I read a post in a friend's blog recently that was pretty interesting. She was commenting on an article in Publisher's Weekly that kind of criticized YA (young adult) literature for it's heavy reliance on the plot-line of orphans. After giving it some thought, this is my opinion.
(First, here's the article, and here's Ashley's commentary on it.)
At first I was kind of bothered, too. Even though I'm quite a few years beyond the YA demographic, I still enjoy reading it. In fact, I generally prefer YA over most grownup fiction, although I have a hard time defining exactly why. It's usually cleaner and more decent, and sometimes it reminds me of the books I read and enjoyed as a kid (it's almost more fun re-reading those books with my kids now). Or maybe I'm just not as mature as my age would suggest? (The voice inside my head is the same one that was there when I was 11 or 12 years old... if that makes sense.)
But as for the article and the over-representation of orphans in YA books I'll agree that not only is it an oft-used plot-line (it's not like the publishers who rejected Harry Potter hadn't seen it before...) but if I think about it long enough Ms. Sales' reasons might even be reasonably accurate. Yeah, there's a lot of junk out there where writers might be lazy and go with it for lack of imagination. Yeah, it could make a character more sympathetic, make you care about them more readily. And sure, parents can be boring. Heck, I'm a parent - and most of the time I'm pretty boring! Besides, parents are all about rules and discipline and order, and where's the fun in that? But my reaction to the article was more like: So what? If it works - and sometimes it works very well - what does it matter?
But I think just saying writers are lazy or parents are boring is a bit simplistic. More often than not, I think YA is escapist and fantasy (not to be confused with "Fantasy" as a genre) - it's different on purpose from the normal lives of kids. It's not that kids want to be orphans or want to go live with eccentric relatives or in boarding schools (well, maybe some of them do). It's that it's interesting to be able to safely put yourself in the shoes of another kid (not a real kid) in a different situation (especially one that's more interesting than your own). Think back to the books you loved as a kid - I wished I could be Jupiter Jones, or live in Adenville, or any number of places more interesting than my neighborhood. A kid's world is small enough already and the ones who read probably enjoy the expansion that books give their world - especially when it's a kid in a situation they find sympathetic and can share in the triumph when they overcome the challenge.
So, yeah, the story line of orphans and dead parents has been used a LOT, but in the hands of a skilled writer it can still make a really good story.