Today I have the great pleasure of hosting Catherine Bruton on my blog today with a lovely guest post as part of the I Predict a Riot blog tour. I Predict a Riot is Catherine's third YA book and this time she's written a book inspired by the London riots.
I love this guest post about absentee parents! Do share in comments your thoughts on this subject. And if you want to find out more about I Predict a Riot or about Catherine Bruton, do visit the following websites...
Ditching the Parents in YA
by Catherine Bruton
What is the single most important ingredient in YA/teen fiction? Yup - absent parents!
That’s it, if you want a good story, you have to get rid of the grown-ups. You can kill them off, ship them abroad, lock them in attics, or in offices....
Or emotional distance works as well as physical distance – they can be depressed, workaholic, or just emotionally disengaged. Anything so long as they are generally ... well, not around. Get rid of the oldies and you create the ideal circumstances for stories to occur!
Which is actually a problem for many stories set in contemporary settings. I blame ‘helicopter parenting’ for this (helicopter parents are the ones who hover obsessively over their children, micro-managing their every move – you know the ones I mean!). Generally parents nowadays don’t seem to let their kids run feral in quite the same way that happened in my Seventies childhood. So how on earth are our characters going to get up to the sort of shenanigans that make great fiction?
This is why the summer holidays are so important. The magical combination of sunshine, boredom, parental end-of-tethers and ‘childcare issues’ make for a glorious cocktail of freedom, not experienced at any other time of the year. Just think of some of the great ‘Summer holiday books’ from The Famous Five through To Kill a Mockingbird to The Go Between or Joanna Nadin’s recent Eden – basically, six weeks with no school and anything can happen (in real life as well as on the page, I might add)!
Which is why all three of my recent teen/YA novels have been set (or partly set) during the summer holidays. A time when parents loosen the reigns, boredom becomes the mother of invention, plans are hatched and rules seems somehow less applicable. Given those ingredients, things are bound to kick off!
And in I Predict a Riot, they really do – with explosive (and fatal) consequences. I Predict a Riot was inspired by the UK riots that took place in the summer holidays in 2011. It’s about three kids from very different backgrounds set out to make a movie and end up involved in a riot in a summer that will change their lives forever.
And it’s not just heat and boredom and fear that drag them into the riots. Absent parents are definite theme in all three of my books, and they are a key factor in the plot of I Predict a Riot. Maggie’s mum is a local MP – she’s a career driven workaholic who’s never really around for her daughter – or particularly interested in her. Maggie’s parents have just split up and her dad has moved to New York. Maggie blames her mum for the split and can’t forgive her. But when she really needs help, will her mum be there for her?
Meanwhile, Toke’s dad is a member of a notorious North London gang. Determined not to let Tokes get caught up in gang culture, his mum has run away. She and Tokes are in hiding, and she has to work three jobs just to try and survive. If Tokes dad finds out where they are he’ll drag them back to the old life Tokes is desperate to escape. But can he ever really leave his past behind?
And Little Pea’s mum knocks him around. She lets her boyfriends do it too – Little Pea has the bruises and the cigarette burns to prove it. According to Little Pea, his mum thinks he has the devil in him. She’s sent him to be exorcised loads of times but it doesn’t work. And his dad? Little Pea has no idea who his dad even is. Little Pea is the kid everyone has given up on – abused by his mum, neglected by society and pushed around by the notorious Starfish Gang and their ruthless leader, Shiv, he is lawless, immoral, untrustworthy, clever, funny, brilliant, maddening, tragic and ultimately heroic.
So far so good, but we writers of contemporary YA have another problem when it comes to ditching the grown-ups – and I blame modern technology! The advent of mobile phones, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc all mean that parents are able to keep closer tabs on their offspring than ever before. Which may be a good thing in real life (I’m a mummy – I’d have my babies electronically tagged or permanently attached to me by an invisible e-umbilical cord if I could!) but is not so conducive to good fiction.
Which is why I had to get a bit tech-savvy in I Predict a Riot. Tokes was easy – he can’t afford a phone. But Maggie is high – tech. She’s filming events on her camera phone, uploading them onto her laptop remotely by Cloud (I know – get me! Luckily, I have some clever tech-geek friends who help me figure all this out cos it’s pretty essential to the plot). Little Pea knows how to hack into phones – and he’s also a pickpocket so when Maggie’s phone goes missing – along with all the compromising footage she’s taken of the Starfish Gang – it’s pretty obvious who has it.
Of course, the thing about absent parents is you can’t keep them out of the picture forever. And I Predict a Riot is as much about complicated family relationships as it is about friendship, first love and coming of age. Tokes can’t just run away from his past – he has to confront his Dad in order to make his own choices. And if Maggie can’t learn how to forgive her mum, how is she ever going to forgive herself for causing the death of her friend? And Little Pea’s mum – is she abusing him like he claims? Will she hand him over to the police? Or will she see the good in her ‘devil child’ in the end?
Someone asked me recently why I have so many bad or absentee mums in my books. I had to think for a moment but she is right – I do. First of all, I have to say that my own mum is the sweetest, kindest, loveliest mum in the world, so it’s not based on personal experience. Possibly some clever shrink would say I’m working out my anxieties on the page about whether I’m a good enough mum myself (best ask my kids the answer to that!).
But perhaps the answer is simple. As far as I can see, absent parents are the key to action filled YA plots – but if you want to pack an emotional punch too – you may need to bring the oldies back in from the cold!
So, do you agree? Can you think of great YA in which parents are very much around? Or in which their absence is totally immaterial? Answers on a postcard, please! Or in the comments below!