems with dead (or even the 'mysteriously missing') parents. As you said, often it's a device so the kid is on his own. Seeing more books with parents is something I'd like. One very well done with-parents book is TRACING STARS by Erin E. Moulton.

Marcia said...

There's a dead parent in my WIP. My MC is affected by the absence, though, even though the book isn't "about" death or mourning. I'm glad you brought up these points, and I'm going to be even more careful of this aspect of my book because of them.

Unknown said...

I have been known to kill off a parent (or two), but never for the purpose of keeping them out of the way so the characters can go on an adventure. I agree with you there, Sherri. That drives me nut. There needs to be a much stronger reason than that. And their death should play a role in the character's characterization.

Jackee said...

Such a powerful post. Thanks, Sherrie! I agree about missing parents in books. It's very hard to write true emotions with dead parents and doesn't need to be so prevalent in kid's books. (My other peeve is Disney seems to have it out for mother's in all their movies too.)

I've written books both with orphans and without. And now with my own mother about to pass on, I can tell the depth of my own emotion in writing loss barely hit the mark in what my characters were experiencing.

Thanks for sharing, dear! <3

Kelly H-Y said...

Couldn't agree more, Sherrie. Very thoughtful post.

Lenny Lee said...

hi miss sherrie! wow! thats a pretty heart kinda post. its cool you could share your own self. i didnt know theres so much dp (dead parents) stories. for me its ok as long as the mcs remember and have emotions from it that gets used some in the plot. im like you in remembering my mom and dad. mostly my mom. i hope im using my own feelings in my characters. for miss diannes new book i got a sneak peek. :) and i think is just right on the emotions for having dead parents. on the next one it doesnt gotta be raw emotions just only emotions that fit whats going on.
...hugs from lenny

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Thanks for sharing part of yourself in this post, Sherrie. It's hard to do that publicly. I rarely talk about my childhood...publicly.

I hadn't thought about parents dieing in books. My current ms has children that are separated from their parents because of the war. I was planning to have the father die at war, if I get lucky enough to make it into a sequel...but now I am having second thoughts about it.

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