The S.O. and I are watching Avatar: The Last Airbender together. It’s a rewatch for me, first time through for him, and we love it a lot. I preface this post with that love, because I’m about to wade into a wide-scale critique of a flaw I find sort of annoying with a lot of YA books using Avatar as our lens. Admittedly Avatar is not a book, but I think it will serve in this instance.
The question that I end up asking myself a lot in young adult books is a pretty straightforward one: where are these children’s parents? And I don’t just mean where physically. The where of a character in a work of fiction, especially one told from the closed perspective of the main character as young adult novels often are, can be metaphysical as well. Specifically, I’m curious about the space that parental figures take up in the psyche of your main character, not just the space they take up in the setting or plot.
Often, writers choose to bypass parental figures in YA because it’s difficult to give a character agency when they have a more dominant figure making choices for them. Perhaps this is why we see so many orphans in young adult and, often, middle grade fiction. But orphaning a character is a lazy way of dealing with the complexity of familial relationships (says a writer who has done it) so I think it’s important to think critically about how it can be approached in a better way. This is one of the things that Avatar is good for looking at in particular. Each of the characters has very unique ways of relating with older relatives in their familial or kin units. There’s such a wide variety of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds that we get a lot of perspective on the different ways that a writer of young adult fiction can tackle this question.
Now let’s look at some of those relationships. Spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.
There are five main characters worth exploring here. The first is the titular character, Aang. Aang provides a unique take on the parenthood approach – we never meet his parents at all. Instead, we learn that Aang’s people sent him to study as a monk (there are apparently no lady monks?) at the Eastern Air Temple. He’s never known a mother or father, but the lead monks serve as his roll models, most specifically Monk Gyatso. We see a very good relationship between these two, before time and circumstance lead to Monk Gyatso’s loss. The grief of that loss, however, continues to drive Aang, and his memories of Gyatso remain an important guide for him as his development continues.
Katara and Sokka, Aang’s closest companions, also have absent parents. In their case, however, they knew both of their parents. Katara witnessed her mother killed by the Fire Nation. Their father went off to war. They were then raised by the grandmother – a person that Katara speaks of often as a source of wisdom and guidance. However, when Aang is found, Katara and Sokka make the choice to go with him without any help from any of the remaining adults of their tribe. They do this with the permission of their tribe members. Later, Katara and Sokka encounter other members of the Southern Water Tribe, including their father, during their quest to defeat the Fire Nation. At these points in time, Katara and Sokka’s father is protective, but expects them to contribute as they are able to the fight. One can infer that the Southern Water Tribe has a strong culture of independence for its teens. Mutual love exists, but does not prohibit Katara, Sokka, or their father from each pursuing their own destinies.
Toph’s parents are controlling assholes. Toph has so much strength – she’s come into her own – but her parents refuse to see that so she runs away. In this way, her storyline mirrors what Aang’s might have been, but without a comforting Monk Gyatso to protect her. Her mother is a non-character, and her father is antagonistic at best, and most of the other adults she has interacted with, including her earthbending instructor, have only their own interests at heart. Accordingly, Toph is a somewhat jaded and conflicted character, and often picks up on the ulterior motives of others well before Aang, Katara and Sokka.
Zuko has a dad but that father is Ozai, a monster. His mother, Ursa, is absent, and though her absence bought his life that doesn’t replace the hole she left. Iroh is a stand-in parental figure. He’s the main source of parental guidance in the whole show, and serves as a parental figure to several of the characters at different points. Iroh, however, has a pretty hands-off approach to parenting Zuko, perhaps because he understands that Zuko can’t afford to be coddled. His father has marked him clearly as an adult and a target, despite his young age.
A pattern clearly emerges from studying these stories. There can be three types of parental figures: the dead or vanished, the antagonistic, and those who choose to offer only gentle guidance. What is missing here is a more normative parental structure. Iroh comes the closest to fitting into what we would consider a normal parental role, and his relationship with Zuko is still fraught. Avatar therefore becomes a microcosm of the common tropes that repeat in the YA genre.
Perhaps the only way that we can see for kids to have agency in a story is to eliminate the adults that could make the hard choices for them. It is always difficult to capture the complexities of life and the diverse relationships we find in fiction. I personally think Avatar does fairly well in answering the question of where their parents are in ways that feel satisfactory within the world and the narrative. That said, these answers work contextually – that is to say, so many dead or absent mothers and antagonistic or absent fathers would not impress me in a different setting. War has the benefit of destabilizing familial structures, and so the answers that Avatar gives us work.
That said, I admonish every writer of children, in whatever genre or work, to think critically about how to give a child believable agency without entirely destroying their parental relationships – or their parents – especially in ways that are not believable to the story you are telling.
And if someone could give me a good, healthy mother-and-child story, I’m always looking.