Best friends, sworn enemies, separated by mortality, traumatized by abandonment… Mother-daughter relationships in YA novels (as well as stories in general) take many forms.
Although there are many mother-daughter relationship tropes that are used over and over in the books we read, each of them is unique in their own way. And the types of stories that affect us the most? Those where the daughter has to make her own way in the world and overcome the shadow or hole her mother has left behind.
Author Sara Hosey’s upcoming novel Iphigenia Murphy explores the effects of abandonment on her teenage protagonist and just how far the young girl will go to seek out her mother’s love. But Sara Hosey has been thinking about and fascinated by mother-daughter relationships in YA and other types of storytelling long before she started writing Iphigenia Murphy.
Don’t take our word for it, though. Take hers.
Here’s what Sara Hosey has to say about mother-daughter relationships in YA novels, including her own.
Those Girls: Mothers, love, and community in contemporary YA
“There are some girls nobody looks for. Turns out, I was one of those girls.” —Iphigenia Murphy
For better or for worse, your relationship with your mother is your first–and obviously it’s a relationship that has profound implications for your life and development. So many of our stories throughout history focus on the fallout from ruptured mother-child relationships–ever notice how the mom is usually dead or absent in fairy tales?
One story that has really resonated with me is that of Iphigenia in Greek myth: in Aeschylus’ play The Oresteia, Iphigenia is sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so that the winds will blow his ships (and he’ll have success in war). Yikes, right? But in the play, the sacrifice doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal–it doesn’t even happen onstage. Iphigenia’s murder is just something that the audience is told about.
However, the killing of Iphigenia is a big deal to at least one person: her mother, Clytemnestra. When Agamemnon returns home from the Trojan war, victorious, Clytemnestra murders him. Sure, her reaction is extreme and bloody and politically-motivated and the killing doesn’t end there, but really, the guy murdered her daughter. I can’t help but root for her, at least a little bit.
While my novel Iphigenia Murphy is not a rewriting of The Oresteia, I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the sacrificed girl, the daughter who is little more than a tool, who is crushed under the heel of the patriarchy, but whose mother ultimately avenges her. And so, my book, Iphigenia Murphy is also a story about a girl who is forsaken, a young person who is seen as disposable, the kind of girl who could run away from home and not be missed. In my book, however, Iphigenia (or Iffy, as she’s called) rejects this narrative and this fate. She sets out in search of the one person she believes could value her, redeem her, avenge her: her mother.
It’s not so simple, of course. Iffy’s mother disappeared years earlier and she too, is one of those girls nobody looks for. But it would be wrong to say no one misses Iffy’s mother. Iffy does. Desperately.
In this way, Iphigenia Murphy is about the longing for the mother, as well as one young woman’s search for family and community. It’s about how easy it is for some girls and young women in our world to get lost, but it’s also a story of survival and connection, dramatizing how finding our people can not only help us to make sense of our struggles, but also the ways in which we can build new communities and worlds, worlds in which we can feel safe and valued.
In exploring these issues, Iphigenia Murphy joins several other really incredible recent young adult novels that center the experiences of young women who have been hurt, abandoned, or otherwise forsaken by adults in their lives, but who don’t give up. In each of these books, mothers are missing, abusive, or simply too messed up to really parent and it’s through relationships with friends and siblings that the protagonist is able to heal, forgive, and sometimes even reconnect with the absent or dysfunctional mother.
Here are my picks for some recent cutting-edge books that, with very different approaches and angles, explore the mother-daughter relationship and, in doing so, tackle some of the most important questions that we all face about our families, our communities, and ourselves.
Tiffany D. Jackson, ‘Monday’s Not Coming’
The heroine of Monday’s Not Coming, Claudia, has a very nice mother; it’s her best friend Monday’s mother who emerges as the problem. Claudia knows that Mrs. Charles is mean, unpredictable and scary, but she starts to discover that things at home were even worse than she might have imagined after Monday inexplicably disappears. Not only is Monday not in school, but no one seems to know–or to want to tell Claudia–where she is. Wavering between worry about Monday’s safety and the fear that Monday simply dumped her as a friend, Claudia refuses to be discouraged in her search and, as the novel unfolds, discovers more and more upsetting details about Monday’s home life.
Jackson has said that Monday’s Not Coming was inspired by true events and, more generally, the novel calls attention to the epidemic of missing black girls in the United States. This difficult, important novel dramatizes the ways our society continues to profoundly fail so many children.
