Young adult literature is a genre of fiction explicitly aimed at adolescent readers. The target audience for this category of literary works is between 12 and 18 years of age, and the novels focus on problems and issues relevant to the teenagers facing new challenges of adult life. Thus, the themes for young adult fiction often include first love and deterioration of the first romantic relationship, sexuality, bonds of friendship, identity, and one’s place in the world. In addition, the relationships of coming-of-age adolescents with adults in their life, including parents and parental figures, are often explored. This essay will focus on three works: David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, James Janeway’s A Token for Children, and Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House. This paper will argue that parental figures in young adult literature play a background role and are employed as a narrative device to provide a source of conflict and character development for adolescent characters.
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Parental Presence in Boy Meets Boy, Holiday House, and A Token for Children
The majority of works in young adult fiction have a parent-like adult or a parent or a grandparent. However, few pieces of literature in the genre allow parents to come to the foreground and actively engage with their children. As young adult fiction is focused on the adolescent characters, parents and other adults are not highly prominent, with readers rarely knowing their backstories and motivations. Thus, they are awarded background roles and are often utilized to guide the main characters who are beginning to navigate adult life. In addition, they can be assigned an antagonistic position to establish conflict or serve as motivation for characters to grow and develop. Overall, young adult books tend to utilize parents as an ideal to follow or an antagonist to inspire the characters to change and overcome obstacles.
In Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan portrays a variety of parent-child relationships primarily through the main character’s eyes. The book is focused mainly on the relationship between Paul, a gay teenager, and his supportive parents. The second set of parents featured prominently in the novel is Tony’s mother and father, depicted as religious, extremely strict, and homophobic. Other adults mentioned in the books are the parents of Noah, Paul’s main love interest, who are absent in the narrative because they “travel everywhere for business” (Levithan 34). It should be noted that other parents are rarely mentioned by the teenage characters, with the author being focused on the issues Paul faces.
In James Janeway’s A Token for Children, written in the 17th century, the author openly addresses both children and their parents in his mission to turn them to religion. A Token for Children should not be viewed as typical young adult fiction, as it is comprised of the truthful accounts of the conversation the author, a Puritan minister, had with children in the second half of the 17th century. It can be argued that the book was written to turn children to religion and make them more pliable to the will of their parents. Thus, parental figures are described by Janeway as authoritative ethical leaders that children must listen to and strive towards. Furthermore, to the parents themselves, the author bestows the following words: “consider what a precious jewel is committed to your charge” (Janeway is). It is their responsibility to guide the children and protect them from harm and temptation. Overall, the parents are present in all the stories in the book and play a traditional role as they are charged with the moral upbringing of their kin.
In Catherine Sinclair’s work, different parent-child relationships are depicted throughout the book. The Holiday House, written in the 19th century, is a novel about Frank, Laura, and Harry Graham, siblings who live with their grandmother Lady Harriet and uncle David after the death of their mother (Sinclair). The father in the story is absent, choosing to travel instead of caring for his children, with the grandmother, nanny, and uncle assuming the role of parental figures. In the novel, the absence of the parents significantly impacts the siblings, with Laura and Harry becoming unruly and Lady Harriet and uncle David trying to teach them how to behave in society. Sinclair focuses on how children are affected by the absence of their parents and illustrates the necessity of guidance in their lives.
Positive Parental Presence
The discussed works in the young adult genre include several examples of healthy parental presence. For example, Paul’s relationship with his mother and father in Boy Meets Boy can be viewed as a positive one. Although they do not react to his confession that he is gay in the way that he hoped, they are supportive and accept their son. Paul notes that they are always friendly to his boyfriends and provide him with a stable family background by “been planning family vacations and setting the table for family dinners” (Levithan 46). Nevertheless, the author rarely shows Paul’s parents actively engaging with him or other main characters in dialogue. Mostly, Sinclair shows their personalities and motivations through Paul’s eyes, who thinks his parents can be strange and who “expects normal” from them when he introduces Noah to them (Levithan 49). It can be argued that the relationship dynamic between Paul and his parents is healthy, with the teenager being anxious about his boyfriend and parents meeting for the first time.
Similarly, the relationship between Lady Harriet, Uncle David, and the Graham children can be viewed as a positive one. Although Laura and Harry are often subjected to physical punishment for their misbehavior and disobedience, it can be asserted that they receive reprimands not out of malice. Lady Harriet and David show care for the children, who lost their mother to illness and were abandoned by their father. In chapter 9, Uncle David’s Nonsensical Story about Giants and Fairies, uncle David tells Laura and Harry a tale of a child-eating giant and the fairy Teach-all to teach them appropriate manners (Sinclair). Uncle David uses the story to show the children the perils of misbehavior in society and ensure their acceptance and survival in it. Thus, he assumes the role of a father for the Grahm children and provides them with guidance and motivation to behave better.
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Broken Parental Presence
In Boy Meets Boy, the relationship between Tony and his parents can be viewed as a broken one. His mother and father are not accepting his sexuality, hoping he will find his way back to the religion and start a relationship with a girl. After Paul and Tony are seen hugging, the parents ground Tony, with his mother saying that Paul is “the devil’s influence” and is leading her son astray (Levithan 76). Before meeting Paul, Tony could not imagine being openly gay because he was acutely aware of his parents’ homophobia. They do not accept him and provide the character with conflict and motivation to stand up to them and become more assertive. Overall, the parents are used as an instrument for Tony’s character development through a parent-child conflict.
Parental absence is employed as a device to introduce friction into the arcs of the adolescent characters. For example, in Holiday House, Frank, Laura, and Harry lose their mother to illness, while their father flees to Europe to grieve. These events lead to Frank turning to religion and Laura and Harry becoming “the most heedless, frolicsome beings in the world” (Sinclair). The parental absence is used to establish the central conflict and to incorporate the idea of the heedless children needing religious guidance and upbringing, which they receive through their grandmother and uncle. Noah’s parents in Boys Meets Boy are absent due to their work, resulting in Claudia, Noah’s younger sister, assuming the maternal role in the household. This example of parental absence does not create a conflict but serves as a narrative device for Claudia’s character development. Absenteeism is a common device for conflict establishment and character growth in young adult literature where the focus is on the adolescents and not the parental figures.
In summary, David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, James Janeway’s A Token for Children, and Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House exemplify young adult literature from different periods. However, despite being written centuries apart, it can be argued that the role of parental figures in the genre did not suffer significant changes. In young adult fiction, parents are assigned background roles, and their relationships with the children, both positive and negative, are used as a device for the character development of the adolescent characters. Furthermore, parental absenteeism is similarly utilized, serving as an instrument to set up conflict and explain the behaviors and motivations of the characters.
Janeway, James. A Token for Children. Whiting & Watson, 1811. Web.
Levithan, David. Boy Meets Boy. PDF, Harper Collins, 2013.
Sinclair, Catherine. Holiday house. Project Gutenberg, 2010.