Where Are the Mothers in Young Adult Books? (Hint: They’re All Dead)

All the Mothers in YA Books Are Dead Discussion Title Image


 

Introduction

Each year around Mother’s Day in the US, bloggers, booktubers, and bookstagrammers start asking who everyone’s favorite literary mother is and featuring lists titled things like “Top 10 Mothers in Books.”  And every year, I realize I don’t have a lot to contribute to this conversation.  Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series comes to mind as a great fictional mother, but from there I start to blank.  It’s often hard for me to simply name a mother in many of the books I read, nevermind think of one whom I particularly admire.  This year, I decided to dig a little deeper and figure out why that is.  Below is a list of the YA novels I read in 2019 (up to April 10 when I drafted this post), and a look at the mothers featured (or not) in them.  Spoiler: the jokes about all the dead parents in YA are true.

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The Books

Cold Day in the Sun by Sara Biren

  • Mother is alive and involved in the protagonist’s life

The Cruel Prince/The Wicked King by Holly Black

  • Mother is dead

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

  • Mother is dead

Honor Among Thieves/Honor Bound by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre 

  • Mother alive but located on Mars while protagonist is in space
  • Absent from book

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

  • Whole team of protagonists does not have mothers

Bloodwitch (Witchlands #3) by Susan Dennard

  • Mother unnamed and implied dead

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc by David Elliott

  • Mother absent from book but should be alive

Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

  • Mother alive but sends daughter away so uninvolved in much of the book
  • Relationship is complicated

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

  • Terminally ill
  • Important to protagonist but essentially absent from the book

Warrior of the Wild by Tricia Levenseller

  • Mother alive but hates the protagonist

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

  • Mother is dead

Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills

  • Mother is alive but basically absent from the book

Mera: Tidebreaker by Danielle Paige

  • Mother is dead

The Princess and the Fangirl by Ashley Poston

  • Both Imogene’s mothers are alive; seem involved with her life but are mostly absent from the plot of the book
  • Jessica’s mother unmentioned

Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

  • Mother alive but separated from protagonist
  • Absent from book

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

  • Mother is dead

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Observations

  • Out of 16 books, 7 have dead mothers. That’s about 44%.
  • Only 2 of these books feature mothers positively involved in the protagonist’s life.
  • Both books with positive mother relationships are contemporary fiction.
  • Two books feature “involved” mothers who are not on good terms with the protagonist.  Both are fantasy.
  • That leaves five books with mothers who are technically alive but not actually involved in the book.

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Other Books beyond YA

  • Out of the 3 middle grade books I’ve read so far this year, 2 feature dead mothers and 1 a completely absent mother.
  • Out of the 4 adult novels I’ve read this year, 3 feature dead mothers and 1 features a mother who was thought dead and is now not on good terms with the protagonist.

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Conclusion

This is a small sample of books, but if it’s indicative of a larger pattern, it explains why I can’t think of any positive mother role models in literature: they basically don’t exist.  There are practical reasons, of course, why parents are often gotten out of the way in both middle grade and young adult novels, so children and teens can go on wild adventures without pesky responsible adults intervening.  However, I think seeing some more involved mothers in fiction would be a nice change.  At this rate, writing a book with two living parents who actually talk to their children looks like a selling point for originality, if nothing else!

Briana

40 thoughts on “Where Are the Mothers in Young Adult Books? (Hint: They’re All Dead)

  1. Octavia @MythicalReads says:

    This was such a thoughtful, eye-opening post! Honestly, I’ve gotten so used to the dead/absent mother trope that I hardly ever take note of it anymore…. Which is pretty sad. I definitely agree with you, I’d love it if more mothers were involved in fictional characters’ lives! Again, fantastic post!

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think I mostly ignore it, too, but then I remembered Mother’s Day was coming up and I wanted to really look at why I can barely even think of any mothers in books. Apparently they don’t exist! I get why an author would kill them off, on an individual level, but it’s really weird when it becomes an overarching problem where basically *no one* has a mother in their book.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. dreamingofcats says:

    what a great post! it’s really disappointing when you crunch the numbers and reveal the stats like that, especially with books with a large ensemble cast and NONE of their mothers are involved, wtf.

    I love the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane and its strength is that the parents of the main characters are present and active in the series. of course the focus of the plot is on the teen wizards, but they interact with their parents and make decisions accordingly!

    Like

  3. smruti says:

    As a kid, all my favorite books with girl characters either had a dead mom (e.g. Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables) or rapidly hustled out of the way so they weren’t part of the main story (e.g Seaward, Narnia, all those British kids books where the moms were lovingly packing picnics for the kids etc.) I can only remember a few books where mothers played supportive roles (e.g. Wrinkle in Time). I feel like the imagining of mothers as oppositional characters are often used to advance the main character’s plot in some way……….

