There is a surprisingly high body count in young adult fiction. First you have your realistic contemporary causes of death ranging from the tragically common (cancer in books like Deadline by Chris Crutcher or Before I Die by Jenny Downham, or suicide like in13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher) to the more unique (bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Going Bovine by Libba Bray). Then have your standard mortal peril, where teenagers go off and take on evil beasties, fall in love with sparkly vampires, lend angst to the Hero’s Journey and whatnot (like in most books widely sold in the last several years). Even so, it is not the young protagonists of young adult fiction that have the most alarming mortality rate. It is their parents. Mostly their mothers.
Mothers don’t fare well in children’s stories. Disney almost always kills them off. Bambie, Fox and the Hound, nearly every princess movie I can think off—they all have one thing in common. Dead mom, dead mom, oh so many dead moms. It’s amazing populations aren’t erased from the story worlds entirely, given this spate of cosmic matricide. (Though, to be fair, some recent post-apocalyptic YA throws that possibility out there too.) I was deeply impressed when Sonya Sones released her book One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. She, too, is an author who kills off the protagonist’s mother to start the action of the book’s plot. But she is gracious enough to insert irony.
I was at first perplexed at the lack of mothers. Then annoyed. Then outright enraged when I became a mother myself. But soon thereafter, I realized that maybe YA did not have a grand conspiracy to wipe parents off the earth. There is the possibility that such fiction kills off parents in its pages because parents do die in “real” life and many want to read about it in stories to cope. But, more than that, I think authors do it because parents can seriously hamper the life of a hero. If my daughter one day said she was going on a journey to defeat demons, pursue her angel lover, and save humankind, I would never let it happen. I’d tell her to eat her vegetables, go to bed, and leave the world saving to someone else’s kid. And if she didn’t listen I would track her down and ground her, sitting outside her bedroom door with my own divine sword of wrath. “Hero’s Journey?” I’d say, my tone righteous. “No archetypical quests on my watch, young lady, thank you very much. Do your homework. Play the savior when you are no longer a minor.”
I fear it is that I would be killed off pretty early in the book. If I were lucky my fictional daughter would mourn me, perhaps keeping some necklace of mine as a talisman to ward off danger. Though I would hate to be one of those deadbeat, incompetent parents that propel other YA protagonists forward more than I would mind simply being killed off. Maybe it’s a testament to parenthood that good moms and dads often don’t live to see another chapter. Because plot is what happens when parents aren’t looking.