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Mother-Child Relationships in Young Adult Literature

from flickr user daniel d. slee
from flickr user daniel d. slee

Much of young adult literature ignores parental figures — they’re often inconvenient to the plot of the story, which is why so many YA novels are set in boarding schools or feature orphaned protagonists. When they do play a part in the story, it’s often a source of conflict. In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m looking at some of the complicated relationships with mothers as portrayed in young adult literature.

Since YA lit is about coming of age and gaining independence, it makes sense that many plots are predicated on tension with parents. Teens are trying to forge their own identity, which often means rebellion. The best stories are built on a foundation of conflict, and for young adults, that means the main characters are at odds with people in positions of authority, including parental figures.

out of the easyIn Out of the Easy by Ruta Septys, Josie’s relationship with her mother is full of pain and disappointment. At a very young age she realizes her mother, a prostitute, is not living the kind of live she wants, and she sets out to make a better one for herself. In a very realistic way, Josie’s mother is not redeemed during the story. While this historical novel set in New Orleans paints a bleak picture of mother-daughter relationships, there are examples of more uplifting stories in young adult literature.

Several recent contemporary YA novels revolve around a girl’s relationship with her mother. The Reece Malcolm List by Amy Spalding is the story of Devan, a girl who loses her father and is forced to move to LA to live with her mother, a famously reclusive writer she has never met. While their relationship is rocky at first, as they get to know one another Devan starts to forgive her mother for not being there for her growing up.

While the plot of Going Vintage by Lindsay Leavitt centers on a girl who decides to forsake technology when she finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her with an Internet girlfriend, it’s also very much about family, and particularly, a mother-daughter relationship. When Mallory discovers her mother is keeping a secret from the rest of the family, she realizes her mom is a real person with her own identity.

fingerprints of you kristen-paige madonia coverIn Fingerprints of You by Kristen-Paige Madonia, Lemon resents her mother’s inability to get her act together and how her lifestyle forces them to move frequently. But when Lemon’s own reckless actions leave her pregnant by a man that her mother had her eye on, it starts a sequence of events that changes their relationship for the better.

Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt is another recent novel where the main character has a complicated relationship with her single mother. Anna’s mother is neglectful, constantly seeking out a new husband, so Anna learns from a young age to use boys to fill that hole in her life — with disastrous results.

Not all the mothers in YA literature are so terrible, though. In This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith, Ellie’s mother is loving and protective. She just wants the best for her daughter, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no conflict in their relationship.

Young adult literature is about growing up and finding out who you are, which often means navigating challenging relationships with parents. It’s a big part of growing up, and YA lit reflects that. Who is your favorite (or least favorite) mother in young adult literature? What other YA novels focus on the character’s relationship with his or her mother?

— Molly Wetta, currently reading Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy

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Molly is the Senior Librarian for Youth Services, Programming, and Marketing at Santa Barbara (CA) Public Library. She is a former member manager of YALSA's The Hub.


  1. Suz Suz

    Jellico Road had a complicated mother/daughter relationship, but it also had a secondary maternalistic relationship that was critical to the plot and left me emotionally pretzeled too. AMAZING book!

  2. I’m reading If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch. Very intense mother-daughter relationship.

  3. Marie Harris Marie Harris

    I recently read Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman and that has a grandmother-mother-daughter dynamic that plays strongly. It’s a complicated, often sad, relationship though.

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