I recently came across a question on Facebook from a reader who wondered why the characters in YA pony fiction, in particular, all seemed to have absent, uncaring or incompetent parents. Describing these characters as “almost orphans”, she wanted to know if this was deliberate on the part of the authors, and whether there was a reason for this trope’s popularity.
She’s not wrong that it is very commonly employed, but why? There are a few reasons, which I will go over here, before looking at how this trope can be subverted by telling stories that involve parents in the narrative, rather than absenting them completely.
Parents vs adventures
Firstly, there’s the obvious reason that is particularly important within the equestrian sub-genre of YA – risk. Riding horses is an inherently risky pastime, and parents are far more likely than their children are to worry about those risks. Any responsible parent is also quite likely to get in the way of exciting adventures by simply refusing to give their child permission to do something, and these days there are a lot of parents who are highly involved in their children’s lives, allowing children and teens to have less independence and personal agency than they would have likely been allowed in the past.
Clearly there is no chance of a protagonist having an adventure with a responsible parent in tow, so parents must be either permanently absent (whether physically or emotionally), or the protagonists must go behind their parents’ backs to undertake adventures. Of course any reasonable parent or adult would refuse to allow their offspring to undertake a midnight rescue mission, or ride that wild horse that nobody else can master, so the protagonist must be able to escape that parental influence, either through subterfuge (sneaking out despite being told not to) or having parents so incompetent or oblivious that they don’t even notice that they are gone.
You’re on your own now
It is difficult, in this day and age, for children to be completely off the radar, so to speak. As my fellow equestrian author Maggie Dana said, when we were discussing this topic, “…these days with every kid from nursery school onward having a cell phone, it’s almost impossible to get them into trouble that they have to extricate themselves from without grownup help!”
That’s a problem in contemporary books that cannot be overlooked, and the rapidity and fluidity with which teenagers can now communicate with one another can make plotting more complicated for an author. Imagine how different the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five might have been if they were all carrying cell phones, and could just have called the police when they found a cave full of smugglers, then gone back to eating ham sandwiches and making beds of gorgeously springy heather under the stars. If they weren’t too busy Instagram-ing their adventure or scrolling through Facebook while they waited for the chops to cook…
Maggie’s way around this problem is a simple one that is often called into service by authors (pun intended) – “This is why I always point out somewhere in the beginning of my books that cell service on the mountain is unreliable, which it invariably is, in the hills of northern New England.” Having worked in southern New England myself, I can attest to the plausibility of that approach.
Another theory as to why parents are so often conspicuously absent is that some of the most avid readers of equestrian fiction are those who never had the chance to live the horsey life for themselves, so they live vicariously through fiction. These readers are often far less exacting of details, and far more willing to suspend disbelief that anyone who has actually worked with horses simply cannot do. They embrace the fictional adventures of a young protagonist who is or was just like them, struggling to find a way to ride, dreaming of brilliance and glory, yet held back in reality by their location, or financial constraints, or unsupportive parents who didn’t place (in their mind) sufficient value on the dream of equestrian glory.
For these readers, wish-fulfillment through fiction is a panacea to their own disappointment, and thus unfulfilled or long-lost dreams. A lack of parents here is not a prerequisite, but these types of stories often tell of a character who succeeds despite these obstacles – a lack of parental understanding and financing being just one of many hurdles to overcome.
All by myself
There is also a metaphorical element at play here when it comes to YA, whereby authors are using the lack of parents as a literal embodiment of the loneliness and isolation that teens often feel at this point in their lives. It’s not uncommon for teenagers’ relationships with their parents to break down somewhat during their teen years as they fight for their independence, yet this growing-up process can also be unexpectedly isolating for a teen, especially someone who is used to relying on their parents for guidance.
One of my most popular characters is Susannah, one of four main protagonists in the Pony Jumpers series (Triple Bar and Seventh Place), who was raised by very protective, disciplined parents. Everything from her schooling to her social life was dictated to her, until her parents’ relationship starts to fall apart, and she is suddenly given an independence wholly unfamiliar to her, and one that she is not entirely able to cope with.
