I have been noting in my judge’s talks over the last couple of weeks the way that adults become increasingly fallible as you move up the age ranges of children’s literature. In early childhood offerings, parents are almost universally loving, authoritarian and righteous. As we move up the ranks they - and all adult figures of authority around them, including teachers – are increasingly quirky, useless and broken.
Firstly, I wonder if there is a connection between the buyer and the product here. After all, if I’m purchasing a picture book for my children (we’re dealing in the realm of the hypothetical here!) I’m unlikely to choose one called My Weird Lying Dad. Similarly, a good teen reader is probably not going to be hugely enthused by a novel in which a sweet old granny tells her granddaughter exactly what to do at every point and is immediately obeyed. But at the same time, what are the implications here?
It’s a repeated theme in literature to kill the parents off and let the orphaned children roam free. Parents are a drag; they have too many rules and too much control to come along on a real adventure in which the children are at the centre. But in modern YA it’s far more likely that the parents are present and are instead indifferent: they have demanding and consuming jobs, drinking problems, or they are out all the time.
One of the common criticisms that I’ve heard about the shortlisted Creepy & Maud by Dianne Touchell is the complete lack of a functional adult support network for the very damaged main characters. Is it – it has been asked – okay to represent this as common, or even normal? It’s a complicated issue, and I don’t pretend to have the answer. I think on one level a book is not a tool to give moral guidance. Certainly there are functional adults in the world, but the reader may not be one of those lucky enough to be surrounded by them, and there may be comfort in recognising that characters can find hope without them. At the same time, it is always nice to have at least one character that can be of genuine value to our protagonists. What a sad thing a world without a single worthy adult in it can be.
There is only one thing that I know for sure, it’s not over. YA readers aren’t stupid – they know that sometimes adults fail them, and fail them in terrible and damaging ways. The dysfunctional parents are here to stay. When they’re around, anyway.