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.