Themes in Young Adult Literature: Parent and Family Problems

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3103

Titles Discussed

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Thematic Overview

As young adult novels were first recognized as a distinct genre of literature in the 1950s and 1960s, a large number of books...

(The entire section contains 3103 words.)

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Titles Discussed

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Thematic Overview

As young adult novels were first recognized as a distinct genre of literature in the 1950s and 1960s, a large number of books focused on teenage protagonists who were in essence removed from their family unit. S. E. Hinton's 1967 novel The Outsiders features a group of orphan teenagers who rely on siblings and friends rather than parents to navigate the world; similarly, J. D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye (1951) and John Knowles's A Separate Peace (1959) both place their protagonists in boarding schools, where the parents are only able to have minimal influence. The popularity of these parent-free adolescents reflect the emphasis these novels placed on teenagers as independent figures, navigating the world from their unique position between childhood and adulthood; with parents absent from the picture, much more attention could be turned to interactions with peers, first romances, and other perennial topics of the genre.

By the 1970s, however, young adult novels began to shift their focus to social problems, and in turn parents became more common characters, especially when they represented problems such as divorce, alcoholism, poverty, and abuse. With some popular exceptions, a large number of novels through the 1980s still featured teenage protagonists exercising their independence outside of the family. However, rather than absent parents, these teenagers returned home to families that added further difficulty to their teenage years, often through violence and neglect. This can be seen in Cynthia Voigt's 1981 novel Homecoming, in which a mother abandons her children who then set out on an arduous journey to find relatives and a home. The sudden opportunity for young adult writers to depict social problems with realistic prose rather than forced optimism coupled with the changing face of American families at this time—divorce rates steadily rose, single mothers became more common, and the 1950s idealism of the nuclear family was not only less common as a lived reality but also less desirable, particularly to women who sought careers or men who wished to take on the domestic role of raising children. While parents entered the young adult novel more often during these decades, they were rarely loving and supportive figures and even more rarely were they portrayed as well-rounded and developed characters who played significant roles in the lives of their children.

The twenty-first century saw another significant change in the depiction of parents and family structures: while novels increasingly featured diverse families (including divorced and mixed families, gay and lesbian families, and families that blended cultural traditions), they also increasingly featured supportive and complex parent figures who were critical influences on the teenage protagonist. In part, this has to do with the increasing maturity of young adult novels and young adult readers—many adolescents do have significant and honest relationships with their parents, and as such, novels in which parents are rendered insignificant can appear false. Likewise, the increased diversity of family structures has also made conversations about family more comfortable for many readers (the shame associated with divorce in the 1950s, for example, is much less common in the twenty-first century). Dana Reinhardt's A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life (2006), for instance, features two loving adoptive parents who encourage and support their daughter as she forms a relationship with her birth mother and explores her Jewish heritage. Even when parents are still reflective of social problems, they are more likely to appear as complicated and sympathetic characters with a significant presence in the lives of their children, as in Laurie Halse Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014), in which a single father battles his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from serving in the Iraq War. Supportive or neglectful, married or single, parents in twenty-first-century young adult novels are no longer absent figures their children only occasionally recall, but instead they are presented as significant figures in the overall plot and themes of the novel, as involved in the lives of their children as the adolescents are involved in the complexities of the home.


Homecoming tells the story of the four Tillerman children (between the ages of six and thirteen years), beginning when their mother abandons them in a parking lot. The oldest of the children, Dicey, decides they must travel to Bridgeport, where a relative they have never met named Aunt Cilla lives and where she hopes they might find their mother again. As Dicey knows that the government will separate the children from one another and place them in potentially unsafe foster homes if she contacts the police for help, she becomes something like the ersatz mother figure, trying her best to protect the young children on their journey. As the children sleep in abandoned houses and ration their little money for food, they encounter both friendly and malicious strangers, including a couple of college students who take them in for the night. Dicey is also distressed to see her younger brother Sammy regularly turning to crime, stealing in an effort to help the family out. When they reach Cilla's house, they find out their aunt is dead and instead are briefly taken in by her daughter, a religious woman who openly expresses her disinterest in raising the children and contemplates sending Sammy to the state rather than caring for him herself. Unhappy in this temporary home, the children again take to the road, having learned that their grandmother lives in Maryland. After another dangerous journey, they find their impoverished grandmother, who is reluctant to raise more children after all the difficulties she had faced with their mother. Eventually, however, the grandmother comes to accept the children, who feel that they might be happy at her farm despite the financial and emotional hardships it presents.

