Richard Peck, the man, the legend, gave a wonderful deep dive into writing for a younger audience. It’s an SCBWI DVD and if you can find a copy, I highly recommend picking it up. And investing in a DVD player.
One line jumped out at me; I even wrote it down in my commonplace book*. He said that for a younger person to go on a journey of growth, they need to leave the world of the familiar behind.
Ever wondered why so many protagonists were “friendless” or “orphans”? Once divorced from the familiar, all the comforting coping mechanisms evaporate. The ability to tap out from the struggle is gone. The only way to the end is through, and in going through all the story troubles, the character emerges as a changed person.
You don’t need to use friendless or orphan as a crutch.
Take Disney’s Princess and the Frog. Tiana has a mother, and a best friend, who has a very rich father. She even interacts with her best friend while going through her story problem. However, the bulk of her journey takes place with a stranger, and as she meets helper strangers, allowing her the space from her comfort zone to stretch and grow.
In Jumanji (the remake), once best friends, and two also-detention serving kids get transported to the world of Jumanji. Even though the boys are best friends, they have grown apart which gives them the space to reconnect and understand each other at the end of their character growth arcs.
There are plenty of options to artificially separate a protagonist from their comfort zone: send them to their estranged grandparents, move in with divorced parent who has remarried, move to new town, new school, summer camp, lost in the woods, lost in the desert, lost in general, lost with estranged friends, lost with new potential friends, amnesia (be prepared to show your work), kill a parent, kill a sibling, kill a best friend, hospitalization, long lost best friend, long lost parent, deep dark family secret that makes the familiar world newly strange.
These are a small smattering of ways to remove comfort prior to the opening of the story. There’s probably, at rough estimation, a billion more ways. Torment your character with wild abandon.
*A commonplace book is a notebook where you write down your impressions of things you’ve read or interacted with, to spark your memory later. I use mine for reflecting on business books, writing books, seminars, story ideas, travel impressions, whatever I want. There are no rules.