Writing About Family in Middle Grade Literature

A reader wrote in last week with a question regarding writing about family in middle grade literature. Mary said:

Can a manuscript be sold if the main character lives in a traditional nuclear family? Everything I’ve read has either a parent who left or disappeared, went to jail, or died–even in so-called humor novels. Being a single adoptive mother, I don’t object to a single parent household. But EVERY book?

middle grade literature
When you’re writing about family, does there have to be a dysfunctional element to be competitive in today’s market?

This is a good point, and steals one of my jokes about middle grade or young adult fiction, which is: The parents (often mother) in a MG or YA novel have the highest mortality rate in all of fiction.

Judging from the writing about family that’s on offer these days, you really do get a sense that it’s true. Parents are always dead or missing or in jail or abusive or otherwise highly dysfunctional. Almost too much so.

Fiction Thrives on Tension

Personally, I feel like there’s room for a more peaceful or normal family unit in middle grade literature or YA novels. However, fiction — even realistic fiction — thrives on tension and conflict (not melodrama, mind you, or hysterics, but real conflict). Fiction can never be static, or your readers will put the book down (if you even get as far as having a book in the first place).

So when you’re writing about family in middle grade literature, you can absolutely feature a close-knit, whole or loving group in your novel. And nobody has to die or go on a drug binge or murder anybody. However, you can’t have a whole manuscript of Pollyanna love and family moments. The conflict has to come from somewhere. (More advice on writing conflict in a story.)

There’s one good reason that families usually explode in MG or YA novels, I think. It’s during your teen years that you start to look around and realize that your parents aren’t perfect, as you originally thought when you were a kid. You start to see them as flawed human beings instead of superheroes. You also start to get to know them in new and different ways. Family members are also especially high stakes because they’re people you’ve known the longest and are the closest to, for better or for worse. And since the best realistic fiction reflects universal truths of being alive, writers tend to hone in on family relationships as especially dramatic since…let’s face it…they often are.

Writing About Family Without Dysfunction: High Stakes and Tension Elsewhere in the Story

A successful novel manuscript has to have two sources of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict is the character’s struggle with being themselves and existing in the world around them. (Feeling alone, like a loser, feeling like they have no friends, wanting something really badly, etc.) External conflict is the conflict of a character and their relationships or with a situation in the outside world. (Parents divorcing, sibling rivalry, betrayal by a friend, an impending apocalypse, etc.)

So, even if you’re writing about family in a loving way, your character must have both external and internal conflict to be a compelling fictional person. Nobody wants to read a book that’s 300 pages of, “Everything is great and awesome!” But the conflict doesn’t 100% have to come from a dysfunctional family, either. In fact, in this market, having a functional family might actually set you apart, as long as there is enough tension and the stakes are high enough elsewhere in the story. (Tips on raising the stakes.)

ETA: Of course, as is hinted at in the comments, having a family with missing members in it makes it easier for characters to break out of the house and get into shenanigans! One common complaint about middle grade literature and YA is: “How in the sam hill did these kids get into so much trouble? Who was watching them?” That’s easy to get around when you off mom and pop. Of course, murder most foul is not the only way to let your fictional kids have more room to roam.

Are you writing realistic fiction for middle grade literature? I’d love to be your middle grade editor and help you figure out the family dynamics in your story.

43 Replies to “Writing About Family in Middle Grade Literature”

  1. Thank you.
    I spent the weekend catching up on a bunch of middle grade books I had ready to read. By the end, I was so tired of mothers with undiagnosed mental instabilities, and fathers who were nothing more than sperm donors. The fathers play zero role (if they exist at all) and are more peripheral than the family pets.
    Surely not every child from a nuclear family is just sitting quietly playing video games without angst, struggle, fear, conflict, joy and triumphs in their lives. At least that is what I would like to hope.

  2. Awesome post here. I hate when I read books where the parents often act more juvenile than the children. I know that kids often view their parents as irrelevant or as jailers, but there are lots of happy family units in real life and they should be represented in both YA and MG lit. I love writing functional nuclear families.

    And to answer your reader’s question: yes, books with traditional families DO sell. My book, THE DEATHDAY LETTER, features a main character who lives at home with his mother, father, two sisters, and grandmother.