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think one of the nice things about Anne of Green Gables is that even though Anne’s parents are dead, they were clearly supposed to have been good parents, and Marilla and Matthew are good guardians. At least Anne is running wild all over PEI with no adults in sight! 😀

      I do kind of like seeing characters have not great relationships with their mothers because that’s a reality for some people, and it can also be frustrating to live in the cultural idea that all mothers are saints and deserving unending praise and loyalty if your own relationship with your mother was not stellar. But now I just need more actual *good* mothers in books!

      Like

  4. aquapages // eline says:

    I’ve found myself really liking YA books with strong family bonds, before later realizing why and that it’s rare to see. I think leaving one or both parents out makes sense, bc as you say it forces characters to figure things out themselves and develop, but it’s just done so unnaturally often

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I like books with strong family bonds, too, and it does seem really rare. It’s hard to find a book where the character even has a sibling they like or interact with sometimes, nevermind their parents! And a lot of these books tend to be contemporary novels. Fantasy books are so hard to find with families in them.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Cameron Graham says:

    Hey there, this is a great post and thanks for taking the time to properly break down the numbers for us!
    Ironically, I do think that the main reason the mothers are all dead *is* because otherwise the young protagonists wouldn’t be able to go on the fun adventures we read the books for! Molly Weasley actually makes the point really well: in Book 2 she’s told that Harry, a then-12 year old child has been starved by is guardians, and she *has* to ignore that and let Harry down because otherwise he’d have had to be taken out of that abusive environment and the format of the books would have to change. In Book 5 we have her exclaiming that Harry and the rest of the children are “too young to fight in a war” and… well, she’s not wrong, but this is Book 5 of this series and it’s far too late! Molly on has a living daughter at this point because her youngest son and Harry braved life and limb to rescue Ginny when the adults proved useless.
    Either you kill off the responsible adults or you have to accept that they will be the most negligent and useless adults to ever be given responsibility for children! Saying that, I do wish more authors would tackle the idea with a bit more originality and see if there can be ways to incorporate decent, loving parents into a story of kids having adventures without undermining them. It’s just harder than it looks, I guess?

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, it does seem so tricky to think about how to write a fantasy or other adventure where the kids or teens go on an adventure and it’s not irresponsible of adults to let them. Like, “Ok, yes, go off and save the world. Have fun! Don’t die!” I get the impulse to kill off the parents or otherwise make them absent, but it also seems depressing as an overarching trend in literature! And I think there must be more leeway in YA. A lot of YA characters in recent books are 18 or even 19. Surely parents can be in the book and balance being involved and letting the kid go off on their own!

      Harry Potter is interesting to me because Hogwarts is a boarding school and the failure to keep the kids in line seems largely the fault of the teachers. We don’t really see that there are teachers near the dorms in case of emergency or that anyone is really watching the students outside of class, which seems odd. Surely it’s happening, but just not mentioned. And then we have Dumbledore giving people invisibility cloaks to *encourage* them to sneak around and get in trouble. I like to think Molly Weasley is doing the best she can as a parent who is largely entrusting the care of her children to the teachers while they’re at school.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cameron Graham says:

        Oh definitely, like I say, I would really like to see writers trying out something new, even if it’s a bit awkward to write parents sending their kids off to save the world the first few times. There’s a lot of taking the easy way out in there, and we do need to start pushing ourselves outside of that box!
        The Harry Potter books in general could have easily been renamed ‘Kids, never put your faith in the adults. Ever’, because yes the teachers are hilariously bad at keeping everyone safe and not just leaving them to save the day for them, but since we were talking about mothers specifically, I only went for Molly as the lone mother-figure to feature significantly in the books. Also, all the kids write home, we know this, and I would absolutely love to see the book one day that’s just this big anthology of all the kids’ letters to their parents, in between ‘so the Potter kid may or may not have killed our DADA teacher/ So our current students are being put into comas by a monster/ So it turns out the Potter kids slayed the monster/ So it turns out that we are using soul-sucking monsters as security guards now, and they attacked the sports field yesterday…’ These would be *amazing* and I’d absolutely buy that book!

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  6. Alex @ WhimsyPages says:

    Such a great post! I’ve never actually thought about this, until I saw your post. And now it’s kinda stuck in my head. I’m sure the next YA books I’ll read, I’ll be searching for the mothers.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think it’s one of those things people vaguely mention once in a while but you don’t really think about because it generally makes sense that there’s no mother in the particular book you’re reading. But when you realize there are basically no mothers in *any* book, it starts getting weird!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. CHARIS RAE @ charisrae.com says:

    This is so so true!! Healthy family dynamics is something that’s so important but they’re often absent. I love Molly Weasley so so much, and I think it’s a great balance of a healthy parent figure while also letting the children go out on there own. Definitely something we need more of! I also think it would be neat to have a parent join his/her kid in their mission or whatever they’re doing, as a parent but also as a friend.

