Another Dead Mom, a guest post by Brian Farrey
Note: In this essay, I talk about parents. It’s important to know that where I say ‘parents,’ I’m not limiting this to traditional mother/father roles. I’m speaking of any parental figure or guardian who assumes the responsibility of guiding young minds (voluntarily or not). Let’s embrace many definitions of ‘family.’
I’m working the booth at a trade show. I acquire young adult fiction for an indie publisher. This particular show is filled with librarians, my most favorite people in the world. They walk up and down the aisles lined with other exhibitor booths, their eyes glazing over with lust at the stacks and stacks of books for teens.
I love this part of the job. I love talking books with people in the know. We can geek out, not just over the titles I’m representing but all of YA lit. I’ve had some of the best conversations while working our booth, pitching our newest titles while listening to everyone else tell me what they’re reading and loving. Paradise, right?
I stand in front of a table of books with, what I feel, are some damned fine covers. I smile, engaging people who meet my eye with light conversation. I let those who avoid my eye pass; they’ll come back when they’re ready.
Two women round the corner and scan our books. I smile, waiting for them to look up and see me. They don’t. They are laser-focused on the books. Good. As it should be.
The first woman picks up one of my favorite covers. It’s very grabbable. Perfect for this very poignant and thoughtful book. I’m on tenterhooks, ready to jump in and talk about how much I love this particular title and do my best sales pitch.
But the woman scowls, rolls her eyes, and says to her friend, “Another dead mom.” Her friend clicks her tongue in…disgust? Disappointment? I’ll never know. The first woman tosses the book back onto the table (you know, instead of putting it neatly back on the stack it came from) and the pair continue down the aisle. Presumably on the lookout for moms with a pulse.
I feel sick to my stomach. They passed up a really good book because of a—granted, somewhat frequent—trope in coming-of-age stories. That was, apparently, the only reason.
And that’s when I get angry.
Yes. Bildungsroman are rife with dead parents. Dads, moms, and sometimes both. Young adult, middle grade, what have you.
Here’s the thing: no writer I know writes about dead parents or parental figures because it’s fun. Books require conflict and for many young people, facing the death of a parent creates the most potent conflict of their formative years. If we’re honest, it’s a loss some people never really get past.
A dead parent in a story isn’t there to displease you. It’s not there because it’s the quickest way to induce trauma on the protagonists. Dead parents are a horrible reality that many kids have to deal with. They are there because they can never, ever leave.
And how dare anyone try to deny that?
Weeks shy of my 40th birthday, my mom dies. I’d spoken to her just the previous night. She’s been having health problems but it looked like she was bouncing back. Instead, she dies.
In the flood of conflicting memories that follow, the most powerful is the realization that I am now the sole keeper of certain gems of knowledge. Jokes only Mom and I understood. Stories she and I alone shared. Quiet moments. Loud moments. Agony. Belly laughs. Each one a multi-faceted, trillion cut jewel.
Each only sparkles brighter now that she’s gone. And I’d be a miser not to share them with everyone I know.
I’m at another trade show. I’m still haunted by the “another dead mom” duo. I doubt I’d recognize them again if they showed up to scoff at our books again.
I look over our new crop of titles and wonder what lies in between the covers that will offend people. Queer content? Drugs? Pregnancy? Kids from a small town with an overwhelming urge to get out?
I realize that I don’t care what offends them. I care about books that resonate. And reverberate.
May I interest you in a dead mom book?
Ann is my friend. Really, she’s one of the oldest, closest friends of my brother-in-law but in getting to know her over the past ten years or so, she’s become my friend too. She’s amazing. She’s the Deputy Secretary of State for Minnesota, the former head of Project 515, a non-profit that sought to expunge 515 laws on Minnesota’s books that discriminated against queer people. She fought long and hard for marriage equality and her tireless work—along with that of many other allies—successfully blocked a constitutional amendment in our state defining marriage as between “one man and one woman.” I am in awe of her.
She’s being treated for brain cancer. Over the course of the year, progress yields to setbacks. But the setbacks are always overpowered by love. She and her husband, Marc, have three outstanding children: smart, funny, and strong. Good gravy, these kids are strong. They are the spiritual successors to everything their parents believe in and fight for. They are the embodiment of love.
When Ann dies at year’s end, I stand at her graveside and my eyes never leave her kids. You can’t not feel the grief they’re swimming in. They spent a year watching their mother die, a year that was both long and short in every sense. I guarantee these kids didn’t waste a moment of that time with her. Just like I can guarantee Ann is a part of every word, thought, and deed these remarkable kids will commit to over the course of their lives.
“What is this book about?”
I’ve written about 80 pages of a book that will come to be titled The Counterclockwise Heart. I’m struggling to figure out what I want to say.
There’s a boy with two mothers, one who asks him to hide a fundamental truth about himself from the second mother. There’s a girl raised to believe her mother is pure evil. Why am I doing this? I just wrote about mothers in my last book…
Duh. I have more to say. I want to talk about Ann. I want to talk about my mom. How can I not? There are people out there who scorn narratives with dead moms. They win if I don’t find a way to share my gems.
My new book comes out February 1st. I’ll give it to you straight: not all moms make it to the end of the book. I didn’t make this decision lightly. I created characters for whom their relationships with their respective mothers were key to who they were. More importantly, those relationships were essential to understanding who these characters could become.
Dead moms are power. They never stop shaping us. They appear in our voices, our songs, our ambitions. For better or worse, I suppose.
Look, I’m not naïve. Not all moms are good. There. I said it. Some moms are awful. And bad dead moms continue to hold sway on their progeny after they’re gone.
But let’s talk about and celebrate the good moms. Like mine. Like Ann. Like most moms I know. I worry they get the short shrift. The wicked stepmothers in stories get all the ink in many cases. Who will speak up for the nurturing moms? The moms who make very conscious decisions to help their children thrive in the world?
There’s a Hebrew term: selah. It means, “Pause, reflect.” Death is no barrier for mothers dedicated to their children. It’s trauma, it’s grief, but it stops nothing. Love goes on. And by pausing and reflecting on that love, we honor them.
Dismissing any story because of a trope is reductive. It shows a lack of imagination. And if you’re dismissing “another dead mom” story on reflex, it shows a lack of empathy.
The Counterclockwise Heart isn’t just about dead moms. No story is. In this story, there’s magic and fear and questions that aren’t questions and answers that aren’t answers and creatures and empathy and compassion and anger and betrayal and hope.
And love. These moms made sure of that.
Meet the author
Brian Farrey-Latz (he/him/his) is a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. He is a two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award, once for his young adult novel, With or Without You, and once his middle grade fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse. He lives in the Twin Cities with his husband and three cats that should have been named “Curly, Larry, and Moe” but sadly weren’t.
About The Counterclockwise Heart
Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
Time is running out in the empire of Rheinvelt.
The sudden appearance of a strange and frightening statue foretells darkness. The Hierophants—magic users of the highest order—have fled the land. And the shadowy beasts of the nearby Hinterlands are gathering near the borders, preparing for an attack.
Young Prince Alphonsus is sent by his mother, the Empress Sabine, to reassure the people while she works to quell the threat of war. But Alphonsus has other problems on his mind, including a great secret: He has a clock in his chest where his heart should be—and it’s begun to run backwards, counting down to his unknown fate.
Searching for answers about the clock, Alphonsus meets Esme, a Hierophant girl who has returned to the empire in search of a sorceress known as the Nachtfrau. When riddles from their shared past threaten the future of the empire, Alphonsus and Esme must learn to trust each other and work together to save it—or see the destruction of everything they both love.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 02/01/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network