I recently had a problem when trying to recommend a middle-grade book for my eleven-year-old daughter. I noticed that she was very resistant to the action-adventure book I'd picked out for her, which normally would have been right up her street. When I quizzed her, it turned out that she'd read the back and didn't like the fact that the plot hung on the main character's father dying early in the story. So I found something else - no good, I realised, more dead parents. Again and again, I picked up books only to put them straight down. Eventually, I found a Michael Morpurgo book that I hadn't read, but which didn't sound too bad. Half an hour later, I went back upstairs and found my daughter in tears. What was the problem? Oh yes, someone's dad had just been killed.
The more I looked, the more I realised that there are a lot of dead parents in children's fiction. Some might even call it an epidemic. I blogged a year ago about the reasons why dispatching a parent is dramatically useful, but for this post I wanted to concentrate on the emotional effect on the reader. Parental bereavement is clearly an issue that my daughter worries about. More than that, it's something that I worry about, and I wonder how much I might be trying to work through my own fears of premature death via my book selections. I've been aware of the looming presence of death in my own fiction for a while - could I even be choosing what I read on that basis?
But maybe this isn't an issue that only affects me. I know a surprisingly large number of children's writers who lost a parent when they were themselves children. Many more have had to cope with parents dying since. With such emotive material, it's not surprising that writers consciously or unconsciously explore these issues in their fiction. But the fact remains that the statistical chance of a child losing one or both parents before they reach adulthood is something like 1 in 20 - the ratio expressed in contemporary middle-grade and YA seems much higher.
Amongst the recent debates on taboos in YA, I firmly agree with the view that young people need hard-hitting books, that these provide teenagers with a way to explore painful issues in relative safety. But I also feel that they shouldn't have these issues forced upon them - they must go to these books when (or if) they are emotionally ready. But how to avoid dead parents syndrome when it's so often used as a dramatic device that is more or less incidental to the plot? I think about how many classic stories begin with the main character orphaned and wonder if those are out-of-bounds as well. Time and again, book awards will recognise dark and downbeat novels rather than ones that are fun and uplifting - it's little wonder that in trying to fill my house with good quality children's books, I've picked quite a few with challenging themes.
Of course, perhaps my daughter was just feeling vulnerable for other reasons that day. She has, after all, read and re-read the Harry Potter series - no shortage of dead parent issues there! But I do see a problem, in that both she and my younger daughter have a reading ability that is running ahead of their emotional development. It's great to push boundaries in children's fiction and to keep up with the needs of our ever more complex audience. But let's not forget that sometimes, all they really want is some good old-fashioned escapism.