Agent Monday: Poor Mom

MP900446418Hi gang!  Happy Agent Monday to you all.  With Mother’s Day approaching this upcoming weekend (a big happy Mom’s Day to each of you!), I thought I’d pose this question to writers submitting to me: What do you have against moms?  Or dads?  You seem to have an obsession with killing them off.  Poor mom and dad.

It’s one of those weird things I see in numerous queries every day – the protagonist is an orphan. The parents died in an accident (sometimes the protagonist feels at fault), or from an illness, or one died and the other had already left the family years before.  So many orphans.  We’re talking about middle grade and YA novel submissions here.

If it’s a contemporary novel, then this orphan has been shuffled off to live with a weird relative – an eccentric, usually.  Perhaps they return to their mom’s home town to live with an estranged grandparent and begin to learn more and more about their mom’s past – full of surprises and secrets.

If the novel has any sort of fantastical element to it, the child – who lives with an eccentric relative now – discovers that mom didn’t just die from a disease, it was actually all a coverup for something bigger – an epic war is at hand and mom died fighting the good fight with whatever powers she had (magic, was a mythical being, could shoot lightning bolts out of her eyes – you get the idea).  Said orphan learns that he or she has those powers too, was left some talisman that will help with the fight, must figure out what’s happened/will happen or the entire world will come to an end, or something along those lines. Cough cough, Harry Potter, cough, cough.

And sometimes, in the fantasy scenario, mom isn’t dead for good and the child’s actions can bring them back.

Now hold up.  I can almost feel you folks ready to comment with a whole “It’s a fairy tale motif,” “It’s a classic fantasy trope,” “It’s a way for a child to embark on their own autonomous story,” “It’s how classic stories for kids have been shaped forever!”

I know, gang.  I’ve read those stories. Studied ’em.  Even took several courses on the fairy tale when I was at Penn.

But here’s the thing: how many orphans did you know growing up?  How many do your kids know right now at this moment? Maybe it does tap into some dark fantasy in a resentful child’s mind or some “I’m on my own” desire ala My Side of the Mountain… But (and this is a big but, I can not lie!) it is done and done and done again and again.

Sometimes finding this all too familiar scenario makes me sigh aloud and I just can’t read yet another word.  Do you think editors might feel that way too?  Can you recast your novel to play out differently and thereby make it stand out in a fresh way?

And, couldn’t a parent, sometimes, be a part of the story?  Part of the humor? Part of the heart? Part of the conflict (without it going straight to abuse, which I see a lot of as well)?

I’m just putting this out into the stratosphere, because it just might result in more realistic reads, even in the fantasy genre. And it just might make your story stand out.

So go honor your mother!


*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

16 thoughts on “Agent Monday: Poor Mom

  1. In both my novels, the young heroines have a strong bond with their moms and they praise them in the story line. In my China-America novel, both the Chinese and the American heroines have dialouges with their moms and listen to their advices. In my America-Germany novel the young German heroine likes to have talks with her mom about teens searching for their identities. As you posted, the overwhelming majority of teens are not orphans. They live with their parents and the storyline must include some interactions between them and their parents. My novels are a good gift for Mother’s Day. Happy Mother day to you, Marie.

  2. This was a huge pet peeve of mine when my kids were young — as you say, in almost every story we read the mom was dearly departed. I know it offers more chance for adventure but maybe she could just be on an extended vacation to St. Lucia? Now THAT would be a mother’s day gift. Great post! p.s. that said, my just completed WIP’s dual protagonists (college age) are both fatherless 🙂 (Don’t judge me too harshly, it’s elemental to the story line.)

    • No judging! I think it’s more realistic for one parent to have passed away. Growing up, I knew a number of kids who had lost their dads. As we grow older, of course, it’s more likely to lose one parent. Fiction works best when it feels true, IMHO.

  3. “And, couldn’t a parent, sometimes, be a part of the story? Part of the humor? Part of the heart? Part of the conflict…”

    Absolutely. There are many ways to remove the parents (or authority figures) from the picture without killing them off. I recently read several middle-grade stories that did just that. In Suzanne Collins’ first book in the Underland Chronicles, “Gregor the Overlander,” the child protag has to actively rescue his father (who is very much alive). Here, the parent is part of the character’s desire through line. In M.P. Kozlowsky’s “Juniper Berry” the parents are physically present, but mentally and emotionally gone. The conflict and plot is built around Juniper rescuing her parents from the malicious force that has essentially taken them from her. In Roald Dahl’s “The Witches,” the protag IS orphaned early on and goes to stay with his grandmother. However, she becomes an active part of the child’s life and story and is not background material. Dahl advances the plot and keeps her on the edge of action by making her sick. Thus, the protag has room and flexibility to drive the story and is still able to return to his active parental figure.

    In my own work in progress, Dorian’s father is in an asylum for the criminally insane (escaping early on to deliver words of portending doom) and mom is a brain, floating in a jar of formaldehyde and saline solution. Yes, you read that correctly. However, she can communicate telepathically. They exist, they are there, but they cannot directly interact with Dorian.