I was ready just in time. Dad pulled up as I reached the end of the driveway, and I hurried over to him and pulled the front door of the Audi open, sliding gratefully onto the cool leather seat. I could feel my father’s eyes on me as I pulled the door shut behind me, and I stared straight ahead at the streetlights, avoiding his glare.
“What the hell are you wearing?”
“Can we not do this right now?”
Dad shifted the car into park, and rested his hands on the steering wheel. “I think now is the perfect time.” He sniffed the air, his frown deepening. “Have you been drinking?”
I closed my eyes, not trusting myself to speak.
“I’m talking to you, Susannah.”
“I know. I can hear you.”
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
I took a breath, then let it out again. “Can we just go home? Please?”
I heard my voice crack on the last word, and felt the atmosphere in the car recede slightly. My eye were still shut tight, but I heard Dad moving the gear shift, and the car glided into motion.
“Don’t think this is the end of this conversation.”
I was under no such illusion. Nothing was ever over until my father had had the last word. But I didn’t want to deal with it right now, so I kept my eyes closed and said nothing.
When we got home, I went straight to my room and peeled the dress off, then kicked it across the room. It lay slumped in the corner as I changed into pyjama shorts and a t-shirt, feeling at once more comfortable in my own skin. I went into the ensuite and looked at myself in the mirror. No wonder Dad had flipped out when he’d seen me. My eyes were black smudges against my pale skin, and I turned the hot water on and grabbed a flannel, scrubbing at my face and eyes until I’d removed every last trace of makeup. My eyes were bloodshot and stinging, but I felt like myself again.
– extract from Pony Jumpers #7: Seventh Place (by Kate Lattey)
Whether we want them to be or not, for the majority of teenagers, parents are very much a part of their lives. It may be easier to structure a storyline around a character who is not being constrained by their parents, but doing so is a loss of opportunity to explore the dynamics between teens ad their parents, which are often at a critical point during that time in their lives.
When Susannah’s father does eventually confront her about the party situation, a few days later, the ensuing conversation is a little awkward as they both slowly lower their defenses and begin to communicate with each other.
“You said you wouldn’t drink. You promised,” Dad said, his voice becoming louder as he warmed to his subject. I wondered if he’d attract Mum’s attention, then remembered that she was out with clients again. Undoubtedly that was part of what had made this seem like the ideal time to speak to me.
“I know. I’m sorry,” I repeated.
“Sorry isn’t good enough,” Dad warned me. “You’re grounded. No more parties.”
He seemed surprised by my easy capitulation. “That’s okay with you, is it?”
I sighed. “Dad, in case you haven’t noticed, I didn’t exactly have the best time at Callie’s. I’m not in a big hurry to go through all that again, so yeah, it’s okay with me. Ban me from ever going to another party, I don’t care.”
He must have been bracing himself for a fight, because he didn’t seem to know how to react to my compliance. “Well, good.”
He uncrossed his arms and turned to leave, and I picked my magazine up again and looked at the diagrams of shoulder-in exercises, trying to memorise them for tomorrow’s schooling session on Skip. From the corner of my eye, I saw my dad stop and turn back, one hand resting against the door frame.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out the way you’d hoped.”
I met his eyes, unsure whether he was still talking about the party. I decided it didn’t matter. “Me too.”
– extract from Pony Jumpers #7: Seventh Place (by Kate Lattey)
On the flip side of the coin from Susannah is AJ, another of the main characters in my Pony Jumpers series, who is the fourth of five children in her family, including an older sister with special needs. Her parents have bought her a pony, but have thereafter largely left the responsibility for his care up to her. It’s not until AJ meets Katy, and discovers what it’s like to have wholehearted support from a horsey parent, that she starts to feel as though she’s missing out. But when she realises that her cheap GP saddle is holding her back from progressing further, her parents are quick to remind her that she can’t expect to be given the world.
