The Unparented: Writing for Those Who Raise Themselves, a guest post by Ann Dávila Cardinal
There are several recurring themes in my young adult novels: addiction, death of a parent, and the straddling of two cultures, all inspired by my own experiences: my father died of ALS when I was eight, my mother descended into alcoholism, and I straddled two worlds—Puerto Rico and New Jersey—never feeling truly at home in either. I’m not doom-bragging (I just made that term up. I kind of like it), I’m just doing as Mark Twain suggested: write what you know. As a teen I didn’t see myself in books, though I yearned to. Now, as a writer I am constantly striving to reach kids like me, to let them know they’re seen and understood, but not just teens who share my specific circumstances. My desired audience falls under a broader category: the unparented. When I say unparented, it doesn’t mean we don’t have parental surrogates, family or friends who step in to fill the void, but rather that we are haunted by the expectation of a traditional family unit that includes two parents, and this lack shapes our lives.
Coming of age is hard enough without the additional stress and trauma of not having adults in your life you can depend on to care for you. So the common themes of identity, fitting in, and approaching adulthood are compounded for those of us who lacked parental care. As psychotherapist Atalanta Beaumont said in Psychology Today, “No matter why or how you lacked parenting it will have left a gap which some survive by mirroring their parents’ poor behaviour and taking it into the next generation as poor parents themselves. It is the sensitive, mismatched and emotionally available child who will suffer the most.” It is often these children who seek refuge in books.
Since I often write within these themes and talk to young people who grew up in similar circumstances, I seek out other books that tell similar stories about those of us who were unparented in one form or another. As a librarian, you might encounter young patrons who would relate to books of this type. So, I’d like to share some suggestions of other young adult novels that tell similar stories.
The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd Jones features a strong female grave digger main character, who, as the oldest child of an orphaned family, is responsible for the care and keeping of her two younger siblings. If that wasn’t enough, this horror fantasy novel throws an unscrupulous landlord and skeleton zombies—the bone houses of the title—at the poor girl. At least she meets a handsome mapmaker who joins his quest with hers. This is an enjoyable fantasy with much to offer those who enjoy fairy tales and who might be head of household responsible for several children.
Mica Angeles, the main character of my new supernatural rom-com, Breakup From Hell, lost her mother when she was a baby, and no one even speaks of her father. Born in Puerto Rico but moved to Vermont after her mother’s death, she is raised by her Abuela. Like many families, Mica’s grandmother does a beautiful job of raising her, loving her fiercely in her Abuela stranglehold, but Mica yearns to know more about her parents, to understand why she was raised without them. When the new boy she’s dating turns out to have the literal worst parent of all (Spoiler Alert: Satan), it’s Mica’s grandmother that teaches her who she came from and what gifts she’s inherited. This novel features a non-traditional parenting situation, and a grandparent run home which is fairly common.
Lilliam Rivera’s dystopian novel Dealing in Dreams features a girl crew of the unparented. In this dark, futuristic world Nalah and her gang are forced to parent themselves in violent and wild-west-like Mega City, but all Nalah longs for is a safe place to live for herself and those she loves. Even someone who is raised in a world where most fend for themselves, the loss of parental figures is keenly felt. A dark view of the future, this examines in Lord of the Flies fashion how society plays out when young people lack guidance and care. Rivera is a beautiful writer and doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects.
The parents of Aina Solís, the main character of Diamond City by Francesca Flores, are murdered for their religious beliefs when she’s a child. On her own from a young age, her entire life is consumed by survival, and she finds a pseudo father figure in a drug lord and is trained to be an assassin. Underneath Aina’s badass façade, is the burning desire to form a new family, to build a new life to make up for the unparalleled loss of her parents. This dystopian fantasy novel features a main character who is taken advantage of by a nefarious father figure, and led in a dark direction.
And finally, double parent loss is not when both parents die, but rather it’s that one parent dies and they lose the other to depression or addiction. For example, in National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones, author Jesmyn Ward brilliantly captures the trauma of growing up with one addicted parent. Esch and her siblings prepare for the coming of Hurricane Katrina while navigating life with their alcoholic father. With the looming environmental disaster, it leaves the reader wondering if sometimes having a parent is harder than losing them.
We know that young adulthood is all about separating from your parents and learning to live as an individual, so almost all teens can relate to the struggles in these books, but for those of us who had to parent ourselves from a young age, we deal with an added level of grief, fear, and resentment. So many of the children who come into your library are parenting themselves, some you know about, and others who carry that dark secret inside. As someone who lived this experience, I know how important it is for them to see themselves represented on the page so they can know they’re not alone. Librarians have a magical gift of recommending books which can truly affect a young person’s life, maybe even alter its course. Isn’t that why we work with books? We do it with the hope of reaching one person, with just the right story, at the right time.
Thank you for what you do.
Meet the author
Ann Dávila Cardinal is a writer and director of student recruitment for Vermont College of Fine Arts where she earned her MFA in Writing. Her other young adult novels include Five Midnights and its sequel, Category Five, and her adult debut, The Storyteller’s Death, was released in October of 2022. Ann lives with her family just north of Stowe, Vermont, and is always on the lookout for shadow demons.
About Breakup from Hell
Fans of Undead Girl Gang and The Babysitters Coven will love Breakup from Hell, a witty YA rom-com with a supernatural twist, starring horror novel obsessed Mica Angeles, who discovers the guy she fell for comes straight out of one of her beloved books.
Miguela Angeles is tired. Tired of her abuela keeping secrets, especially about her heritage. Tired of her small Vermont town and hanging out at the same places with the same friends she’s known forever. So when another boring Sunday trip to church turns into a run-in with Sam, a mysterious hottie in town on vacation, Mica seizes the opportunity to get closer to him.
It’s not long before she is under Sam’s spell and doing things she’s never done before, like winning all her martial arts sparring matches—and lying to her favorite people. The more time Mica spends with Sam, the more weird things start to happen, too. Like terrifying-visions-of-the-world-ending weird.
Mica’s gut instincts keep telling her something is off, yet Sam is the most exciting guy she’s ever met. But when Mica discovers his family’s roots, she realizes that instead of being in the typical high school relationship, she’s living in a horror novel.
She has to leave Sam, but will ending their relationship also bring an end to everything she knows and everyone she loves?
Clever, hilarious, and steeped in supernatural suspense, Breakup from Hell will keep you hooked until the last page.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/03/2023
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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