    Like

  8. Megan @ Ginger Mom and Company says:

    I’ve been drafting up a Mother’s Day post and ended up switching it to Mothers in Fiction (meaning all sorts of media) because I coudn’t think of moms in just books. Like you said – we have Molly Weasley and then everything else kinda fizzles out from there. I’d like to see more involved moms in fiction, definitely.

    Like

  9. Morgan says:

    I am so, so happy to see this post! I recently wrote a post on a similar topic, but on missing fathers instead of mothers. I seldom read a book anymore where the protagonist doesn’t have a father, they’re out of the picture entirely, or they’re just missing and they embark on a quest to find them. Enough already! Good relationships with parents are severely lacking (and as you said, a book that included one would earn points just for being original!) and we need more.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I was just thinking I should look where the fathers are next! My hunch is that most of them are missing from this selection of books, as well. I know the fathers are alive in some, but then they’re back in the same trap of being estranged from the protagonist or just so generally distinct and uninvolved it basically doesn’t matter they’re alive.

      Like

  10. Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

    I’ve really struggled when I’ve done memes asking for Top 5 mother’s etc. in fiction because they all seem to suffer from ‘Disney’ syndrome in that they are all MIA for some reason or another (death mostly, followed by abandonment). I’ve found a lot of the time in YA it’s either a way to remove some support to the protagonist and increase their suffering (background trauma and all that) or if the mother relationship isn’t a great one then it will be another cause of conflict for the main character.

    I wonder why it’s mothers though – is there an equal ratio of missing dads??

    I have read some stories where the mother’s absence or situation is a significant part of the plot. A Monster Calls comes to mind but that’s about it!

    Like

  11. Margaret @ Weird Zeal says:

    I really shouldn’t be surprised by these numbers, since everyone always jokes about there being no good or living mothers in fiction, but WOW, this is even bigger than I thought it was. I guess it makes sense for YA, since they’ve got to go on all their adventures without too much parental supervision, but it has become somewhat of a cliche. I’d be interested to see the stats on fathers in these kind of books too!

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Just thinking about the books in this post, I’d say there are more fathers who are alive, but a lot are still estranged or basically uninvolved. There aren’t a lot of “good” dads here either.

      I get removing parents from middle grade for adventuring purposes, but it seems as if some YA could have parents. The protagonists are older and having parents give them some level of responsibility to do things on their own while still being generally involved in their own kid’s life seems doable….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Margaret @ Weird Zeal says:

        I agree! While taking parents out of the equation might make things easier in terms of fewer obstacles for characters, it’s not very creative, and I think there are a lot more ways of telling those stories that aren’t being explored!

        Like

  12. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    RIGHT?! I couldn’t agree more. Those books with great family bonds are feeling like they’re more rare now. While it’s not necessary in every story, I feel like teens need to see these family bonds to know what it’s like, especially single parents. You always have such great discussions 😀

    Like

  13. Charvi says:

    Oh yes this topic has been brought up alot and I loved seeing your analysis of the books. It is indeed easier to ship parents off but yes I would love to see more mothers bring in involved in YA Books!

    Like

  14. Annemieke says:

    It is a problem I think. Especially in mg. Of course there are children with no mothers or not as involved mothers and that rep should be there, but in a lot of the cases with ya and mg it is just because it is more convenient to the author to not have parents present. Which sucks. Be more creative.

    Like

  15. anhdara13 says:

    The older I get, the more this trope bothers me? Maybe because I’m now a mother and I spend a lot of books just going “WHAT WOULD YOUR MOTHER SAY” or in the case of bad parents “I AM YOUR MOTHER NOW MY CHILD” at the characters. (To be fair, I did that before I became a mom too.) But it would be a novelty to have adventure books with the mother present. I feel like it’d be fun to read?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. sara says:

    Exactly! It’s such a shame and missed opportunity! Parents play such a pivotal role in the lives of teenagers and to consistently see them brushed aside (usually without even an afterthought) is frustrating. I first started paying attention to this pattern when I was reading books by Cassandra Clare, where one way or another Cassandra Clare made sure the parents were out of the picture from the beginning. I agree this so the teenagers can then run wild without any conflict or interference. Interesting post 🙂

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes! I get how it makes sense to ditch the parents if you’re writing one book because it makes things easier. It also can cut down on characters *in general* if you’re trying to avoid a character soup, but it’s so crazy to read book after book with no parents to be found!

      Liked by 1 person

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