Getting Rid of the Adults

Getting rid of the adults in a story for children or young adults has become an authorial obsession. Have you ever noticed how absent adults are from the books in those genres?  The idea seems to be that their characters need emotional and physical space to grow and develop independence.  Young readers want role models that show them how to be successful doing things on their own.

Authors for this market are really inventive in jettisoning the parents before the story even begins. Lots of the time the parents are just inexplicably absent, preoccupied with their own issues. Other authors incapacitate the parents right and left.  Sickness, accidents, all sorts of calamities befall these poor adults.

Orphans . . .

This results in a lot of orphans!  Think about all the famous orphan stories in children’s or YA literature you know. Peter Pan (James M. Barrie) from England’s Golden Age of Children’s Literature might come to mind. A recent example would be the child Nobody in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

This getting-rid-of-the-adults took a whole new twist during the 60s and 70s and resulted in a new sub-genre: The Problem Novel. In these books, the adults are unreliable in every imaginable way. Frequently the child or teen protagonist is shown as smarter or wiser than the parents. These writers created a whole posterity of dysfunctional parents in American YA literature!

As I was going through the early stage of imagining my characters for the Cousin books and what they were doing in their world, I thought, I’ve got a big extended family here with a lot of adults. If I have to dispatch them all, I could end up with a pretty high death ratio per book! That jettisoned me into the next stage of writing–and probably my favorite.

My What-If Stage

What if this happens? What if she does that instead? I love that stage. It’s like taking a shower in possibilities. While I’m driving the car, I’m wondering What-if? I’m shoveling snow, but my mind is playing with What-if? What-if?

It’s like a dreamtime. My characters are starting to walk around and do things, exposing to me who they are, suggesting to me who they might become after a lot of What-Ifs have happened to them.

So while I was in this “What-If” stage about a large extended family of cousins, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t get rid of the adults? What if I let the adults stay? Not just as a background wash, not as flat characters or stereotypes to get the job done, but as real people? Can the young protagonists grow and develop independently in a story like that?

Enter Pragmatism

A few billion people walking around the planet have grown up and matured into independence because of (or despite) the parental units walking around their houses.

So, in the Cousin Cycle most parents live at home with their children. Some are more reliable adults than others. But then, some of the young protagonist’s perspectives are more reliable than others as well. And that’s the social soup we all live in.