Why So Many Dysfunctional Parents?

Most middle-grade novels portray parents as dysfunctional. The last dozen or so I’ve read all have parents struggling with major problems. The heroes in these stories must deal with their own issues while shouldering at least some of the burden for their parents’ life challenges.

I just finished Flush by Carl Hiaasen. The Dad in the novel isn’t a bad person, but he struggles with anger management issues and gets himself thrown in prison. His wife is considering a divorce. The two young protagonists Noah and Abbey must find a way to exonerate their Dad and keep their parents together. In The Word Nerd by Susan Neilsen the hero Ambrose is being bullied at school and has a life-threatening allergy.  As if this wasn’t enough for him to deal with, he also lives with a mother who takes being overprotective to extremes.  She’s still mourning her husband who’s been dead for thirteen years and has a hard time keeping a job for any length of time.   

Touching Spirit Bear introduces us to Cole a young man facing a prison sentence.  His father is an angry alcoholic who beats Cole.  In the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the hero Arnold lives with alcoholic parents and Winston in Eric Walters’ Run has divorced parents. His Dad  is rarely around for his son. 

So why all these dysfunctional parents? Why do they seem to be the norm in books for middle years readers? Here are a couple of ideas.

1) A dysfunctional family creates conflict and you need conflict to make a novel interesting.

2) If a novel is going to be popular with middle years kids,  it must be the kids and not the adults in the story who to take charge and solve conflicts, problems and mysteries.  If their parents are dysfunctional, main characters can more easily be depicted as independent and resourceful. They can’t get help from their dysfunctional parents so they figure things out on their own. 

3) It is often during their middle years that kids start to realize their parents are flawed human beings. Good fiction reflects universal experiences and finding out your parents aren’t perfect is one of those experiences. 

4)  Lots of families do have problems.  One-half of American children witness their parents’ divorce at some point in their life. 1.5 million American children have a mother or father in prison. In the US, twenty million children are currently experiencing physical, verbal or emotional abuse from parents who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. 

5) Readers sympathize with and feel connected to, a character who is struggling with dysfunctional parents. 

So if you are writing a middle-grade novel and want to get it published, can you sell a manuscript that depicts a fairly functional nuclear family and parents who are pretty normal? Probably not!

Other posts about middle years novels…….

Talk About Quirky Characters

Launching Not One Book But Three

What Makes A Good Novel for Teens?

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