For me, family is the basic building block of children's writing. It's a resonant concept for children and adults alike and it's no surprise that so many debut writers are inspired by having a family of their own. I, in turn, was inspired by this comment on KM Lockwood's blog, bemoaning the lack of "normal families" in contemporary children's books. What's so wrong with the nuclear family anyway?
Well, I guess it's boring - and deliberately so. Unless we're very unlucky, the way we live our day-to-day lives is not the stuff of high drama. We all need a certain amount of stability as people and writers in order to reach our full potential. Being a child of divorce myself, I'm aware of a self-imposed pressure to work harder at my own marriage and keep my family together. My ten-year-old daughter is petrified at the idea of us separating - I'm sure she'd view something like Kramer vs. Kramer as a horror film!
When we get rid of a parent in a story - through divorce/death/madness/prison - we instantly introduce two dramatic elements for the child character. One of these is conflict, as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and the shifting relationships with their remaining family members. The second is freedom - a child with a single parent will inevitably be freer to get into trouble, which of course is exactly what we need to drive a good plot. Plus, there's one less adult character to get in the way :-)
Parents can be fun, and useful, characters to have around, but everything they do should be considered in terms of their impact on the children ("No, Mum, you may not have your own life!") I know many writers will bemoan the fact that it's very hard nowadays to write a book for children with an adult as the lead character, and that it used to be easier in the past. Well, those books are still out there and you can read them or give them to your kids. Maybe it's indicative of our highly (overly?) child-focused society that the young characters always need to take centre stage.
It's become clear to me recently just how many highly successful people have family trauma or tragedy in their past. Is this because children brought up in a secure environment have nothing to prove? Whatever, it doesn't bode well for the hero of my book - both of his parents are zombies who try to kill him at various points in the story!