For the Tillerman children, family and parental problems are not simply one aspect of their lives, but rather the driving force in shaping their youth. However, the novel does not present the instability of the family as being any one person's fault, exactly, but rather the result of a number of other social factors, the largest among them being the mother's mental illness and the poverty passed generationally through the family. With the exception of recollections by the children, the mother is only present in the novel in that opening scene of abandonment, yet through the narrative the reader comes to learn of the extreme difficulties in her life, culminating in her becoming catatonic and being institutionalized. The fact that the children are aware of these hardships allows them to form a sophisticated understanding of what family can provide—they know, for instance, that state-sponsored organizations are likely to scatter the children into different homes and that although their religious cousin might provide them the stability of a roof and a comparatively steady income, she does not offer the honest love and support that the children need. Because of all this, the Tillerman children exhibit a much greater degree of independence than is typically seen in literature focusing on such young protagonists. The orphans and boarding-school children of 1950s young adult novels were free to explore their burgeoning adult identities with relative independence from their parents; the Tillermans, by contrast, have had the circumstances of their lives shaped by such extreme parental hardships that they are instead forced into adult roles and required to take mature actions in order to form a new, healthier sense of family. In the end, finding that the ideals of a stable family unit and financially secure home are unavailable to them, they instead define family based on the love and support shared among siblings, finding that this mutually dependent bond is strong enough to sustain them after all.

The protagonist of A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, Simone, lives in a family that is in many ways the polar opposite of the Tillerman family. Adopted as a baby, Simone's parents are happily married and supportive of both each other and their children. Simone's mother is the family breadwinner, and her father spends a lot of time caring for the children and cooking delicious meals for the family. Simone fits comfortably into this family unit, identifying herself as a liberal and an atheist just as her parents do, and she rarely thinks about her birth mother, Rivka. This changes, however, when Rivka contacts her one day. Although at first reluctant, Simone eventually agrees to meet Rivka, who reveals that she is dying of cancer. Simone then begins a process by which she learns about Rivka's life as well as about her diverse Jewish heritage, with Rivka identifying as an agnostic Jew after leaving the Hassidic family of her youth behind. Simone also begins to date her first boyfriend, a boy named Zack who comes from a practicing Jewish family. By the time Rivka dies at the end of the novel, Simone is confident enough to visit the home of her grandfather, to sit shiva, and to confront him about his relationship with his estranged daughter. In the end, Simone does not have clear answers about her own beliefs or future but optimistically faces the challenges of navigating an increasingly complex world with the support of her family.

While Simone faces challenges related to her family, she does so from a somewhat unique setting in young adult literature, with her own parents happily married and providing nothing but support and encouragement as she begins to explore her biological family and heritage. From the start of the novel, her parents are the ones who suggest Simone return the calls from Rivka, and her mother happily shares the story of the adoption when Simone decides she is ready to hear it. Likewise, her atheist parents do not discourage her new interest in Judaism, even as they had previously celebrated Simone's own involvement in her school's atheist club. Instead, they celebrate her new interest, accepting it without question and even hosting a Passover ceremony at their house when Rivka is too ill to do so herself. This narrative is a marked contrast to what many other young adult adoption novels represent, where conflicts between biological and adopted families (and particularly between cultural and religious differences) become a source of stress for adolescent protagonists. Free of this conflict and gifted with a biological mother and adoptive parents who fully support her independence, Simone is able instead to approach the emotional complexities concomitant with exploring her heritage and deepening her sense of personal identity. She describes this often through the metaphor of the family tree, remarking how slim and uncomplicated her own tree is at the beginning of the novel but celebrating it instead at the novel's end for its complexities and many branches. While in some ways the challenges Simone faces are about honestly facing her family heritage and history, then, they are just as importantly about her taking opportunities to reconsider her own sense of self and future path. By the end of the novel, she emerges confident and mature, happily pursuing her first romantic relationship and processing the loss of Rivka with the support of friends, family, and Judaic traditions.

Unlike the happy stability of Simone's life, Hayley, the protagonist of The Impossible Knife of Memory, has come to know nothing but radical and disruptive instability during her adolescent years. Raised by her single father, Andy, the two spent five years before the novel's opening traveling the country as Andy drove a commercial truck and Hayley homeschooled herself. A war veteran, Andy experiences constant struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, suffering from hallucinations that drive him to violence and to alcohol and other substances in order to cope with the pain. When Andy and Hayley decide to settle into a home for a while, however, they face additional challenges—Hayley must learn how to interact with peers and to exist in the social environment of her new school, while Andy finds it harder to avoid his past when he is not in constant movement. Hayley eventually makes a friend named Gracie, who is often preoccupied with the divorce of her parents, and a boyfriend named Finn, whose sister is addicted to drugs and whose own home life is troubled. Hayley also receives some support for her father's worsening condition through his ex-partner Trish, although Trish's struggles with alcoholism previously caused her to abandon the family and both Trish and Hayley fear Andy will only make Trish's own condition worse. Eventually, Hayley opens up more to Finn about her family situation, and when her father attempts suicide, Finn is there to help her save him. At the novel's close, Hayley is cautiously optimistic, planning a future at college while her father seems to be improving through therapy and the support of others.

