Complicated Father Relationships: A YA Reading List

Surely, someone in the book blogging world — maybe even multiple people — will share book lists featuring awesome dads this weekend. There have been a lot of really good dads, especially in contemporary YA lately. 

But, father’s day conjures up less-than-awesome feelings for those of us who didn’t grow up with cool dads or even present dads. Some of us like to read books where the relationship between the teen and his or her dad is complicated, troubled, or absent all together.

The following are recent releases — published in the last couple of years — which feature those fathers who aren’t winning dad of the year. And it’s not that they’re all villains (though some are). Some are just missing. Some are not good at developing relationships with their teens. Sometimes they become better in the end and sometimes they don’t. 

Because my reading tends toward contemporary, most of these books fall into the contemporary genre. I’d love to know about other “bad dads” in YA over the last two years, so feel free to dive in the comments. I take “bad dad” loosely, too. Feel free to include those dads who do come around to make strong relationships and feel free to include the worst offenders.

All descriptions are from WorldCat, with reviews linked where applicable.

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen: During her last summer at home before leaving for college, Emaline begins a whirlwind romance with Theo, an assistant documentary filmmaker who is in town to make a movie.

Dessen’s book makes an important, IMPORTANT distinction between the idea of “dad” and the idea of “father.” For Emaline, she’s grown up knowing her dad. He’s the guy who adopted her and married her mother. He’s the one who has always been a part of her life. Her “father,” on the other hand, is the one who is only biological to her. And while he’s in and out of her life, he is in and out of her life. He contacts her when it’s best for him. 

The biggest thing of this father-daughter relationship is Emaline’s realization that her father is never going to change. He’s always going to be an idiot when it comes to her. But what is important is in a single line Emaline shares, and that’s that she hopes her father gives the love he never gave to her to his son, Benji. Because even if Emaline doesn’t get the love from her father she should, it’s almost more heartbreaking for her to think that her father can’t at least give it to Benji. This is one of the few YA books I’ve ever related to the father-daughter relationship in, and it is going to stick with me for a long time because of just how painfully true it is.

Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston: In a day-after-tomorrow Montana, fifteen-year-old Valley (now Valkyrie) and her big brother leave their underground den to fight a government that will kill them like coyotes.

Dear old dad is the entire reason Val is a bomb. He’s got her believing in government conspiracy and he’s hiding his true “job” from her — he’s a trafficker (of humans, maybe of drugs, maybe both). He also raised Val by teaching her to live in an underground den and always be fearful because the world is out to get you. 

A Midsummer’s Nightmare by Kody Keplinger: Suffering a hangover from a graduation party, eighteen-year-old Whitley is blindsided by the news that her father has moved into a house with his fiancĂ©e, her thirteen-year-old daughter Bailey, and her son Nathan, in whose bed Whitley had awakened that morning.

What father doesn’t tell his own daughter he’s moving out of his killer loft and into a new home? Or that he’s gotten married? Or that he’s married the mother of someone she goes to school with and — surprise — there’s a new step brother now? 

I will give that Whitley’s dad makes a nice turn around in the end, but that sort of blindsiding isn’t going to win him a lot of favorite spots. 

Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis: In alternating chapters, sixteen-year-old twins Ysabel and Justin share their conflicted feelings as they struggle to come to terms with their father’s decision to dress as a woman.

I’m including the Davis book not because Ysabel and Justin’s father is bad. He’s not. He’s just a very conflicted character and his choices make a significant impact on his kids. Dad is trans and coming to terms with accepting himself while at the same time, his kids have to come to terms with the realization that their father isn’t the person they thought he was, either, and that extends far beyond his sexuality. He’s a complicated dad character because he no longer really wants the role of “dad.” 

Scowler by Daniel Kraus: In the midst of a 1981 meteor shower in Iowa, a homicidal maniac escapes from prison and returns to the farm where his nineteen-year-old son, Ry, must summon three childhood toys, including one called Scowler, to protect himself, his eleven-year-old sister, Sarah, and their mother.

Marvin is the worst father I have ever read in YA. He is out for nothing less than blood and destruction. I mean, there’s a reason he was locked up in jail. The things he does when he escapes are nothing short of gut twisting. 

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers: Barricaded in Cortege High with five other teens while zombies try to get in, Sloane Price observes her fellow captives become more unpredictable and violent as time passes although they each have much more reason to live than she has.

