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Of Mothers And Daughters

My mother died in December.


Typing those words seems strange, but not for what I would guess are the usual reasons. I miss my mother, but not because she was a regular fixture in my life. I don't feel the every day loss that people who are close to their parents experience when there's suddenly an empty place in their days and hearts that mom or dad used to fill. In fact, although I was once very close to my mother, we'd grown estranged over the years, and in the last two decades, I'd only seen her a handful of times. Some days I feel as though I might drown in the regret that comes along with knowing that no matter what happens next, I'll never have the chance to fix what was broken between us. On other days, I recognize that fixing us was never my job alone.

That said, I'm not interested in excavating my relationship with my mother in this space, (any more than you are interested in reading it!) But one thing I've been thinking about a lot in recent days is how my relationship with her has affected my reading choices over the years. And this has made me curious about literature for young people featuring complicated mother-daughter relationships. 

Despite my chosen field and love of all things literary, I didn't become a widely read person until later in life. When I hear people like Donalyn Milleror Travis Crowder reminisce about all the books that shaped them as young people, I find myself feeling more than a little jealous. I don't have that breadth of reading history. In fact, I can only recall reading a handful of books before the age of about 15. But I read that limited selection over and over and over again.

I've written before about my own lack of interest in school. By the time I reached high school, I'd managed to be promoted every single year without ever reading a single book that I'd been assigned. I was quiet, and (mostly) stayed out of trouble, and did just enough to get by without drawing attention to myself.  But whether a whole class novel, or a book we were able to choose for a book report of some kind, I simply wasn't interested in reading what people told me to. I didn't care enough about school to prioritize the assignments, and we moved around so much in my younger years that by the time a teacher realized I was slipping through the proverbial cracks, I was already disappearing. That's not to say I didn't read though. I read plenty. Just nothing I was supposed to. 

While every other 10 year old girl on planet earth was falling in love with Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, or some other idyllic and wholesome novel/series for kids, I was reading Stephen King and VC Andrews: specifically Carrie and Flowers in the Attic.  I'm not sure what that says about me, but I know one thing for certain, I read those books, cover to cover, until they fell apart. And then I taped them back together and started the process all over.  In fact, when I moved to NC in 1990, with only one suitcase and $150 to my name, both of those books came with me.

I think about this every time I talk to a teacher or librarian who refuses to allow a student to reread the books they love. "They're too old for Diary of a Wimpy Kid," they'll say.  Or "I can't allow them to continue to read fluff like Captain Underpants." Really? Why not? Show me the research that indicates kids who read only what they love, sometimes over and over again, fail in comparison to those who are forced to read what an adult prescribes. Clearly, I'm not saying we shouldn't introduce young readers to other texts that they might also adore, but we should do that by celebrating the ones they already love. Every time we forbid a child to read the thing they love, we're telling them (however, unconsciously) that they are not real readers and that their reading choices are suspect. So many kids have yet to find a single book with which they connect. How dare we destroy that love for those who have? Our job is not to make kids read "better books." Our job is to better the reading lives of the children we serve. Period.

But I digress.

One thing I want to be clear about is that my mother was in no way similar to the mothers in Carrie or Flowers in the Attic. I'm absolutely not making that comparison. But in thinking about why I read those two books hundreds, maybe thousands, of times growing up, I've realized that despite their gruesome themes, I found comfort in those pages. It's true, neither story has a happy ending, but no matter what was happening at my house, it was always a hell of a lot better than what was happening in that attic! And even though I wasn't consciously looking for that validation of experience when I picked up Flowers in the Attic for the 300th time, that didn't stop me from finding it.

Obviously, the publishing world for young people has grown exponentially since the Paleolithic period when I was in school, and not just in sheer volume, but also in quality. These days I'm an unabashed lover of young adult fiction and I can't stop/won't stop because it's just so good! But in the wake of my mother's death, I also can't help but dream about an alternative universe in which adolescent me found her way to books that better reflected her experience and that maybe, just maybe, helped her cope a little bit better in the bargain. 

Which is why I've felt compelled to start collecting those titles here. A few days ago, I asked my PLN (on Twitter and Facebook) to contribute to this Padlet by sharing titles of books for young people that feature complicated mother-daughter relationships. And now I'm asking you, too.

Please consider adding your picks to this growing resource and then sharing it as you feel is appropriate. I may not be able to fix what was broken between me and my mother, but I like knowing that there are many more options out there for kids like me who are looking for confirmation in books that they're not alone, that not all families are perfect, and that when our broken places heal, they often turn out to be stronger than they were before. 


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