Children’s author Day to give Brown Bag on dead-mother motif

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When prose writer-in-residence Karen Day wrote her first novel at age 16, she killed off the character’s mother. It was a very dramatic death, and Day still doesn’t know why she wrote something so horrific.

To be clear, Day’s mother is alive and healthy. However, at the time that Day showed her the novel, she was less than pleased with the trajectory of its maternal figure.

“It didn’t go over real well, let’s just put it that way,” Day said.

A child’s relationship with his or her mother can be a central drama in fiction and reality alike. At 12:15 p.m. today on the porch of Alumni Hall, Day will discuss the significance of this relationship in a Brown Bag lecture called “In Children’s Literature, Why Are All of the Mothers Dead?”

Day has since published several children’s books — most of them, oddly enough, including dead mothers. Her mother has yet to fully understand why the theme proves to be so persistent.

“A mother’s primary goal in life is to protect her children and take care of them, and to make sure that bad things don’t happen to them,” Day said. “That’s what a good mother would do. A good novel has to put kids in harm’s way somehow, whether it’s a bully at school or the world that needs saving.”

The title of Day’s lecture, while blunt, speaks truthfully. In a majority of fairy tales, the mother is either killed or missing entirely. Because these stories operate on a symbolic level, part of Day’s lecture will analyze what this theme might suggest about adolescent development.

“I think that having the mother out of the way enables the character to have a different kind of adventure than they would if the mother were there,” Day said.

Day studied with Carolyn Dever while earning her doctorate at New York University. Dever, now the dean of Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Sciences, wrote Death and the Mother From Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origin, which proved influential in Day’s writing.

Day said the topic has become a fascination for her, especially the post-Freudian theory that Dever uses to analyze the bond between mother and daughter. A son breaking away from his mother is one thing, Day said, but it is more natural given their difference in gender. A daughter’s separation from her mother, on the other hand, deals with complex identity issues.

Day has conducted her own research on the topic, taking all recipients of the Newbery Award — arguably the most distinguished prize in children’s literature — and calculating what percentage of winners included dead mothers in their stories. The number, she said, is surprisingly high.

Day has written several books for middle-grade children, and she said it is particularly difficult to write a realistic book for that age group that doesn’t include parents. Eleven- to 13-year-olds, she said, depend upon their mother and father for virtually everything. Finding ways around this in a story can be complicated, and the death of a parent is one of the most palpable solutions that fiction offers.

Day herself is a mother of three; she has a son, 18, and two daughters, 16 and 13. While her youngest daughter eagerly reads every draft of her mother’s writing, her 16-year-old — the same age Day was when she penned her first novel — wants nothing to do with it.

But Day’s children are more than accustomed to their mother’s career. When they were young, she woke up at 5:30 a.m. and wrote until she helped them off to school. She even found ways to do research while on the daily parental grind.

“As my girls, especially, started getting older, I found myself volunteering for the carpool lot,” Day said, “and hanging around just listening to their talking to each other and watching their interactions, and it was fascinating and very, very helpful.”

Day admits she has drummed up a few ideas from eavesdropping on those conversations and observing mannerisms and behavior, but she shies away from including any biographical information or details from her children’s lives in her writing.

But her own childhood experiences have certainly had a large influence on her writing. No Cream Puffs, the story of a girl who joins the boy’s Little League Baseball team, comes partly from her own experience as the first girl in Northern Indiana to play on a boys Little League team.

“I seem forever stuck at age 12,” Day said. “The transition from childhood into the middle school age was a rough one for me, and so in some ways I keep going back to the time right before that and exploring what it’s like to be on the verge.”