What’s with all the dead parents in middle-grade fantasy?

One of many well-known characters with a missing parent. Image, from Wikipedia, is in the public domain.

Does it seem to you that most heroes of middle-grade fantasies have parents who are missing or dead? It’s not just your imagination. It’s a real phenomenon with a longstanding history that’s as old as fairy tales—maybe even older.

There are a number of good reasons for getting parents out of the way in middle-grade fantasy. The first is simple. Main characters in fantasies need to go on dangerous quests and adventures, and at the end of the road, they must face their antagonists alone. Your average parent’s goal of protecting his or her kids from harm is diametrically opposed to your average storyteller’s goal of putting those very same kids in harm’s way. For instance, if mom is so worried about stranger danger that she won’t let eleven-year-old Betsy Bravington walk two blocks to ballet school, you can bet your brass tutu she’s not gonna let Betsy cross the Sitherous Sea to slay Malwar the Malevolent, a dragon who gouges out people’s eyeballs, spears them with toothpicks, and uses them to stir his breakfast martinis. Betsy’s especially grounded if Moms finds out that the plan to get to Malwar involves a homemade raft, two 500-year-old dwarves with questionable personal hygiene, and a cute teenage elf who wears a diamond stud in his nose and keeps fifteen daggers hidden on his person.

Second, orphaning your hero opens up a treasure chest of opportunities for internal conflict. Betsy’s sad her mom’s dead, see, and even worse, they parted in anger that last day. Betsy actually used the F word because Moms wouldn’t let her wear meat-colored Lady Gaga eye shadow to Anita Smithson’s twelfth birthday party. Just after Betsy stomped off to the yellow walk-in closet that is her sanctum sanctorum, Moms set off for the strip mall. At the mall, Veronica Vanitas dropped the Poison of Periset into Moms’ spirulina smoothie so she (Veronica) could sneak into the Bravington’s McMansion, snitch the Nail Polish of Power, kidnap Betsy’s little sister Belinda, and deliver the feisty eight-year-old to Malwar the Dragon in exchange for the Earrings that Eliminate Eyelid Droop.

Third, killing off the parents equals instant room for character growth. Just to pick one obvious thing, Betsy could learn that contrary to what she thought at the beginning of the story, Anita Smithson’s opinion of eye shadow is not as important to her as the safety of her little sister. She could discover that if she doesn’t look deeper inside herself than her Burberry outerwear, she could easily start rolling down that slippery slope to Veronica-land. On the other hand, if she can just keep her vanity in check, she can enjoy the Nail Polish of Power and save Belinda, too.

Fourth, there’s the sympathy/empathy factor. Even readers who haven’t experienced deep loss like the death of a parent have experienced loss and loneliness of some kind, so it’s easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of the orphaned main character. As a writer, you want readers to sympathize with your hero, especially if she has some not-so-likable traits, as Betsy does at the outset of our hypothetical story.

In a stunning move that may well parallel the apparent worldwide drop in violence (see Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature), more and more middle-grade fantasy writers are moving away from classic murder to disappearance and abduction. The missing parents in the Sisters Grimm series are a good example. They vanished into thin air one day, the only clue a red hand print on the dashboard of their abandoned car.

Parents that are not dead but merely AWOL free up the main character for adventure and excite readers’ sympathy. They also give writers the opportunity to inject extra action and conflict into plot and subplot, because when Mom and Dad are missing, the kids want to find them. For example, if Veronica Vanitas doesn’t poison Moms’ smoothie, but uses the Calamitous Cuticle Scissors of Cathor to give Moms a haircut that sends her spinning into another realm, then Betsy can star in a trilogy. Finding, saving, and reconciling with Moms can be the goal that Betsy and her writer aim for at the end of Book 3. Neat, huh? Or Moms could become like Obi-Wan Kenobi and the parents in the Kane Chronicles, influencing events in Betsy’s books from afar even if she (Moms) can never escape from the Parallel World of Prada or the Blissful Bay of Balenciaga.

Some writers open Door Number Three and create parents who are too busy, too wrapped up in their work or life or whatnot, to pay attention to what the kids are up to. This is what Terry Pratchett does in his Wee Free Men books. A cool variation on this theme is to make it seem like the hero’s parents are oblivious and neglectful, whereas in reality the parents know all about what’s going on and are keeping an eye on the kid the whole time. This is what happens in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Just to be safe I better warn you that although Foer’s book stars a nine-year-old, it’s not a middle-grade novel. I highly recommend it for adults, however.

Whew. That was fun. Next time: a run-down of middle-grade fantasy’s many subgenres.

2 thoughts on “What’s with all the dead parents in middle-grade fantasy?

  1. Great post, Kim! And now you made me think…nearly every book I’ve written has an absent parent. In the book I wrote for Nanowrimo 2012, there are very-much alive but still very absent parents. I guess all those fairytales with absent parents left their mark on me. :)

Leave a Reply