Los Angeles TImes Festival of Books 2013

Author Bronwen Hruska, left, listens to Mona Simpson as she reads a poem about motherhood during a panel on the second day of the 2013 LA Times Book Festival. (Arksaha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times / April 21, 2013)

What it means to be a loving parent, and what that requires, are perplexing questions that get at the heart of some of the more trenchant issues of modern life: how to raise children, who is a good mother, over-medication to make children fit in, how much of the work of raising a child actually requires the parent.

Three novelists -- Susan Straight, Mona Simpson and Bronwen Hruska -- considered these questions in their novels, and during a panel discussion Sunday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at USC.

Straight, the mother of three daughters and a teacher at UC Riverside, draws portraits of a beautiful prostitute and her very gifted teenage son in "Between Heaven and Here." It's a novel that delves into questions of poverty and race, as well as love.

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The characters began with people she encountered: the most beautiful woman she's ever seen, who was on her bus in the mornings, and a boy she encountered in her daughter's class -- a boy who came to school in ill-fitting shoes and with dusty hair and who, it turned out, had a belly covered in cigarette burns. It took her 15 years to tell the story, she said, without demonizing the mother.

"What if this kid really loved his mom -- and she didn't even know about the burns?" Straight asked.

From another perspective, as a parent, Simpson considered "what I owed the child and could I still give enough of myself to make a book? ... What portion of parenthood can be hired out?"

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Simpson, who lives in Santa Monica and has two children, talked about her book, "My Hollywood," which centers on the relationship between a woman and the Filipina nanny who cares for her child. Both women love the child, but the nanny has left her own child in another country, to be cared for by another, lesser-paid nanny.

Hruska, the publisher of Soho Press who has two sons in New York, wrote her first novel "Accelerated," out of her experience with her son, who attended the sort of posh private school at the center of her book. When her 8-year-old son's teacher suggested a little medication might make him more attentive in class, she began looking into ADHD and its role in schools and families.

The parent at the heart of her book is the father. "It's the journey of a parent really wanting to do the right thing, and he has no idea what that is," Hruska said.

Mary.MacVean@latimes.com

@mmacvean on Twitter