So Marvin in Kraus’s book is terrible, just terrible, but Sloane’s abusive dad is up there on the list of awful dads you don’t want to have as your own, too. It’s toast. He loses his mind over TOAST. There’s a reason Sloane wants her life to end, and it ties back to dear old dad. 

First Day on Earth by Cecil Castellucci: A startling novel about the true meaning of being an alien in an equally alien world.

The WorldCat description for Castellucci’s book is pretty bad, since it doesn’t tell you this is really a book about a kid learning to come to grips with the father who ditched him in order to start a new, fresh life with a new family. And that poor kid has to make the hardest decision of his life: walking away from attempting to build a relationship with his father at all because he knows deep down it’s never going to happen. 

Through to You by Emily Hainsworth: When a teen boy loses the love of his life in a car accident, he’ll do anything to get her back–even travel to another universe.

One of the hardest things in Cam’s life — aside from working through the grief of losing his girlfriend Viv in the accident — is figuring out what his relationship is with his father. There’s a scene in the book where he’s on the phone with his father and that tension and sheer anger is completely and utterly palpable and crushing

This is Not a Drill by Beck McDowell: Two teens try to save a class of first-graders from a gun-wielding soldier suffering from PTSD. When high school seniors Emery and Jake are taken hostage in the classroom where they tutor, they must work together to calm both the terrified children and the psychotic gunman threatening them–a task made even more difficult by their recent break-up. Brian Stutts, a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq, uses deadly force when he’s denied access to his son because of a custody battle. The children’s fate is in the hands of the two teens, each recovering from great loss, who now must reestablish trust in a relationship damaged by betrayal. Told through Emery and Jake’s alternating viewpoints, this gripping novel features characters teens will identify with and explores the often-hidden damages of war. 

To be fair, Brian Strutts is suffering major mental illness here with PTSD, but seeing that he took his son’s classroom hostage doesn’t make him one of the best dads out there. I wanted to include this book in my list because it showcases how adults can sometimes be less-than-awesome parents because of their own challenges. In the case of Strutts, he’s not out for ill intent, even though he does absolutely terrible things. He’s in desperate need of help he’s not getting.

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn (out next week): A lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy must either surrender his sanity to the wild wolves inside his mind or learn that surviving means more than not dying.

The dad in this book is the real monster. He’s an abusive and terrifying creature who leaves the worst possible impact on his kids. 

What other YA fathers would you include on this list? Genre doesn’t matter — just keep them to within the last couple of years. Others I’ve considered are the fathers in Bronxwood by Coe Booth and Amplified by Tara Kelly. There’s also the dad in Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers and the father in Swati Avasthi’s Split 

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  1. says

    Definitely Please Ignore Vera Dietz. I guess it's a few years too old to make your list, but it has one of the most complex and interesting – but ultimately loving – father-daughter relationships I've read in YA.

  2. says

    It's more of an upper MG book, but Doug Swietek's dad in Okay for Now. I read it aloud to my class this year and the kids hated his dad with a passion!

  3. says

    I love the complicated father-daughter relationship in Sara Zarr's What We Lost (aka Once Was Lost), and that the reader (at least this one!) is never quite sure how much the dad has screwed up. Feels very much like real life.

  4. says

    AS King's upcoming REALITY BOY has a pretty complex father-son relationship that comes to a sort of resolution (or at least contented resting place) by the end of the book. Tom McNeal's new FAR FAR AWAY is a good example of the "parents can be broken people, too" theme…and it has the ghost of Jacob Grimm as a quasi-father figure for the MC. And in a much lighter vein (although it still made me cry), the father-daughter pair at the center of THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT deal with the difficulties of divorce, especially how that divorce affects a teenage child.

  5. says

    The only one of these I've read is Courtney's TiNaT, which is brilliant, and does a wonderful job of portraying the terrible father she had before the story started.

    Nice to see Lauren mention Amy King, as well. I haven't read Reality Boy, but Please Ignore Vera Dietz had one of the most realistic father daughter relationships portrayed that I have ever read. For Vera, her dad was annoying, lost, and trying way too hard, but reading that book, from my own POV, as a father myself, I could see how he was really just a normal, caring guy, doing the best he could after his daughter had been through some really hard times. That's the beauty of relationships, I think, how two people, and the weight of the space between them, adds up to more than the sum of their parts.

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