“Honey, I understand that you want to have nice things,” Mum said, missing the point entirely. “But riding is already an expensive hobby, and we’ve just forked out a lot of money for Squib’s new shoes. We just don’t have the spare change to be spending on a new saddle when the one you’ve got is perfectly serviceable.”
Dad spoke up before I could continue. “How much would a new saddle cost?”
I shrugged. “It depends on the brand, and how old it is. I don’t need a brand new one,” I quickly pointed out. “Second hand is fine, or third hand. Just as long as it fits both me and Squib.”
“Ballpark figure,” Dad insisted.
“Two thousand?” I suggested. “Maybe fifteen hundred if it’s a good quality second-hand one…” I could see that I’d already lost them, and I was being conservative in my estimates.
“That’s what we paid for your pony!” Mum pointed out. “How can a saddle cost more than a horse?”
She looked at my dad, baffled. He shrugged, because he didn’t know any more about horses than she did, then spoke, each word making my spirits sink lower.
“We made the deal with you when we bought you a pony that we weren’t going to spend thousands on showing him,” Dad reminded me. “You told us then that you were happy just to ride, and go to Pony Club. Having a fancy saddle and going to lots of big shows wasn’t ever part of the plan.”
“I know. But Squib’s so good. I mean, he’s really talented. He could go all the way to Grand Prix, jump in Pony of the Year.” I could see the scepticism on their faces. “Katy says so, she says he’s got talent to burn and it’s a total waste not to shoot for it. And you’re not even paying for his grazing anymore, because Deb doesn’t charge us anything, remember? And she takes me to shows for free, and gives me lessons, and they have lent me heaps of gear.” They had no idea how cheap this whole thing actually was for them. “And I paid for Squib’s registration out of my savings, and his entry fees come out of my pocket money…”
“AJ, I don’t think you’re hearing what we’re saying,” Mum said, addressing me by my actual name for once, which meant that things were getting serious. “We are not prepared to spend thousands more dollars on your pony. It’s not fair on your brothers and sisters for us to put more money into your hobby than theirs, just because yours is more expensive. Now if Squib is sick or injured, we’ll pay for the vet bills. But outside of an emergency like that, the money just isn’t there to be spent. It’s not a matter of us sitting on it and refusing to hand it over – we simply don’t have it to spare. You know that.”
Dad tried to be less deflating. “You are more than welcome to sell the saddle you currently have, and put that money towards a new one,” he said, thinking he was being generous.
Mum beamed at him, as though that was an excellent suggestion, not understanding that my saddle wasn’t worth much at all. But I knew it was pointless arguing, so I just nodded.
I tried not to sound too depressed. I wanted to get mad and yell at them, the way that Katy would yell at Deb if she’d put her into this situation. But Deb never would. She’d go without groceries for a month to buy Katy a saddle if she thought she needed it, because their entire lives revolved around the ponies. I wished my parents were like that, but they weren’t, and no amount of sulking was going to change that fact. I was just going to have to accept it.
– extract from Pony Jumpers #5: Five Stride Line (by Kate Lattey)
With freedom comes responsibility
Of course, not all protagonists are ‘almost orphans’ – some are literal orphans, or as good as, with parents who are either deceased or almost permanently absent.
While not strictly a pony book, Monica Dickens’ World’s End series is a great example of this – the parents are almost always entirely absent through most of the four-book series, leaving the kids to run the household, scrounge up enough money to eat, and raise one another. To Dickens’ credit, and part of what makes the books so memorable, is that she never portrays her characters’ lives as remotely easy, but is still able to celebrate the great amount of freedom that they enjoy, which children growing up in more normal, civilised environments can only dream about. With freedom from parental supervision often comes hardship and responsibility, and the World’s End books (and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders) were particularly inspirational to me while working on my Dare to Dream books.