While the emotional instability of Hayley's home life makes her narrative resemble the wandering of Homecoming more than the supportive family of A Brief Chapter of My Impossible Life, her experience is defined as much by her commitment to her father as it is by the challenges he brings into her world. Hayley feels like she is actually the parent in the relationship with Andy, and her commitment to him is in fact much like the commitment of a mother to a child, with Hayley sacrificing her own needs and constantly convincing herself that Andy will not survive without her support. Because of this, Hayley's new life at the school presents her with unique challenges. On one hand, her enrollment in education and the family's choice to remain in one place represents a shift toward stability and future growth, yet at the same time, Hayley and Andy are so used to their constant travel as a coping mechanism that school life seems strange and impossible to Hayley, and she believes the move to be a major mistake at the start of the novel. In many ways, Hayley understands this through her focus on time—when the past (which includes her father's wartime service) becomes present in their life, her father becomes violent and incoherent. When they manage to stay in the present, however, avoiding both facing the past and planning for an unstable future, she believes that she and her father are fine. Yet once in school and developing relationships with peers that she hopes will last into the future, Hayley's strategy of avoidance and constant movement begins to fail her. These tensions come to a head when her father attempts suicide at the end of the novel. As he threatens to jump off a cliff, Hayley in turn threatens to follow him and jump herself, insisting that “I've been standing on the edge with you for years.” More than a threat designed to make him live, Hayley's declaration is also an affirmation of their deep bond: they might face unimaginable challenges and traumas, but they also have the unshakable connection of familial love, and as such Hayley is only willing to pursue a future that includes Andy as well. While her life may be filled with the same radical instability that the Tillerman children face, Hayley's experience is also one relatively unique to contemporary young adult literature, in which the family problem is less something that must be overcome for total independence and instead a challenge that the teenage protagonist is willing to commit to, knowing that she and her father are strongest together.


The Impossible Knife of Memory has an additional quality that is rare in young adult novels—Hayley's father, Andy, receives several short chapters in which he narrates his own experiences, particularly the flashbacks to his time in war. The inclusion of these sections is indicative of the change in contemporary young adult literature, with parents and adult figures receiving increasing importance both in the lives of the teenage protagonists and the narrative in general.

The fact that Andy is portrayed as a complex and fully developed character could be taken as an indication that adolescent readers today are more likely to give their attention over to adult characters than they might have been in the past. At the same time, however, a number of popular novels rely upon and revive the trend of orphans and boarding schools that was popular in the middle of the twentieth century. Massively popular science-fiction and dystopian novels such as The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games go to elaborate lengths to remove parents from the narrative arcs of their main characters. In these examples, the focus on action, rebellion, and the independence of the protagonist renders family problems as nearly irrelevant, operating perhaps as a distant motivation for the main character but rarely entering the plot directly.

Ultimately, however, the tendency of young adult literature to address mature themes and plots of emotional and literary complexity has meant a boost in novels that address family problems. As families are often both the primary support network for teenagers and also the relationship against which teenagers rebel, the problems associated with the family can have tremendous ramifications for young adult development. While the stereotypical reaction of teenagers impulsively rebelling against their parents is still common, readers are more and more likely to find relationships like those shared between Hayley and Andy in The Impossible Knife of Memory or Simone and her parents in A Brief Chapter of My Impossible Life—relationships in which adolescents and adults face problems together, recognize their difficulties as being shared, and emerge with everyone (not just the teenage protagonist) having grown and learned.

Further Reading

  • Ewing, Jack. “Cynthia Voigt.” Guide to Literary Masters and Their Works. Pasadena: Salem, 2007. Literary Reference Center. Web. 13 July 2015. <>.
  • Goldstein, Meredith. “Grown-Ups Make a Comeback in Young Adult Books.” Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners, 10 May 2014. Web. 13 July 2015. < adult-books/uiKSLYdTEq60ccIQ6FsO3L/story.html>.


  • Just, Julie. “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit.” New York Times. New York Times, 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 13 July 2015. <>.
  • Lodge, Sally. “A Traumatic Family Memory Sparks New YA Novel.” Publishers Weekly 20 Jan. 2014: 19. Literary Reference Center. Web. 13 July 2015. <>.
  • Phillips, Tommy M. “The Influence of Family Structure vs. Family Climate on Adolescent Well-Being.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 29.2 (2012): 103–10. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 July 2015. <>.
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