    Great post though, Marie. Good observation on the trend in children’s lit. Thanks!

    • Hi Joe!

      Yes! All great examples. The child’s world is populated with family for better or worse. Seeing so so many manuscript submissions with orphaned kids featured does make me, as a reader, weary. There are so many more ways to propel a story!

  4. What a refreshing and validating post. I often thought many children’s books downplayed or trivialized parental involvement (some for very good reasons, of course.) But I think there is a need for strong child protagonists who enjoy healthy bonds with the adults around them. At least, that is what I am compelled to write. Thanks for the post! Oh, and Happy Mother’s Day!

  5. Long ago (pre HP), I read a NYT Book Review musing on the prevalence of orphans in children’s lit. The book reviewed is long forgotten, but that reviewer (name also forgotten, alas) used a phrase that has always stuck in my mind: orphans compel because they represent at once “the pinnacle of freedom and the nadir of loss.” In that respect, I’ve always thought orphans serve a similar purpose as adultery in adult fiction, a way to put a character in a situation that’s at once liberating and fraught with pain, guilt, regret, etc., that lets them look forward and back. Both become tired cliché, however, when authors make MC an orphan (or adulterer) without mining those implications. But that’s true when any attribute becomes lazy stand-in for real character development — or, in the case of orphans, a convenient way not to create living, multi-dimensional adult characters.

    On the other hand … Last year I had an interesting conversation with an acclaimed YA novelist, whose work I love. She has just taught a revision workshop, and was generous enough to talk to me about the next draft of a WIP. The set-up involves a 13-yo girl coming to terms with her grandmother’s dementia. Novelist’s first words of advice, after hearing my set-up, was “kill off the parents.” She thought the presence of parents gave the MC too much security, and that making her an orphan would mean more was at stake from the beginning. (I didn’t kill them, but did rewrite so MC is alone with grandmother when dementia begins).

    What you say here is so true, though. In 21st century, being orphaned is hardly the norm. The challenge for us writers is to give our MCs a way to explore and experience those resonant themes of freedom and loss while keeping their families intact!

    Thanks for provocative post!


  6. Thanks, Marie for going way beyond complaining about cliches. Yes, it’s true, complaining about cliches is one of the most overdone things agents do. 🙂 I like this appeal not to a one word Forbidden Rule, but to a deeper appeal to authenticity, exhorting authors to look around themselves not at the fictional world but at the real one and see what their own lives have been like. I think one of the reasons memoirs are so popular (and why I liked your novel Over My Head so much) is that they remind us of real life. Yes, I know that we read in order to escape, but I think that culturally we are growing a bit weary of that. Escaping teaches so little about how to get back into the fray of life and figure things out. If fiction borrowed a little more from life maybe kids would grow up understanding more about their world and having a little less hubris about thinking they can invent a world of their choosing. Best wishes, Jerry

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jerry! I love the way you always tease me AND then disarm with a compliment! (Blush.) 😉

      I think you are spot on about the value of fiction borrowing from life. And I think there’s room in books and in life for both reality and for make-believe. That’s true magic.

  7. Oh. Compliments are good, you say? Here’s another. The reason your YA novel Over My Head is a Smart Book is because you took the trouble to unpack your main character’s psyche and show how she “killed her parents” not by killing them outright (cliche!) but by showing how inch by inch she was able to separate herself from their authority. Isn’t the defining transition for almost all teens, when we have to “kill” their influence over us, and make choices we know they would hate, and somehow justify our actions by ignoring them or using some modified ethical system that somehow dismisses their authority. Isn’t almost every teen a sort of “orphan” when they override their obedience to mom and dad? I know I imposed this state of orphan-hood on myself and it almost killed me. It is one of the powerful, dangerous transitions of that period. Killing them physically takes the easy way out. Unpacking that murder and putting it into terms of psychological separation turns the story into a deeper exploration of life. These are just my opinion, based on my obsession with memoirs and a close reading of Over My Head. 🙂 (In Dani Shapiro’s memoir she undergoes both processes. First she “kills their influence” and goes down a really dangerous rabbit hole. When they are in a fatal crash she climbs back up and realizes that to stay alive she needs their values.) Jerry

    • Thank you, Jerry!

      And what you’ve just described is the psyche behind many fairy tales too. Writers need to get to the heart of the real story. I like the term “unpacked” …makes me think of dirty laundry, rumpled clothing, hidden secrets…

  8. By killing off both parents, you lose a golden opportunity to layer your character, especially your protagonist. I’ve done this in my early stories (father and mother both killed in car crash). In Steel Rose, I’ve “honored” my protagonist’s mother by having her on the field with daughter, shooting zombies. This enabled me to portray a different side of my character and her mother.
    Thanks for a great post. I hope you get a colorful bouquet of balloons for Mother’s Day.
    Barbara of the Balloons

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