  3. I’ve always wondered this as well! Unfortunately, my writings also reflect this killing off of parents. Somehow, I have to stop myself……

  4. The parents dead or missing doesn’t bother me. And neither does dysfunctional families because let’s face it – aren’t we all a little dysfunctional? And having a parent dead or missing is a tremendous source of emotion and one that often draws me into caring for the character. It works if done well.

    The Total Tragedy of Hamlet by Erin Dionne has both parents alive and functional – just a little eccentric. 🙂

  5. Dead or missing or awful parents is such a cliché, and yet it seems to be almost unavoidable. One alternative is for the young protagonists to distance themselves by running away (The Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray comes to mind), leaving normal family life behind them for a spell.

    Kids’ books don’t work if mummy or daddy swings in at the end to sort everything out. The better the parents, the less room they leave for adventure.

  6. Great post – I love your answer to Mary’s question!

    One book that does a great job showing smaller conflicts within a traditional nuclear family is the MG novel by Kate Messner, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. In fact, her next novel, due out later this year, SUGAR AND ICE, has two parents, again with some smaller tensions. The main conflicts in the novels come from school or extra-curricular activities.

    As an aside: The majority of my students, however, have one parent or guardian. Some of my students live with another relative, such as a grandmother. The divorce rate in the US is over 50% and single parenthood is an option for many, so for most of my students “normal” is not a traditional two-parent household. (I live in a tiny city in Upstate NY.)

  7. Yep, my mother starts off dead 🙂

  8. I agree that a dysfunctional family adds conflict, and that’s why it’s good source material for writers. I appreciate when it’s done well, and doesn’t seem to be written just so the book has an extra added sense of turmoil.

    While half of marriage ends in divorce, a lot of times people forget that 50% of all marriages don’t end. That’s a lot of kids out there who aren’t living in a broken home, and in turn, that’s a lot of writers who don’t come from one. Which means, if we’re writing what we know, some of us should be writing about that traditional nuclear family. (I am not saying you can’t write about something you didn’t experience, but why not just tell the story you know the best.)

    But like you say, that traditional family is NOT without conflict–even if a teenager has the best parents on the planet, they’re still a teenager, which means they hate lots of stuff, so there’s plenty of angst, we just have to tap into it.

  9. One series where both parents are breathing is James Dashner’s 13th Reality Series (less popular than The Maze Runner, but worth reading).

    I’d talk about my book, but parents end up dying in it so I don’t help the statistic.

  10. Great post. Agents and editors are asking to see more stories with both parents. But even with both present, conflict may stem from tension within those relationships. That said, both my finished MGs have single parents (one a dad, one a mom) and in the latter, the MC realizes he’s better off without a dad, than to have a bad one, like the antag. I did put the father back into my WIP, though. It really adds to the MC’s dilemma when his actions disappoint the father he respects.

  11. Thank you for the tidbit about external/internal conflict. The way you break down story elements really bring them into focus for me. 🙂

  12. The last three YA books I read all starred orphans, perhaps unsurprisingly. Two of them dealt with other family relationships, so that aspect wasn’t entirely missing. I suppose even in the third novel where the character had no family left, family members still played a role in the character’s life before the start of the book.
    I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more stories with living, decent parents, but finding conflict elsewhere in the young adults’ lives.

  13. Melissa Gill says:

    The only way for the kids to take charge and solve the problem is to have mom and dad out of the picture in some way. If they’re running around involved in their children’s intrigues and solving their problems for them, well then it’s really not kidlit.

    I have read a few books lately where the parents were in the picutre, even though they were fairly clueless about what the kids were up to. Sometimes trying to skirt an eagle-eyed parent can add as much tension to a novel as a plucky orphan or the child of an addict.

    The only thing that weirds me out is when a writer/parent tries to write themselves into their kids adventure. Don’t do it, let the kids have some fictional fun and solve the problem themselves. If you want to be a character in a novel, write an adult book.

  14. I think another reason MG and YA fiction features dead and/or dysfunctional family members is so that the protagonist doesn’t have an easy out. My family was quite functional growing up, and whenever I had a problem, who did I turn to? My parents. If the parents are both there, both supportive, all the MC has to do is tell them the problem and they help him or her solve it.

