Disappearing Parent Syndrome, or DPS, is a term I coined while reading Maureen Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes. It is meant to describe a reoccurring theme in YA fiction where the parents vanish from the story. There are many YA novels where this is handled well -- either as a plot point so necessary it makes or breaks the story as in the case of Harry Potter or so plausibly and skillfully done that the loss of the parental presence does not detract from the story in the slightest. However, there are a great many novels where this is an unnecessary or unrealistic plot device used to justify a teenager living like a young twenty-something minus the annoying stuff like paying bills.
It seems like many authors were once of the opinion that orphans made great beginnings for novels, especially in the fantasy genre. Maybe the pile of dead parents began to look kind of high to some authors because other solutions were thought up. In The Mortal Instruments Trilogy the main character's mother is in a coma for all but the start and finish of the novels. In the Twilight Series the main character's mother remarries and she goes to live with her father, who is a man of few words unless it's about fishing or basketball. In both of these instances when the involved parent exited the story the adventure and supernatural romance began.
Sometimes help, such as nannies or housekeepers, fulfill the parent role, but in a day job sort of way so the teenagers are allowed to run rampant and have their adventures off the clock. The main character in Hush, Hush has a deceased father, a mother who works long weekends away from home, and a housekeeper. The housekeeper is meant to ease the mother's fear about leaving her daughter alone, although she is subsequently dismissed off scene before the second book in the trilogy. The Caster Chronicles give the readers a deceased mother, an depressed absentee father, and a feisty housekeeper/nanny who, to be fair, does actually have an emotional investment in the main character. The staff members for substitute parents offers the illusion of a caretaker with relatively few of the pesky nuances involved in sneaking out of the house. The housekeeper is gone for the night by the time the teenager in question even wants to sneak out.
There are boarding schools that remove parents from the bulk of the book (Anna and The French Kiss, Looking For Alaska, Rampant) and more traditional orphan stories (Harry Potter, Strange Angels, Evermore, Sisters Red), but in the end its always going to be a lot easier to name fiction where the teenager is on his or her own than it will be to name a book that deals with family. Fantasy adventure might not feel so daring if there's an adult to turn to for help and a coming of age story might not seem so ground breaking if the character has a safety net. Most teenagers, however, have that safety net. Instead of accepting parents as a part of the genre they're working in, many authors seem to think of parents as an obstacle to get around. Sometimes when I'm reading a YA book I can't help but imagine the time spent devising a way to make a parent exit stage in the first act and reappear fleetingly in the last one.
I once read that Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games in both first person and third for the first fifty pages to see which way the story was better told. I don't know if this is true or not, but I'd love to see more YA authors challenge themselves to stop figuring out how to dispose of the parents immediately and try, for the first draft anyway, to see how the parents would fit in to the story. Most of us manage to come of age even with a parent checking to see that we did our homework or telling us that we aren't going to date a vampire while we're living under their roof. (Okay, not a vampire, but the guy my parents tried to nix when I was seventeen had a Superman tattoo and no plans for college.)
When my younger brother was four or five he began to connect the time my mother left for work with the start of Power Rangers, a show he lived for. He ended up shoving my mother out the front door because he thought this would make his television show start faster. Needless to say, until my mother figured this out she was a bit hurt. I'm not saying teenagers will get the impression that their lives only really begin when their parents are gone, but I definitely believe that what is convenient for the authors isn't necessarily close to the lives of their target audience. If I went through the YA section of my bookshelves and stacked the various DPS novels against the ones that involved parents I'd be forced to come to two conclusions:
1. I buy way too many hardcovers.
2. The bar graph is stacked against living, present, and responsible adults.
There are novels where parents play a role and actually contribute to the plot rather than take away from it. One of the things I loved about Kody Keplinger's The DUFF was the complicated relationship between the parents and the teenager even though the plot the story is titled for had little to do with either parent. Brenna Yovanoff's The Replacement is a supernatural story where the parents are in on the secret and actively help cover it up without being an overwhelming presence or stopping any of the main character's adventures. In the Curse Worker Holly Black runs this backwards by having the main character's mother absent from the start and returning at the end of the first novel to play a role in the second. The way the main character's mother messes with his life is one of the best plot points I've recently read in a series. Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon Trilogy centers around semi-orphaned siblings, but the elder brother takes up a parenting role better than most YA fantasy parents. These books, published in the last few years, prove it is possible to have an adventure or to come of age without killing, maiming, or otherwise discarding every family member in the first chapter. It's a trend I hope will pick up in the genre.