Where Are All the Mothers in YA Literature? (Analysis of My 2020 Reads)

How Many Mothers in YA Books Are Dead?

Introduction

In May 2019, I wrote a most titled “Where Are the Mothers in YA Literature? (Hint: They’re All Dead)” in which I noted that I typically struggle to create a list of “Top Mothers from Literature” because there often aren’t any mothers in the books I read, either because they’re dead or they’re technically alive but present in anywhere from 0 pages of the book to maybe 10 pages.

In 2019, I analyzed the books I had read from January through May and concluded 44% of the YA books had protagonists with dead mothers. Five of the 16 books I had read had mothers that were living but essentially not in the book anyway. I ultimately found two examples of books that had mothers that were alive and could be categorized as positively involved with the main character.

I decided to do the same analysis this year. This is, of course, a small sample size of books and biased towards whatever books I personally choose to read, but overall, it looks as if the trend of dead mothers in YA has continued for another year.

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YA Books and Their Mothers

1. The Night Country by Melissa Albert

Mother is alive and supportive of protagonist.

2. Harbor for the Nightingale by Kathleen Baldwin

Mother is dead.

3. Honor Lost by Rachel Caine and Ann Agguire

Mother is alive but on a different planet and never speaks to protagonist during the course of the book.

4. Spellhacker by M. K. England

Mother is dead.

5. Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli

Mother is alive and supportive but largely absent from the book, as the protagonist is an elite gymnast and lives apart from her parents.

6. A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer

Grey’s mother who raised him is alive but not in the book.

7. Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Mother is alive but has a contentious relationship with protagonist.

8. The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

Mother is dead.

9. Supernova by Marissa Meyer

Mother is dead.

10. Rogue Princess by B.R. Myers

MINOR SPOILER WARNING!

Mother dies.

11. Zero Repeat Forever by Gabrielle S. Prendergast

Mother is presumed dead.

12. Arc of a Scythe Series by Neal Shusterman

Both protagonists’ mothers are alive, but characters are allowed no or limited contact with family.

13. The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Mother is dead.

14. The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Both protagonists’ mothers are alive, but not very involved in the plot.

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Analysis

  • Out of the 14 YA books I’ve read so far in 2020, 7 have dead mothers. That’s 50%.
  • Five books have protagonists whose mothers are living but essentially absent from the book.
  • One book has an “active” mother who has a terrible relationship with her daugher.
  • Only one book has a mother who is alive and actively supportive during the plot.
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Non-YA Books I’ve Read This Year

1. The Memory Keeper by Jennifer Camiccia (MG)

Mother is alive but emotionally absent; protagonist is essentially raised by her grandmother.

2. The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Adult)

No mention of parents of adult protagonist.

3. The Trial by Franz Kafka (Adult)

Mother is dead.

4. The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury (MG)

Mother is dead.

5. From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks (MG)

Mother is alive and generally has a good relationship with the protagonist.

6. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (Adult)

Mother is alive and has a good relationship with the protagonist.

7. Sisterland by Salla Simukka, Owen F. Witesman (Translator) (MG)

Mother is alive but essentially absent from the book.

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Conclusion

In 2019, I wrote:

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!

It looks as if that’s still true, whether the book is young adult, middle grade, or even adult!

What is your experience reading? Do you think all the mothers in YA books are dead?

Briana

45 thoughts on “Where Are All the Mothers in YA Literature? (Analysis of My 2020 Reads)

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, I mentioned in my 2019 post that it’s to get rid of the parents so kids can go on adventures without someone having to be all responsible and say, “Uh, why are we letting this teen save the world and potentially die?” I also think there’s an element of “character development” with the parent deaths. Like, the author needs a “reason” the protagonist is willing to do something like leave her home and go to an unknown land for an arranged marriage. Well, it’s because her father is dead and her living mother hates her anyway! I would love to see authors try to work nice parents in and still make the plot work!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tiana (The Book Raven) says:

        Yeah that too! I know with a book I am writing rn one of the characters has a really wonderful relationship with her parents and the main character has a much more complicated relationship with her parents. This for me is more because I’ve experienced a more complicated relationship with my own family in the past and it’s easier for me to write, but in all the stories I’ve wanted to write so far parents are pretty involved.

        Like

  1. devouringbooks2017 says:

    You know what, I never even realized how many mothers are actually dead in books but actually when I started thinking about it you are so right. I can’t think of a single book that had a healthy motherly relationship in it.