The three sisters in Dare to Dream and its sequel Dream On are literal orphans, living on the edge of solvency while trying to raise each other and still find the time and money to compete a string of show jumpers. (This is not as impossible as it seems in New Zealand – entry fees and the costs of keeping horses are far more affordable here than in many other countries.) The girls are often forced to sell their favourite mounts to make ends meet, and when one pony suffers a career-ending injury, difficult decisions must be made about quality of life – not just his, but theirs.
The absence of parents in this story works in a variety of ways. Firstly, it puts the responsibility for keeping the farm going solidly on the shoulders of the sisters themselves, with no other adults to save them. Extended family are sympathetic, but unwilling to finance the girls’ riding careers, and they are, by and large, left on their own. This adds a gravity to the story that might not otherwise have existed – when youngest sister Marley faces the threat of having to sell her favourite pony, there is no parent who just doesn’t understand that is going to change their mind and let her keep him. By putting the responsibility for that decision onto the shoulders of her sisters, who are as horse-crazy as Marley and deeply empathetic to her plight, her refusal to concede to her sisters’ wishes drives a wedge between three very close siblings who need to work together if they are going to be able to stay together.
A scene where the eldest sister and primary caregiver Kris is speaking to the family’s social worker outlines some of the hardships that this family is facing:
“As for Vanessa,” she continued. “Isn’t it about time that she got a proper job?”
Kris was resolute. “Van’s an adult now,” she told Camilla. “What she does with her life is up to her, I’m not legally responsible for her anymore.”
“She lives under your roof,” Camilla replied. “She eats your food and uses your amenities, and as far as I can tell, doesn’t pay any rent.”
“She’s my sister.”
“So is Marley, and she’s the one you need to be providing for. I understand that your injury means that you can’t work, but Vanessa is fit and healthy and more than capable of finding a job. However…”
Kris was well aware of the point the woman was trying to make, but didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of leading her to it, so she sat silently until Camilla was forced to continue her own sentence.
“However, her options are limited, given that she left school without any qualifications,” she told Kris, clearly relishing the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’. “But I took the liberty of having a look around for her, and there are a few positions available at the moment that I think she should apply for.”
She slid a piece of paper across the table to Kris, who accepted it with a frown. Glancing at the list, she couldn’t help smiling ruefully.
“Waitress? Checkout operator?” she shook her head. “Van would be useless at those jobs.”
“She’s well capable of any of them, if she decides to apply herself,” Camilla argued. “There’s only so long that you lot can keep going on the taxpayer’s dollar, you know.”
Kris bit her lip, the ache in her back intensifying. She wanted so badly to argue, to tell this woman to stop being so rude and judgmental, but the words wouldn’t come. If Van had been there, she would’ve leapt down Camilla’s throat and given her a piece of her mind. If Marley had been there, she would have told Camilla to get lost and stormed out of the room. But Kris had never been any good at confrontation, and without her sisters to back her up, she stayed silent as the criticism washed over her like waves, slowly eroding her self-confidence.
Van’s response was exactly what Kris had predicted.
“Doubt it,” Van said, tearing the list in half and tossing it in the bin. “What business is it of hers if I have a job or not? Isn’t it Marley that she’s supposed to be pestering you about?”
“Don’t worry, I got an earful about her too,” Kris assured her sister.
“What does she think I do all day, sit around watching TV? Keeping this place going is a full time job.”
“Which reminds me, what time are we going to transport those yearlings for the Andersons tomorrow?”
“Not ‘til half ten, they’ve got church in the morning.”
“Sounds good, I’ll have time to work a couple of horses before we go. See, we’re making money. Camilla can go take a running jump. The world would be much better off without her poking her nose into our lives. We’re doing fine!”
