I am a children's book editor. You might assume this means that I spend eight hours a day reading charming bedtime tales about bunny rabbits, but that is not true. I primarily work on novels for older children, and the "in" thing right now is future dystopias. So I actually spend eight hours a day reading about barren wastelands in which teens struggle against fascist dictatorships. Also, their parents are usually dead.
Dead parents are so much a part of middle-grade and teen fiction at this point, it's not even the "in" thing. It's not "au courant" or "en vogue." It's just an accepted fact: kids in books are parentless.
But I don't accept it, because you know what? It is not believable that so many kids are missing one, if not both parents. Slews of them! Hundreds! To quote Oscar Wilde, sort of: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose a parent in nearly every children's book looks like lazy writing." (I assume that is what Wilde meant.)
What's so lazy about writing in a deceased parent? I'll tell you.
First, a dead parent is one fewer character to have to write. At their hearts, most novels are the stories of characters' relationships with other characters. Combine Wilbur's relationships with Charlotte, with Templeton, and with Fern, and you more or less have Charlotte's Web.
But creating all those different relationships is hard work, because they are complex and ever shifting. Having established how a protagonist gets along with her best friend, boyfriend, ex-best friend, piano teacher, and ghost who lives in the cellar, who really wants to add her parents into the mix?
This is why main characters in the novels I write are only children. I write in some parents because I think that's important, but siblings are just exhausting.
Second, there's the instant sympathy factor. It's challenging to create a fictional character who's likable despite his or her foibles. This becomes truer the more foibles you want her to have. If you want to write a character who's snarky, self-absorbed, doesn't respect authority figures, lashes out—basically, a teenager—then you need to give the reader some special reason to care about her.
Dead parent equals immediate sympathy. No wonder he's mopey and melodramatic. He's a half-orphan! For the first hundred pages of The Secret Garden, would you like Mary Lennox at all if her parents were still alive?
Again, I find this a cop-out. Look at the protagonist in Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. He's disaffected and disconnected and all those other things that teen characters love to be, but both his parents are alive in excess. (Divorced, yes. But alive.) He's not immediately an easy person to care about, but you do, because the author actually does the legwork to make you care.
Third, grownups are boring. This is irrefutable. The classic example is the Boxcar Children series, which was awesome for exactly one book, in which the siblings roamed wild and inspired a generation of wannabe runaways. It's all downhill after they're adopted by their grandfather. No more scrounging in town dumps or self-medicating after that.
Or, for a more recent example, Ally Carter's Heist Society. The protagonist gets to run wild through Europe, robbing art museums willy-nilly. Why? Because her dad is in police custody and her mom is—ahem—dead.
Adult characters put a damper on the kid-only adventures that make children's books fun. But there are solutions to this problem other than just killing them off. Set the book at boarding school, summer camp, or another parent-free zone. Create parents who are clueless or uninvolved, à la Harriet the Spy. Fade their role into the background. Write parents who actually have something to contribute to the story, who aren't just a barrier between the kids and fun.
Dead parents will always have their place in children's literature. If your book is set at an orphanage, then I would hope you include a lot of dead parents. Or if a book is about a teen coping with the recent death of her mother, then, you know, her mother should have recently died. But when authors omit parents for the sake of convenience, I take issue—as an editor, and as a reader. Because a convenient story is not the same as a good story.
Leila Sales is an assistant editor at Penguin Young Readers Group and the author of Mostly Good Girls, which Simon Pulse will publish in October.