    On the other hand, Jamie’s right – you can generate conflict even within a functional family. Maureen Johnson’s Scarlett series features a fantastically with-it, even loving, family, and Scarlett still manages to get into plenty of trouble:)

  15. When you have two living parents, I think the key is to make them as embarrassing as possible. . . then the friction/conflict is all about escape! (That was my life. . . trying to get out from under the thumb of two over-involved parents!) Reminds me of the embarrassing dad in Lisa Yee’s BOBBY VERSUS GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY).

  16. Once, when I was in my 20s, I was talking to a group of about eight or nine people my age, and it turned out I was the only one who had grown up in a two-parent household. One woman looked me up and down and said, “Freak!” It made me laugh.

    I thought it would be interesting to know what the actual stats are on how many kids live with both parents today. Apparently it’s more common now than when I was a kid. A NEW YORK TIMES article on the Census report says that about 60% of US kids lived with both biological parents in 2004.
    (The full article is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/21/us/21census.html?_r=2&oref=slogin )

    Food for thought, especially for people writing contemporary realistic novels.

    I do love all those orphan stories, though. Dead and absent parents leave kid characters so much room to do exciting stuff.

  17. Well said! I blogged about character choices recently and the topic of Good Dads in fiction (for Father’s Day!). The conflict does have to come from *somewhere*.

  18. The Fablehaven series has a traditional nuclear family, but the parents don’t appear much since Kendra and Seth’s adventures usually take place when they are staying with their grandparents.

    The MC’s in both Just Listen and Dreamland by Sarah Dessen also live with both parents, if I remember correctly. The conflict in these books comes from “big deal” issues such as an abusive boyfriend, and the parents do play a role in the storyline.

    Bridge to Terabithia also features a traditional (albeit conflicted) nuclear family.

    But I agree that dead or divorced parents are the norm in the majority of books my teen and pre-teen daughters read.

    I find the opposite to be true in picture books, except fairy tales and folktales.

  19. I have a lot of students ask this question when I give book talks. And while there are lots of reasons to break a family in MG and YA fiction, do you know what my number one reason is?

    My mom is alive.

    Seriously. My dad is just a pat me on the head kind of guy, just proud that I write books at all. My mom actually reads them- and anything the mother does, she wants to know:

    Do you think I do that? Do you think I act like that? Is that how you feel about me?!

    No amount of swearing and vowing will convince her that I’m not seeding my fictional mothers with her attributes. And since I like having Thanksgiving dinner with the family, I just kill the mothers in my books. Then I never have to explain (again) that the characters in my books in no way resemble anyone living or dead.

  20. That was a really good question, and reply – THANKS!

  21. While a functional family is perfectly okay in a story, I don’t think it can be functional “enough” to solve the child’s problem for them. Kid lit is child centered. The kid has to solve their own problem regardless of how savvy, well-intended and/or emotionally healthy the parents are.

    My new work has both parents alive, hard-working and committed to themselves and their family life. That said, they are also so invovled in their own daily grinds. Other than having a car available to them and knowing there is food on the table and a roof over their heads, the teen boys in this story have to figure out the tough stuff on their own because that’s what teen boys do.

  22. I think one of the other reasons writers look to make the family either non-existent or dysfunctional is that it allows the main character to be the one driving the action and solving the problems. Having come (thankfully) from a functional family (minus my dad’s humiliating sense of humor) meant in part if I got myself into a tight situation I turned to them for help. Having parents out of the way or non-functional lets/forces the main character to drive the action.

    Also just read Deathday letter and loved it- which proves it is very possible to do the book without the dysfunction in the family

  23. Kids can solve their own problems even in functional families. There is a difference between being present and being omnipresent in a child’s life, whether the child lives with one parent, two parents, or none.

  24. I think broken and/or no families have always been a common feature in YA/MG fiction because it’s one of the biggest problems any kid can overcome.

    Then, those mean, nasty writers just heap more problems on the kids’ heads.

  25. It’s ironic you posted about this today! I’m reading Hoot by Carl Hiassen and the MC, Roy, has a happily married mom and dad. I thought how nice it was to finally read a MG novel with a functional family! Roy is certainly facing a lot of conflict though his parents are together, so tension and problems can be done without killing off a parent.