Kody Keplinger, ‘Run’
The plot of Keplinger’s Run also hinges on the actions of a scary and unstable mother. Bo’s dad isn’t around and her mother struggles with substance abuse. When she’s using, Bo’s mom is paranoid, neglectful, and abusive. Meanwhile, Bo’s best friend Agnes’ parents are a dream: they are caring and kind and warm. However, Agnes is vision-impaired and her family is seriously overprotective. Agnes’ family—and pretty much everyone in the small town Bo and Agnes live in—expect Agnes to perform as the “sweet blind girl,” eternally grateful and dependent on others. But when Bo’s mom is arrested, raising Bo’s fears that she’ll be placed in foster care, Agnes declares her independence; she and Bo decide to take off—to run—and to start a new life together.
Not only does Run do an awesome job of including a character who has a physical impairment without either making the impairment an accessory that has no bearing on the character’s life or an aspect of the character that swallows up everything else about her, the novel also beautifully renders how the best kinds of friendships allow us to become more fully ourselves.
Robin Benway, ‘Far From the Tree’
Grace, one of the three narrators of Far From the Tree, also has pretty nice parents. But when Grace gets pregnant and decides to place her daughter with an adoptive family, Grace, who is herself adopted, starts to long for answers about her biological mother and about the bio brother and a sister she hadn’t even known existed.
Far From the Tree traces the developing relationship between the strangers-turned-siblings, Grace, Joaquin, and Maya, as they confront often painful truths about their mother and about their own pasts. Far From the Tree explores how corrosive the feeling of maternal abandonment can be, but also how learning how to connect and be honest with others can be a key to self-discovery and healing.
Catherine Barter, ‘Troublemakers’
Alena, the protagonist of Barter’s absolutely riveting novel, lost her mother when she was only three years old. And while Alena, raised by her brother Danny and his partner Nick, has had a good, happy life, at fifteen, she’s becoming curious, especially as Danny refuses to discuss their mother or the events surrounding her death. In some ways like Monday’s Not Coming and Far From the Tree, Troublemakers is a narrative of discovery, as the protagonist has to be smart and persistent and brave in order to find and face the answers she seeks.
Part of what makes Troublemakers so riveting—apart from Barter’s charming and authentic characters—is its engagement with social justice issues as well as larger questions surrounding how to live. Alena’s mother had been an activist, and in some ways, her children must still pay for her sometimes unconventional and radical choices. At the same time, Alena and her guardians are navigating how to live in a messed up world—a world in which people bomb supermarkets for no discernible reason, in which there is homophobia and substance abuse and general misery—and yet to persevere, to keep on fighting, and to insist on living with hope, love, and even joy.
These books are so different in their specifics, and yet, again, they all return to trying to figure out who and how to be, especially when you’re missing someone you love. In each, it is through better understanding another—often the mother—and the acceptance of parents as human beings who’ve had their own struggles and made their own mistakes, that our heroine comes to better understand herself.
These are books, too, I think I think my Iffy would have loved. She would have especially appreciated the ways that these books amplify the voices of “those girls”–the girls and women who too often aren’t given the attention or respect they deserve, whose stories are too often subplots or devices. And I think–I hope–you’ll love them too.
About ‘Iphigenia Murphy’ by Sara Hosey
Running away from home hasn’t solved Iphigenia Murphy’s problems. In fact, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll catch up with her. Iffy is desperate to find her long-lost mother, and, so far, in spite of the need to forage for food and shelter and fend off an unending number of creeps, living in Queens’ Forest Park has felt safer than living at home. But as the summer days get shorter, it all threatens to fall apart.
A novel that explores the sustaining love of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and the indelible bond of family, Iphigenia Murphy captures the gritty side of 1992 Queens, the most diverse borough in New York City. Just like Iffy, the friends she makes in the park–Angel, a stray dog with the most ridiculous tail; Corinne, a young trans woman who is escaping her own abusive situation; and Anthony, a former foster kid from upstate whose parents are addicts–each seek a place where they feel at home. Whether fate or coincidence has brought them together, within this community of misfits Iffy can finally be herself, but she still has to face the effects of abandonment and abuse—and the possibility that she may be pregnant. During what turns out to be a remarkable journey to find her mother, will Iffy ultimately discover herself?
Iphigenia Murphy by Sara Hosey will be available on March 10, 2020. You can preorder your copy now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, or your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” shelf!