    Liked by 1 person

      • devouringbooks2017 says:

        I love reading books about complex mother Daughter relationships. But not just purely evil mothers. Like that’s boring. Mother daughter relationships cause strain because of love and differences and when that’s done well it can really be powerful.

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          Yes, I think complexity is very different from “seems to hate daughter for no reason.” I think Empress of All Seasons was fairly good. You kind of start thinking the mother is just mean, but then you learn more about the situation as the book goes on.

          Like

          • devouringbooks2017 says:

            So I recently read Darling Rose Gold and that book is basically all about the mother Daughter relationship and Munchausen’s by proxy and it’s a very complex mother Daughter situation and I gave that book 5 stars. I actually never read Empress of All Seasons but i do have a copy. Would you recommend it?

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  2. Mina @Stacked says:

    I never realised that dead moms are so common in YA. I guess it does make sense as the protagonists are young and it would be tricky for them to put saving the world on pause to get home for dinner on time. Is there a similar trend with dads?

    Like

        • lesserknowngems says:

          Sooo… there is maybe an issue with YA that one or both parents have to be dead. That would be interesting to look more into. I’m thinking back to classics that most likely would be described as YA (Bronte and Austin are books that could easily (and often does) get understood as classical YA, and, while I don’t have any statistics here, it isn’t that uncommen for the main hero/heroine to be either orphan or having poor parents. The aspect that the parents are poor is very often a driving factor for what the hero/heroine can and can’t do. It would be very interesting to look into parents as a literary tool.

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          • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

            Ooh, interesting point about classics! I wonder why that is because it seems to be that the author’s motivations were probably different. Was parental death actually slightly more common centuries ago? Did the authors just think it made the protagonists sympathetic? Or give a tragic air to the book? Because it seems that modern authors are often trying to get the parents out of the way so kids can have adventures. However, I do think there’s sometimes a “character development” component. Like, “oh, her parents are dead, so she feels unloved, so that explains why she does x thing in the plot.”

            Liked by 1 person

            • Krysta says:

              I think classics have similar motivations for the dead parents. Orphan girls can have more adventures–they need to go out to earn their living OR they are not vulnerable to predatory men because they have no one to protect them. The reasons vary, but I think they often somewhat plot-based.

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            • lesserknowngems says:

              I think parental death was a bit more common centuries ago, especially regarding the high mortality in regard to childbirth. Then again, this idea that people lived short life back in the days is kind of skewed since most of the deaths happened before the child was five years old. But of course being poor was a way to thrust a character into a new setting because it often resulted in the character having to move or get a job or something like that. But, I haven’t done the research on this and this is just my thinking out loud.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      It’s definitely a trend for both parents. I just look at mothers for my Mother’s Day post. Often both are dead or the father is dead if the mother is alive. I agree it’s a ploy to make the teens independent, but I wish authors would find another way!

      Like

  3. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    This seems to mirror the trends in kids shows as well – I remember that when I was much younger, you saw more families (including mothers!) in Lizzie McGuire, That’s So Raven but as time went on, mothers seemed to disappear (see The Suite Life on Deck vs original series, iCarly, Victorious (her parents are alive but largely absent, etc)

    Like

  4. Stella Guo says:

    Not sure about the age group. My little brother loved The Spook’s Apprentice and Artemis Fowl series. Both of them have protagonists whose living mothers play a huge role in their lives still.

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  5. nen & jen says:

    Wow, I hadn’t noticed this until now but thinking back on some of the books I’ve read recently this is certainly a strong and common theme. I think it may just depend on genre though as there are quite a lot of books in the adult contemporary side with strong family relationships and values. It’s interesting to see how it might also vary over genres and question why its so popular in YA lit. Fab post!!

    Like

  6. Jas @ XIV blog says:

    I never thought about this! But looking back, mothers really are pretty absent. And if it’s not the mom, it’s the dad or a sibling it seems. Great post!! 🙂

    Like

  7. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    What a great and relevant topic, Briana! I think in YA books, the lack of mothers might be because YA is traditionally more associated with coming-of-age stories. It’s definitely something I haven’t really realised before, so thank you for the thought-provoking post!

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, people often mention “getting rid of the parents so kids can go on adventures,” and that’s definitely part of it, but I also think the absent parents are used for some sort of “protagonist character growth.” They’re on their own. They feel unloved. Whatever. It makes them “independent” plot wise but also emotionally. I’d love to see authors do something with the parents still alive (and actually taking to their kids) though!

