The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad YA Parents

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I’ve mentioned in a couple other posts that parents in YA novels have a tendency to be…well, terrible parents. This is presuming that they’re alive in the first place, considering how many YA protagonists are plucky orphans.

Living parents often have only a small role in the books they inhabit, so sometimes they may as well not even be there. Sometimes, too, the ones who are involved in the hero’s life are involved in the worst way. I can’t go through every example of parents in YA books not doing their job, but here’s a rundown of some of the most egregious examples of bad parenting I’ve seen recently. Let me see some of the terrible YA parenting you’ve seen!

This page contains spoilers for the following books:
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Valiant by Holly Black
Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe
A Drop of Night by Stephen Bachmann
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine feels like the mildest of these examples, so that’s where I’ll begin. The story kicks off with the main character, Jacob, traumatized after witnessing the violent death of his grandfather. Jacob and his father, Franklin, travel to the remote island where Grandpa Portman grew up. To his credit, Franklin does seem to care about Jacob’s mental health and well-being, but his main interest in the island is studying the native birds. He lets Jacob romp across the island alone, even after he acknowledges it’s a potentially dangerous place. He’s far more interested in bird-watching and the local beers to actually pay attention to his kid, even though he’s the reason they’re on the island in the first place.

It’s pretty standard neglectful parenting for these kinds of books, but it was Franklin’s last scene in the novel that disappointed me most. At the end of the book, Jacob decides that he needs to stay in 1940 with the peculiar children. But first, he wants to say goodbye to his father and explain what’s going on.

Jacob doesn’t get a chance to speak. Franklin instead calls Jacob crazy, and says that his friends are imaginary. One of the peculiar children show him her speciality ability, and Franklin faints. It’s a quick way to pass over a hard conversation, and now Jacob can leave his family behind without too much guilt. Because, you know, at least he tried to explain. Franklin just didn’t want to hear it.

A Drop of Night by Stephen Bachmann

This is a novel where the plot itself starts based on some poor parenting decisions. This book changes perspectives between the characters, Anouk and Auriele. Auriele is a young noblewoman living in France during the revolution. Her father builds a palace underground for his family to hide from the revolutionaries. When they break into her home, Auriele must flee to the subterranean palace with her sisters and mother. Auriele’s mother is too frightened to go, so she lets herself be killed by the revolutionaries instead, in front of her daughters.

Let me be clear: She could have escaped. Her kids did. But she actually ran back into her mansion to be killed.

At the very least, it served as foreshadowing, as she had a reason to be frightened of going underground. But I can’t say the same about our protagonist’s parents.

The novel’s real main character is Anouk, a seventeen-year-old genius who speaks five languages fluently, read all the psychology books in her local library, and is already studying art history at a college level. If that’s not insufferable enough for a single character, she’s also incredibly unlikeable, self-centered, and rude to everyone she meets. She blames this on – you guessed it – her parents!

Anouk reveals that she was adopted, and her parents adored her. Then, as she got older, Anouk’s parents had a biological child of their own. As soon as Anouk’s little sister was born, her parents totally forgot about her, ignored her, or actively resented her. Anouk even postulates that the reason her parents supported her studying abroad was because they wanted her away from them.

What?! It doesn’t matter if your kid was adopted or biological, or you have one of each. You love them the same. Anouk’s parents lived with her and loved her for at least a decade before her little sister came along. Love isn’t a switch you can turn on and off. If it was, breakups and funerals would be a lot easier.

Since this makes no sense to me, and because Anouk is so unpleasant, my headcanon is that her perception of her family is really skewed, and they would be perfectly nice to her if she wasn’t such a jerk.

Valiant by Holly Black

I liked most of the Holly Black books I’ve read, but I didn’t care for this one, even in high school. It was darker and edgier than my fifteen-year-old self was ready for, mainly because of the drug use in it. I should have known that this would be a bumpy ride from the beginning, though, after the main character, Val, discovers that her mother has been sleeping with Val’s boyfriend. This causes Val to run away and take up with three other homeless teenagers on the streets of New York City. Good job, mom.

To her credit, Val’s mom does try to contact her and get her to come home, but still. Boundaries, people.

Heads up: These last entries get pretty dark.

Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe

This is a Japanese fantasy novel in which eleven-year-old Wataru flees to a magical world during a family crisis. Wataru’s father is leaving his mother for another woman, who is also pregnant with his child. Obviously, Wataru’s mother is devastated.

I need to preface this next bit by saying that I know that Japan and the United States have two very different cultures, and what Wataru’s mother does next may not be as shocking to a Japanese reader as it was to an American reader, namely me.

But it still should be at least a little shocking, because she tries to kill herself and Wataru after her husband leaves them. Japan does have one of the highest rates of suicide worldwide, and historically, some methods of suicide were seen as honorable. While I can’t know how a Japanese reader would feel about this suicide attempt, it certainly eeks me out. Having Wataru’s mom attempt suicide is already dark for what’s ostensibly a children’s book. That she attempts to kill Wataru too crosses the line, and should be disturbing for any reader.

What’s even weirder is how much I love this book, even after all this. If you like epic fantasy with a JRPG twist (and some seriously dark moments), I really recommend this one.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Of course one of the most controversial books from the past few years would make it on this list. This entry is also based solely on the book, not the Netflix show, as I haven’t watched it.

And what a book it is! I could go on for a long time about its messaging, but that’s for another post.

If you don’t know the premise of 13 Reasons Why yet, here it is: Hannah Baker killed herself, and recorded tapes explaining why she did so. The tapes were then given to the people who were her “13 Reasons”.

This entry might be a surprising one, considering that Hannah’s parents played such a small role in the novel. But that’s entirely the point.

You see, in this book’s universe, adults don’t exist. The few that we do see are inept and only push Hannah further into her depression. Hannah’s parents are only mentioned a couple times, and we never see them “on screen”, like we do with a couple of her teachers. They may as well be non-existent.

I understand that kids have a secret world that adults around them, including their parents, are never fully privy to. Hannah’s parents probably didn’t know the depths of her depression, yet they knew that something was wrong. Hannah was grounded because she’d started receiving poor grades, so we know they didn’t totally ignore her. Even so, there’s no indication that they ever tried to help her out of the darkness she was drowning in, or even look to see if it was there.

Kids, and young adults, need support from the adults in their lives for plenty of different reasons. But it’s not always easy for them to get it: they might not know where to look, or know how to ask. They might not want to ask. It’s the adult’s job – parent, teacher, older sibling – to notice that the kid needs help. A cry for help shouldn’t go ignored.

Which is why this final entry pisses me off so much.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Like the novel itself, this example is short and to the point. Melinda has been through a traumatic event that has nearly made her mute, and no one knows what happened to her. Her parents only know that she’s changed since entering high school. She’s deeply unhappy and feels lost in her own life.

I’ll let Melinda tell the rest of it.

I open up a paper clip and scratch it across the inside of my left wrist.
[ . . .] I draw windowcracks of blood, etching line after line until it stops hurting. It looks like I arm wrestled a rosebush.

Mom sees the wrist at breakfast.

Mom: I don’t have time for this, Melinda.


If you are in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, please seek help. Remember you are not alone. Consider reaching out to family, friends, or use one of the resources listed.

And I’m sorry if your parents are as bad as any of these.

On October 5, we’ll be returning to the review format with Sound by Alexandra Duncan. Hope to see you there!