Families! They're sort of like credit cards: I can't live with them, and I can't write young adult fiction without them.
Most young people in the real world don't live independent of their family (many adults also live with family members, of course, but it's easier to justify creating those who don't, should one be inclined to do so). Parents, in particular, pose a problem for writing young adult fiction. In reality, they tend to be more or less active presences, shaping activities and schedules, providing boundaries which can't be broken without consequence, and otherwise providing the sweet, sweet conflict that feeds the writing of compelling plot. In a lot of realistic YA fiction, conflict with family and parents is a major theme, and there's a lot of great work that deals with the complexities of family relationships.
But if the conflict the writer wants to work with is that of shapeshifters rising up against their vampire masters in a secret war into which stumble three ordinary teenagers from Los Angeles, having to deal with parents can be a real pain in the ass. Mum and Dad (or Mom, or Dad, or Mum and Mom, Dad and Dad, Dad/Mum/Dad, etc.) are less likely to let you get away with stealing the Sacred Heart of St. Francis to destroy the Master of All Nightwalkers. They might have pointed comments to make about curfew, or notice torn and blood-stained clothing, or wonder why you've stopped getting out of bed before sundown.
The writer then gets to handwave things that parents ought to notice, which looks sloppy, deliberately note them as negligent, which tends to have emotional consequences for your characters, or integrate these conflicts into the book—for every major character with parents.
It's thus tempting to get rid of parents, or at least narrow down how many sets you have to deal with. I've succumbed more than once. Writing for teenagers, I want to concentrate on the teenagers. Yet it's hard to argue that ignoring such a potent force in most teenagers' lives is an accurate depiction.
Just to check that I wasn't alone in my frustration, I spoke with several YA authors, of both realistic and fantastical fiction, to get their thoughts. Brenna Yovanoff (The Replacement), Jackie Dolamore (Magic Under Glass), Tara Kelly (Harmonic Feedback) and Cynthia Jay Omololu (Dirty Little Secrets) participated. Consensus: families are hard, but can be done.
Brenna: I [write about families] because I know I should—but I'd avoid it if I could. I like to have parents there because I think it matters—I don't always handle them right, but one day I want to. I like reading about families, so I want to do a better job of writing them. [The difficult part is] balance, I think—enough to matter and seem real, but not enough to take over the plot.
Cynthia: It's hard to give the teens freedom in the book if the parents are around.
Brenna: I had married, present parents and still had tons of freedom, so I do feel like that's possible.
Tara: I prefer hot kissing scenes to family time. Most teens don't want to read about parents, that's the thing. They skim those scenes.
Jackie: They will if the parents aren't boring. I think. Teens just don't want to read boring characters, because who would?
Brenna: I think that too—as long as the scenes matter and are emotionally gratifying then teens will read them.
When writers do deal with familial relationships, and especially when they use fantastical elements to underline them, the results can be potent. Here are a few young adult SF/fantasy works I think do it well. Spoilers aplenty.
In Diana Wynne Jones's classic novel, The Ogre Downstairs, the magical adventures come from a chemistry set with unexpected consequences. But the heart of the book is in two sets of siblings forced together by their parents' second marriage, and how they become a real family. These are not people mildly upset with one another—at one point, sweet little Gwinny bakes a cake that will poison her stepfather, the titular ogre. She feels no remorse until well after, if he had eaten it, he would have been dead.
But through their chemical adventures, the stepsiblings grow in sympathy with one another and, eventually, with their stepparents, culminating in a final scene where they use the last of the chemistry set to make enough money to buy a house big enough for all of them to live in peace. The transformative magic in this book thus serves the theme of family transformation, as the disruptive chemistry sets work as a catalyst for an alchemical remaking of the family, and are finally used to make all its members comfortable and happy.
In Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series, protagonist Clary gets a mother in a coma, which not only leaves Clary conveniently able to hang out with tattooed, sarcastic, and devastatingly handsome demon hunters, but also means her mother isn't there to explain a number of mysteries that suddenly arise. But Clary's family problems don't stop there. It's time for that delightful staple, the previously unknown Bad Dad, who in this case is not merely distant, manipulative, and violent, but magically so. Also, that devastatingly handsome demon hunter might be her brother. Oops! The magical secrets of Clary's new world are intertwined with the family secrets that promise to either empower or destroy her, and she must uncover the truth of both to protect herself and those she cares for.
Undine of Penni Russon's Undine trilogy has to struggle with her own power and her family at the same time. Undine's newly developed chaos magic can make almost anything happen, but it is inherently wild and thus dangerous. Throughout the series, Undine struggles to control her impulses towards destruction, exacerbated by friction between herself and her parents—absent father Prospero whose first attempt to get to know her is for the magic she possesses, and usually loving mother Lou, who finds her daughter's growing independence an even greater strain than the magic Lou denied in herself for many years. Moreover, Undine's grief for her dead stepfather and her desire to be with him eventually leads to a fraying of the fabric of reality that threatens to destroy many worlds.
However, the chaos magic that could undo all things also relies fundamentally upon the connection of things to each other. It is, suitably, Undine's connection to her true family that saves her from personal and total destruction alike. Having experimented with chaos-slash-adolescent rebellion in a form just a teeny bit more dangerous to the multiverse than most kids manage, Undine gives up the thrill of power out of deep, if complex, affection for the people she loves.
As well as families created by blood and marriage, I am also particularly fond of found families in YA. These families, forged outside kinship or legal relation, remind me of adolescence itself, and the way teenagers begin to form lasting bonds outside the family unit.
One of my favourite found families is that formed by brothers Nick and Alan, from Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon. Nick's devotion to his brother is severely tested when he discovers first that they don't share the same (mad) mother, and then that they don't share the same (dead) father. There are no parents preventing these boys from doing what they want—indeed, Alan has to care for ostensible mother Olivia, as well as his laconic brother.
In fact, Nick is one of the few YA teen characters who actually has no parents whatsoever—but he most certainly has a big brother, who would do increasingly terrible things to protect him. The bond between these two technically unrelated boys who claim each other is in many ways what redeems both of them. It's a love that rivals that of the other pair of siblings in the book, Mae and Jamie, who are actually related, and similarly devoted.
Not all found families are good for their members, however. In Cynthia Leitich Smith's Eternal, nobody Miranda gets turned and adopted by the aristocratic king of the vampires. While at first seduced by the glamour of the vamp life—pretty dresses, obedient servants, the thrill of the kill—her "Father" is controlling, manipulative bad news, and she gradually realises she will never be perfect enough for him. With the help of angelic (er, literally) boyfriend Zachary, she has to destroy the source of her undead inheritance and reclaim her soul, defeating her found father to find herself.
Of course, some vampiric families can be extremely beneficial to their members. The Cullen family, of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, is the ultimate found family, united and supporting each other in their efforts not to feed on humans. None of its members are related to each other, which is just as well, since they form three bonded pairs, plus lonely Edward.
When Bella Swan enters the scene, she has been cut adrift from her main parent, Renee, yet finds not only a loving father in bio-dad Charlie, but is essentially adopted into the perfect Cullen family. Trippy Alice treats her like a sister, demure Esme is a wife to pattern by, and patriarch Carlisle provides gentle guidance. Her conflicts with the other siblings are resolved to everyone's satisfaction, and the last hold-out, delightfully bitchy Rosalie, comes through when it counts—to protect Bella's own child and the formation of another family within the Cullens. Even Bella's other love interest joins this family, via his, let's say, "connection" to Bella's daughter. In absolutely the best line of Breaking Dawn, Edward refers to Jacob Black as "My brother . . . my son."
It's intriguing that in a book viewed as the ultimate teen fantasy romance, family plays so powerful a role (and I think creates much of Twilight's appeal). Clearly, good, bad, born, or found, families are a vital force in young adult speculative fiction. Like my credit card bills, I imagine they'll be with us for a very long time.