Got a little case of the Friday blues? Heat wave got you down? Going through a break-up? Dealing with a family illness? MamaPop cares about you and your problems and that’s why I’m here to remind you: STEP AWAY FROM THE LURLENE MCDANIEL BOOK.
What do you do if you find out your child has a chronic illness? I can’t imagine and for that I am profoundly grateful. But seeing as I use up all of my discipline and energy remembering TV theme songs, I can say with some confidence that what I wouldn’t do is write 70 novels.
Yet that is just what Lurlene McDaniel did when her then-three-year-old (now 42-year-old) son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. She published her first Young Adult novel some years later in 1984 and a new genre was born: The Teen Romance Morbidity Tale. McDaniel’s books center on teenagers’ battles with chronic illness, disease, or grief over the death or suicide of a loved one.
Her YA titles–YA is what we say now, get with the times, Grandma–sound like the Lifetime Movie Network marathon they loop in Heaven. And sister started her literary career before there even was a Lifetime Movie Network.
Letting Go Of Lisa. A Horse for Mandy. Hit and Run. Till Death Do Us Part. Someone Dies, Someone Lives. Sixteen and Dying. Mourning Song. As Long As We Both Shall Live.
My favorite Lurlene McDaniel novels, though, were what she later wrangled into the biggest bummer boxed set since Laura Ingalls Wilder: the Dawn Rochelle novels. Six Months to Live, I Want to Live, So Much to Live For, No Time to Cry, and To Live Again. Dawn Rochelle was beautiful, brave, and appeared to have a canopy bed. And I bet she kept a diary. And was in Key Club. And could barely sleep or hold down a job for the aura of romance that constantly enveloped her like Pigpen’s dust cloud. What? Oh yes, she also had cancer. And some hard-luck friends who were dropping like flies. But MYGAWD I wanted to be most-of-her in the worst way. I mean, her name was “Dawn Rochelle.” That is so fancy.
I waited all year (or six months or 14 weeks or whatever the bizarre betwixt biennial cycle of the Scholastic Book Fair was) for the chance to plunk down my wrinkly dollars for the next Lurlene McDaniel Dawn Rochelle fix. I gripped that Scholastic flyer so hard that teeny tiny pictures of kittens in a basket are still imprinted on my palms. And with book flap beauties like this, can you blame me?
“Dawn Rochelle has been through chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplnt, and the death of her best friend. Now a sophomore in high school, she wants nothing more than finally to live a normal life and be an ordinary high school student. The freedom other kids take for granted–taking driver’s ed, going to dances and the mall, dating–means much more to Dawn. But no matter how long she stays in remission, Dawn fears that her battle with cancer will always be with her. Will her past haunt her now, when she has no time to cry.” (No Time To Cry)
As my slavish devotion to the chemo canon of kiddie lit might imply, I was something of a morbid-minded kid. That catches people off-guard: if anything, the most consistent criticism I’ve received in my life is being too smiley and, therefore, possibly creepy, fake, or a victim of a most cheerful case of TMJ. But give me after-school specials. Grown-up movies in which Dudley Moore’s ballerina stepdaughter croaks on a train. Stories of star-crossed lovers bound only by the knowledge that his mother killed her sister. Novels about exotic things I’d learned about from the grade school nurse.
It all seemed so grown-up, intense, and deep. I longed for tragedy or, at least, semi-soft tragedy that didn’t put you totally out of commission for the next debate team season. “Deenie has scoliosis but it won’t curb her school spirit!” “The track star in Mirrors Never Lie has anorexia but she got asked to the dance!”
Mix this in with my intense and bizarre commitment to reading (okay, starting) Helter Skelter the summer after 5th grade and getting very serious, very angry, very young about the injustice (and Tales from the Crypt quality) of bad laws leading to botched abortions. Well, above the piping of these terrycloth shorts beat a very brooding heart.
Of course I grew older, watched my mother care for hundreds of young cancer patients, and learned/saw/observed what we all come to understand about the world: that true tragedy can happen on a canopy bed. That there’s little romantic about the trials and tribulations–fatal or benign–that come everyone’s way. That there is dark, self-indulgent pleasure in wallowing in make-believe drama but that there is fun to be had without needing every story to have a tragic teen heroine. My tastes perked up a little.
And I went through a phase where I mocked my Lurlene phase without mercy or nostalgia. But now that I’m a little older and softer, I see the value. I can see that, while Lurlene McDaniel may have been cranking out some melodrama to put the Victorians to shame, reading her books and seeing a true peer might have felt awfully good to some pre-teen girl losing her hair after a serious of chemo treatments. And maybe I need to give Lurlene McDaniel her due for that.
Plus, let’s be real: 70 NOVELS. I barely got through writing this blog.