  26. Joseph Miller says:

    In the MG Fantasy I’m writing, I have a nuclear family, but with 7 boys… its the brotherly “affection” that is the main source of conflict at the beginning and since there are seven sons… the parents are stretched thin with lots of sports, etc. and so the youngest son (the MC) sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. This seems to work… at least so far. 😉

  27. What’s the old saying? Something about art imitating life.

  28. This is an excellent discussion. I think that even if the family is still relatively together as a unit, the idea that the parents must be shown as having flaws is critical. Otherwise, the audience at the MG/YA level won’t connect. Thanks for this post!


  29. Mary, Thanks for responding to my question with so much insight and information. It was very helpful and I now don’t feel the need to off one of the parents in my MG novel (even if I’m from Jersey). I’ve written down all the books mentioned by the posters so I can read how nuclear families have been handled. Great comments!

    I blame the Missing-Parent-Syndrome on Walt Disney. Look at the animated films we grew up with: Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Little Mermaid, Lion King, etc. (sorry Uncle Walt). Maybe I’m to blame too. My one published picture book is called “The Best Single Mom in the World: How I Was Adopted.”

    Thanks again, Mary

  30. Where is Bongo with a comment about his nuclear family

  31. James Dashner, who has already been mentioned as having nuclear families in some of his work, has said that he did that on purpose–he was tired of reading books where the families were totally dysfunctional. But writing The 13th Reality books with an intact family turned out to be harder than he expected. If Dad knows X, wouldn’t he tell Mom, who would then prevent the adventure from happening? And so forth. (He’s a former member of my critique group, so I heard all this firsthand.)

    You’ll note that his Random House release, The Maze Runner, has NO families to speak of. It’s like Lord of the Flies–lots of suspense and adventure, no adults until the very, very end–and even then, you don’t know who to trust.

    For MG and YA writers, it’s just easier to get kids in trouble and crank up the conflict and suspense if adults aren’t around to fix things. It’s the same reason Dumbledore has to leave Hogwarts when Harry faces Voldemort–if D was there, Harry wouldn’t really have to be tested to level he is.

  32. Good post. This is something I struggled with as well. At first I had the nuclear family, in my first draft, then I realized they were too big a part of the story (in a calm, lulling way). I changed it to a one parent home where the mother died and there were fewer sibs, but I really think that a nuclear family could work if you did it just right as Mary said. Just think back when you were a kid. Parents don’t really know what is going on half the time. If you bring that into play, then your MC and secondary characters could have a real adventure and I think it would be actually comical if the parents never knew what was happening.

    OR you could create drama by having the nice normal family and see what happens when there is a struggle and how it effects the family when it accidentally coincides with that setting.

  33. Ha! There must be something in the water this week. I blogged about something similar yesterday, as well. I’m on the side that says dysfunctional/absent parents make it easier for the power and action to be in the hands of the MC. You can’t very well run off into danger’s waiting jaws if you’re grounded and monitored.

    I DO think it’s possible to create a story with a functioning, traditional family and still allow enough conflict. Absolutely. Personally, I happen to come from a broken family, so that’s what I know and how I write.

  34. Kelley York says:

    Woo! I fall in-between on this one. 😉 One parent dead, one psychotic, but the MC goes to live with normal, functional and nice relatives.

    I’d wondered about this once a long while back. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one noticing it.

  35. In order for a child to be the protagonist, parents–and other potential support systems–need to be out of the way. Not necessarily dead or dysfunctional, just busy, or preoccupied or unaware. I’m really enjoying Skullduggery Pleasant at the moment. The protagonist, Stephanie, has a loving relationship with both her parents but uses a magical reflection of herself fill in for her while she fights crime most days and nights. I remember reading The Magic Faraway Tree as a kid; the parents there were just irrelevant (apart from the all important job of packing picnics and ginger beer).

  36. I think there is a parallel in fiction with older MCs: How often do we see the MC starting the story in a stable, romantic relationship, and then staying in that same (consistently stable) relationship throughout the story? If a character has a constant ally in a boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse or parent, it’s hard for the story to be about one character. But I think unstable relationships, new relationships or break-ups are sources of emotional tension which readers can relate to. We all have different experiences with romance, but caring about it in some way is almost universal.

    For YA or MG fiction, the same goes for family conflicts, including missing parents, dysfunctional parents or parents who just don’t get what the MC is going through. It gives the storyline an emotional background that readers can relate to. Whether the reader’s family is functional, dysfunctional or completely missing, every reader has some strong feelings connected to family. So while the MC is solving crime or doing magic (which the reader probably has less experience with themselves), having the MC deal with family stuff let’s the reader identify with the character.

