I’d like to discuss mother-daughter relationships and middle grade books. And I couldn’t think of a better person to do it than Barbara Dee, the author or numerous praised novels that often explore mother-daughter relationships. Barbara has written on the subject of mother-daughter relationships in middle grade fiction and why it’s so crucial to have those characters in books.
Hi, Barbara, and welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. And also congratulations on the release of your newest book, Trauma Queen, which specifically deals with a complex relationship between 13 year-old Marigold who must deal with life in middle school when her flamboyant mother signs up to be the new drama teacher.
Ask any eleven or twelve year old girl who’s the most influential woman in her life. She’ll probably say her mom—even though some days her mom drives her crazy!
In the past, you’ve blogged about the lack of mother-daughter relationships. What do you mean by this?
I’ve been thinking about how in so many of the great MG novels, parents in general—and moms in particular—are either missing (Pippi Longstocking, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, Harriet the Spy, all the Nancy Drews, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events) or tangential (A Wrinkle in Time, The Black Stallion). Of course, there are notable exceptions—for example, the mom of Beezus and Ramona plays a really important role in that series.
Why do you think it’s important to have strong, complex mom characters in middle grade fiction?
Tween readers—and now I’m talking about the older end of the MG spectrum—often start to have complicated feelings about their moms, even when they love their moms very deeply. I think it’s a great thing when readers can relate to a character who’s experiencing the same messy jumble of emotions—love, frustration, admiration and embarrassment. You don’t have to write a heavy book about this topic—I think you can explore these feelings in a way that’s fun and funny.
Can you discuss the mothers in some middle grade books that you admire? Why do those moms stand out?
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead: Miranda’s mom is smart, ambitious and witty, a tiny powerhouse. To earn money for law school, she preps diligently for an appearance on a TV game show. In the meantime she needles her boyfriend and teases her daughter, a sensitive latchkey kid (“Mom hates that expression. She says it reminds her of dungeons. And must have been invented by someone strict and awful with an unlimited childcare budget.”) This is a mom who nags, sometimes has a temper, doesn’t get everything that’s happening to her daughter– but manages to stay close to her, anyway. One of my favorite moms in recent MG fiction.
The Casson family series (beginning with Saffy’s Angel) by Hilary McKay: Eve Casson is a hoot. She’s clearly a very talented painter, more talented than her pompous, narcissistic husband, Bill. But she can’t quite cope with her household. Even though this former hippie loves her four children deeply, she uses her painting “shed” as an escape from maternal duties. Somehow you never resent her spaciness, though, maybe because (like the rest of her family) she’s so charming and benevolent.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: One of my all-time favorite book-moms! Katie Nolan is a tough cookie, sort of a turn-of-the century Tiger Mom. On the one had she’s cranky, strict, prim, and undemonstrative; on the other hand, she’s loyal, loving, and ambitious for her children. When a vagrant attacks her daughter Francie in a dark staircase, Katie shoots the guy dead. You never like Katie, exactly, but you definitely admire her tenacity and her bravery.
And lastly, what did you learn most from your mom? And you write such vivid portrayals of mothers and daughters. How much do you pull from your own mothering experiences?
From my own mom, I learned that parents aren’t perfect, all-knowing wizards–but when they love you and care about you, you’ll grow up just fine. This was a great lesson for me as I raise my own three children—I’m certainly capable of making mistakes, but I think they know I’m doing my best. And incidentally, if you don’t expect perfection of yourself, if you accept your own quirks and failures as a parent, I think it helps your writing! You’re more comfortable analyzing character, and you’re not squeamish about warts and freckles. To me those flaws are what’s fascinating–I’m not interested in writing about superheroes.
Though I must say, I’m convinced every mom is a superhero in her own right!
Thanks so much for speaking with us in honor of Mother’s Day, Barbara!
Barbara Dee’s newest title for tweens, TRAUMA QUEEN (Aladdin MIX/Simon & Schuster, April 19, 2011), been called “a laugh-out-loud look at family and friendship” (Discovery Girls magazine) and “totally funny, refreshingly realistic” (Girls Life magazine). She is also the author of THIS IS ME FROM NOW ON, SOLVING ZOE (2010 Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year) and JUST ANOTHER DAY IN MY INSANELY REAL LIFE (starred review, Publishers Weekly). She lives with her family in Westchester County, NY. You can visit her on the web at www.BarbaraDeeBooks.com.
EXCITING BREAKING NEWS: This season’s winners of the From the Mixed Up Files Skype Tour giveaway will be announced tomorrow, May 5th. Stay tuned, everyone!!!!!