Van drained off her cup of tea and stormed out of the room, slamming the back door behind her. Kris sighed as she stirred sugar into her tea, listening to her teaspoon clink against the edge of the chipped mug. Eventually she was going to have to face up to the reality of their situation. Money was running out, and fast. Van hadn’t sold a horse in months, and right now, it was Marley who was keeping the family afloat. Kris’s eyes lifted to the photo of her father that sat on the top of the cabinet, smiling down at her with crinkly-eyed confidence, and she knew she had to do whatever it took to keep them going. He’d always had so much faith in his daughters, and she wasn’t about to let him down.
– extract from Dare to Dream (by Kate Lattey)
Fortunately, for the most part, the three sisters in Dare to Dream get along. Sure, they do have some almighty dust-ups, but the bond between them is an integral part of the story structure and it is ultimately her sisters’ best interests, not just her own, that Marley has to face up to. And it is the bond between them that keeps them together, despite the adversity they face.
“Why does [life] have to be so hard for us, when so many other people have it so easy?” Marley asked angrily.
But Kris shook her head. “Don’t underestimate anyone else’s pain, Mar. Everyone goes through hard times. Life’s thrown us a lot of challenges, but we can’t back down from them. We’ve just got to keep going. Keep fighting, keep living, keep having fun and working hard and always doing the best we can.”
Van pulled Marley in closer to her own side as she made eye contact with Kris. “We’ll be okay,” she reassured her sisters. “As long as we stick together.”
Marley nodded, dropping her head onto Van’s shoulder as Kris leaned in tightly on her other side. Marley closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the warmth and strength of her two sisters, always there beside her, holding her up and keeping her strong. Their courage and determination, the sacrifices they had made and the love they shared for one another lifted her spirits in a way that nothing else could, and slowly the ache in her heart started to subside.
The girls sat still for a long moment, watching the sunset reflected in the gently rippling water below them. And as they wondered what the future held for them, all three were comforted by the knowledge that whatever was coming, they would face it together.
– extract from Dare to Dream (by Kate Lattey)
The search for support
Ultimately, my personal view is that while it is often easier to have parents or parental figures in YA be largely absent, doing so is a missed opportunity to tell a more interesting story. Absent or inadequate parents have become such a convention in YA that they’re almost a cliché by now. More challenging, but more rewarding by far, in my opinion, is exploring the stories that each of those parents have to tell. There is a rich web of storytelling on offer, if writers take the time to use it. This blog post is already long, yet I haven’t even talked about Tess, whose mother is a bully and whose father is so busy working that he barely notices; or Jay, who grew up far away from her father but has to learn to live with him, a confirmed bachelor, after her mother’s death; or Jonty, who is struggling to cope with an alcoholic father and a mother who refuses to leave him, despite the havoc it is wreaking on their family.
Not all parents are created equal, and that has to be shown in fiction as well. But whether a character’s parents are good, helpful people or not, there is one thing I try very hard not to do, and that is to ever leave a teenage character in a situation where they have literally nobody to turn to for support. In my mind, that is the most terrifying scenario of all, and one that no young person should ever find themselves in. Whether it’s a sibling, or a coach, or a friend, there should always be always someone out there who cares, and who is willing to help. They don’t have to save the day – it’s often far more compelling if they don’t – but to ignore the vital role that mentors and support people play in the lives of young adults is to set a dangerous precedent, in my mind. Young readers are easily influenced by their heroes and heroines, and nobody has ever succeeded without getting support from someone, somewhere, at some stage in their life. Writers of YA fiction are road mapping scenarios for young readers, giving them examples of trials and tribulations and ways to overcome them, whether by using realism or fantasy. Life was not meant to be lived in isolation, and the world is not out to get you on a personal level. Sometimes as a teenager it’s hard to realise those things, but for fiction to imply otherwise is, in my mind, quite simply wrong.
Do you want to read pony books where the parents (or parental figures) are not conspicuous by their absence or incompetence? Check out these recommendations below:
Junior / Middle Grade:
Any I’ve missed? Do you agree, or disagree with my post? Leave a message in the Comments below!