  37. I’m 17, so I’m definitely the audience for YA books. First, I’d like to say that personally, I’m not bothered by dead/absentee/busy parents in the books I read. Also, I’ve never met anyone else my age who is, either. If I read a book where the character shared a loving relationship with two normal parents who are aware of what’s going on in their child’s life (in the normal sense, not in the over-aware sense), then it would be a very boring book. First of all, it creates a lot of unnecessary let’s-watch-MC-sneak-out-for-the-100th-time scenes that I just don’t care about. I don’t want to hear how MC had to carefully sneak past Mom’s bedroom, I don’t want to hear that heartstopping floor creak that just might wake up Dad – let’s just get straight to what the MC is sneaking out to DO, that’s the interesting part. No normal parent would escape the MC repeatedly sneaking out, or the MC being gone for an extended period of time, or the MC returning bloody/in tears, or the MC always being late for dinner. Also, I’ve never met a teenager who could go out and have all sorts of scary things happen (as a result of the conflict of the story) and then go home to loving well-adjusted parents and manage to hide what’s going on from them. No teenager can lie that well, regardless of how many adults believe that teenagers spend more time lying than breathing, especially when dealing with the raw emotion of fright, and they ESPECIALLY can’t lie that well to parents who actually notice what’s going on in their child’s life. Therefore, for the MC to go out and do something or fight something or create any semblance of an interesting story, the parents have to be gone. Otherwise, it’s not believable, and there is NOTHING worse than an unbelievable book. Sorry.

  38. I think dead parents are easy to write, kind of like “comfort food” that we are all so used to expecting. I think it helps to note in dystopian worlds it’s much easier to have a “functional” family, but honestly sometimes I feel like happy dystopian families are just one step away from being blown over like cardboard figures. All of that to say (what was I saying?! :D) that while absentee parents are great, they can be wrong (and overdone) just like any ‘cliche’ topic. Thanks for this great post!

  39. An added bonus of the missing parent theme is that it gives the main character depth. If they have suffered bereavement or abandonment for instance, they have already dealt with difficult and complex emotions. It can also be inspiring for the type of character who wants to put things to rights, in a world where so many things are beyond their control.

  40. awesome. I think this is a main reason we have sold more than 100,000 of our self published children’s book series – The Adirondack Kids. Fun adventure stories where kids are allowed to be kids and problems involve coming to the rescue of animals, or overcoming the fear of heights or preparing for a pond hockey challenge. Parents and grandparents and teachers can pass them on or read them out loud with confidence knowing nothing embarrassing or too deep will suddenly jump off the page. We have done therapeutic foster care for nearly 20 years – we know firsthand the real struggles/hurt of so many children in our society. So, do they have to read more about it in a book order to relate to the book? We like to think we give many of them a vision of what life could be like. And the final apologetic for those who cry “pollyanna”? As has already been noted – there are plenty of stories elevating pain from which to choose.

  41. Kari Cowman says:

    Maybe the reason dysfunctional families occur so often in MG fiction is because to live is to have dysfunction. If you watch anybody close enough for a long period of time, they’ll do something dysfunctional. I’m sure a great story can be crafted from a fabulous nuclear family, but I think readers want something to relate to. When I’m having a hard time coping I don’t pick up pollyanna and analyze what she’s doing to make her life so fabulous. I’d prefer pick up hunger games and see how a girl dealt a tough deck is dealing-AND kicking butt along the way. Normal middle class life is great-even the end game for most parents, BUT kids can’t be shielded from the tragedy of life, they connect with literary characters who find forward momentum in spite of insurmountable obstacles. Let’s face it, an eighth grader sitting alone at a lunch table feels absolutely isolated regardless of how “normal” home life is. We want to see average people triumphant, so we know we can be triumphant.

  42. garriekeyman says:

    Thank you for this post. Finishing up my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction and have deliberately trod this path…a thesis novel with a nuclear family…because I grew up feeling under-represented in fiction that ALWAYS had either an orphan protagonist or a single parent families. It’s a YA-crossover space-set fantasy adventure. I’m also finishing up a MG castle fantasy that also features a protag with an intact nuclear family, although unlike the ensemble YA space opera, the rest of the family are more in the background.

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