I was heartened to read Leila Sales’ piece in last week’s Publishers Weekly about the inordinate number of dead parents in children’s literature, for it’s a subject I used to bring up myself when talking to writers’ groups. My lame attempt at a laugh-line was always that if YA novels were the real world, no-one would become parents, because the chances of survival were minimal at best. Leila does a wonderful job of identifying why writers tend to kill off parents—lazy writing, instant sympathy, parents are dull—while also offering some practical solutions for how to keep the parents alive without making them major characters.
So, just to add my own two cents: if you’re a teen writer struggling with parent characters, instead of killing them off, get ‘em divorced. First, it’s more believable to kids who are typically aware of divorce issues they or their friends may have in their real lives. And second, divorce offers tons of deliciously messy plot possibilities, while death usually leads to the standard scenes of mourning, loss, regret—and a big yawn from readers.
However you handle parents, though, it’s worth putting in the effort to keep them alive not only for the health of your manuscript, but also for your success at the submission stage. For me, announcing in chapter one that dad’s in the ground almost always leads to the rejection pile, regardless of the rest of the story—it’s a pet peeve right up there with spunky, redheaded middle-grade heroines. But that’s another blog post….