A trend I’ve noticed a lot recently is bad or abusive guardians in young adult fantasy. I’d say out of the last five YA fantasy books I read, three of them included abusive guardians. I find it curious, but I admit it’s something I’m growing tired of. This is a topic I’ve been wanting to get off my chest and explore. I’d like to believe there are heroes who have happy families but still choose to go on the adventure. Admittedly I had a rough childhood at times myself, which is why I like to see portrayals of happy families to know that well you know, they actually exist.
Off the top of my head I can think of quite a few examples of YA fantasies that include abusive or awful parents/guardians. The list includes Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Glitter by Aprilynne Pike, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Dividing Eden by Joelle Charbonneau, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, and Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller. All but one of those books (Caraval) I’ve read this year. I’ve noticed this concept is often used to do one of two things: be a motivator for the main character to go on their journey, or to motivate a character to succeed by making their parent proud while on that journey because then they will finally get the love they’ve been searching for from their parent. And other times the parents are bad parents in that they are just so uninvolved that the main character can do anything without the parents noticing. I know it can be so hard in YA to let characters act on their own without being parented, but sometimes the oblivious parent role is just too obvious.
Sometimes the abusive parent concept works. In Every Heart A Doorway and the sequel Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the bad parenting of the twins Jack and Jill helps turn them each into their own distinct personalities, which drives their journeys. That book is a great example of how abusive situations can shape people, even when we don’t want them to shape us. Abuse isn’t something to take lightly and some books use it as an excuse to drive the plot without much emotional depth to the abuse once the character leaves home. Down Among the Sticks and Bones gave me the deep exploration I wanted from such a topic. The bad parenting was believable, felt real, and played a role in shaping the characters in a way that made their journey that much more fascinating. The way their parents treated them had a lasting effect that wasn’t easily forgotten or swept under a rug. The abuse left scars on Jack and Jill that they struggled to cope with.
I admit Glitter is what caused me to want to discuss this topic. I quit reading as soon as the father’s drug addiction was mentioned. Both parents are so awful that it began to feel outlandish and unbelievable since there seemed to be little reasoning behind their general awfulness other than to make the story harder for the main character. In that book the bad parenting wasn’t working for me. It seemed to be the reason behind the main character’s plight, but didn’t provide the character depth and exploration I wanted to see from the parents. It felt too much like a caricature of abusive parents than a believable portrayal. I wasn’t even sure what the mother’s motivations were in wanting power, other than to have power and be a terrible mother. And likewise for the father I had no clue why he was a drug addict. Their awful parenting was just there as a hurdle for the main character to overcome and to get in the way of her goals. It lacked the emotional exploration I expected to see, but again I quit rather early on.
When it comes down to it, having bad or outright abusive parents shape people way more than just making it harder to start an important journey or to seek the love of a parent. They can shape a person’s personality and outlook on life and other people as well as our feelings of self worth, like how Jack and Jill developed from their awful parenting. They each rebelled against what their parents demanded of them to explore themselves and find a place outside of the strict roles set by their parents. When awful parents are used purely to help trigger a character’s journey, it feels like an excuse to give them a reason to go, especially when that abuse doesn’t shape any of their emotions. Abuse can leaves scars that can take years to heal from or cope with, so I like when books get deep in exploring the topic the way it deserves instead of using it as a mere plot device and brushing the bad parenting off.