      Like

  8. danielle says:

    Happy Mother’s Day?? Damnnnnn that’s terrible how most mothers are either dead or emotionally nonexistent. That’s in real life too, isn’t it? Though I have a good relationship with my mom, my sister doesn’t, and it affects how I see family relationships in books and media. The last book I finished was American Panda and the female protagonist is so suffocated by her mother’s ideals on how to raise her. It’s so sad.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, it’s only in the past couple years I’ve really seen people acknowledge around Mother’s Day that not every mother is amazing and it’s valid if people have poor relationships with their mothers instead of feeling like celebrating them.

      Like

  9. Morgan I Fictionistas Unite says:

    I want to give this post an award. I have the same problem, but for me, it’s missing/dead dads (though now that I’m thinking about it, missing mothers are definitely there too) in adult fiction. The book I’m currently reading deals with it in such a trite way that it’s lessening my enjoyment of the book entirely. I agree: it’sunoriginal. More alive, happy families in books please!

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I haven’t done a post about fathers yet, but I think the percentage of dead dads is about the same. Half the time both parents are dead, and then if the mother is alive probably the father is dead. Authors really like killing off parents. And it’s wild because (though this is anecdotal and based on the demographic of people I know), 50% of my friends/peers do NOT have parents who have passed away, not remotely. So why are 50% of them dead in books?

      Like

  10. may @ a novel reader says:

    Super interesting analysis! I guess that a mother/daughter, mother/son relationship has fewer selling features than romantic interpersonal relationships, but also Lady Bird?? was great and won awards?? I for one would love to see more of those kinds of dynamics.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think family relationships can be a GREAT topic for books! Some of my favorite books actually addressed this, even if it’s just a sibling relationship. (I think a lot of book protagonists are only children, too, though I’d have to look at the numbers for that!)

      Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I only wish I had read more book because it seems like a small sample size! But between 44% dead mothers last year and 50% dead mothers this year, I think it’s starting to look like a trend. (I mean, 50% of the people I know do not have a parent who has passed away, so this seems like a weirdly high percentage. Not counting people whose parents have passed away due to actually being elderly, of course.)

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Arunima Pandey says:

    Interesting point… YAs are still tolerable for their storyline, but teen romances like the sun is also a star… ughh. I feel they have zero originality and are very very boring.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Sometimes I like YA, and sometimes I think a lot of it sounds very much the same. The characters and setting might change, but a lot of them DO have similar plots and even similar voice/tone/style. And “killing off the main character’s parents just to get them out of the way” is definitely something far too many of them have in common. Give me some family dynamics!

      Like

  12. Enobong says:

    I wonder if Disney has had any influence on this? Since Snow White, we’ve watched teenage heroes whose stories are more impactful because of not having a mother and I wonder if it’s just accepted that this is how you make a hero interesting now?

    Like

  13. Sam@WLABB says:

    About 99% of the books I read are contemporaries, and there are still plenty of moms in those books. I took a class, when I was an undergrad, Fairytales and Folk Traditions, and when we analyzed many fairytales, you will find some sort of absentation of a parent, and here it is in YA too. It’s a way to force the character to grow up, come of age, and whatnot. And this plot device goes back for eons.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think it could be interesting to see authors being more inventive in getting parents “out of the way” so to speak without killing them all off. They could be captured, or off on a business trip, or working long hours at work and just not as available as they’d wish. It seems kind of easy to just start off with all the mothers dead.

      I do get the appeal, though. The Keeper of the Lost Cities series has a wealth of active, involved parental figures. They always start off by saying the protagonist and her friends have to be safe and not try to seek out or fight the villains. But then the protagonist and her friends whine and whine until the parental figures give in. I think the author is trying to give readers parents who are alive and who care about their kids, but they come across as…kind of bad at parenting. Since when does the average parent let their kid fight a shadowy group of evil villains trying to take over the world just because their child whined about it? The average parent wouldn’t cave in over something simpler like a trip to the mall, forget about a life-threatening scenario.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. unholypursuit says:

    An interesting coincidence. We were talking about this same topic on my blog. After reading over twenty books all with dead parents I kind of looked for another genre to read.

    Like

  15. setinthepast says:

    It’s a tradition that goes back to the 19th century – if you look at something like What Katy Did, or Heidi, or The Little Princess, or the preachy Elsie books, all the mums are dead!

    Like

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