Barbara Dee is the author of Trauma Queen, a terrific new book for ages 9-14. It is the smart and very funny story of a 7th grader named Marigold. While most parents are what we might call amateurs in the field of child embarrassment, Marigold’s mother Becca is a professional. She is a “performance artist,” whose job is to do outrageous and provocative things, including one presentation that attacks the mother of Marigold’s (soon to be former) best friend. Ms. Dee answered my questions about the book, how she knew she was funny, and why she likes writing for kids.
Why are all young teens so easily embarrassed by their parents?
Well, I’m no child psychologist, but as a mom of three teenagers I think it’s pretty normal for young teens to separate a little from their parents. Maybe a part of this process involves holding up your parents to incredibly complex rules of behavior—and rolling your eyes.
What was the most embarrassing thing your parents ever did to you?
I’m not haunted by any one excruciating incident. But I do remember cringing at some of their fashion choices—paisley scarves, wide lapels, big jewelry. In Trauma Queen Becca describes being mortified by Gram’s plaid pants, which may have been inspired by—and I’m just guessing here—my own parents’ wardrobe in the Seventies.
How do you think contemporary performance art will be seen 100 years from now?
I wonder! The boundaries between types of media keep changing, so maybe by then all art will be performance art. Or possibly in 100 years art will be accessible only electronically, so Becca’s type of performance art—spontaneous, low-tech, performed in front of a live audience—will seem antique. I hope not. I love going to the theater, because I love that feeling that once the curtain goes up, anything can happen.
Should Becca have refrained from putting on a performance that she knew would hurt her daughter’s friendship with Emma?
Oh, definitely! Becca made a big mistake by putting her self-expression ahead of her daughter’s feelings, and I think she figures that out. But I know how hard it can be sometimes to put your work second to your family’s needs. And of course no mom enjoys being judged by other moms, so I completely understand why Becca felt provoked. Still, she should have considered that her thirteen-year-old daughter had a separate—and valid—perspective.
When did you know you were funny?
My kids are all very funny, and we spend our dinners trying to crack each other up. So I knew I could make them laugh, but of course writing funny is a whole different thing. I wasn’t sure I could do it until I printed out the manuscript of my first book (Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life), left the room–then listened by the door while they read it out loud and giggled. An amazing moment for me!
What made you decide to bring in two generations of mother-daughter conflict?
Trauma Queen is a kid-centric book, but I didn’t want to write nothing but Oh-my-crazy-mother. I wanted the mom to be as well-rounded a character as the daughter—far from perfect, yes, but also creative, smart, and big-hearted. So I decided to show a bit of Becca’s history, especially what sort of daughter she was herself. I think Gram helps Marigold begin to see her mom as a whole person, and also to understand that we’re all just family.
Will you write more about Marigold?
Hmm, maybe. When I finished writing this book, it was so hard to let go of the characters, so that’s certainly a possibility.
What do you like best about writing for a YA audience?
Actually, most of my readers are tweens, kids who’ve outgrown the Children’s Section of their library but aren’t ready for the edgier stuff in some YA fiction. (These readers are usually ages 9-14.) I love how strongly this audience connects with characters, so I try to write the sort of people they’ll want to hang out with. I’m not interested in creating superhumans coping with dark fantasy worlds; I’m going for the flawed, complex, funny types of characters which kids that age will find in real life.
I also love how a tween audience expects direct contact with authors. For a writer, there’s nothing more precious than reader feedback! Most of the time it’s email–but once in a while a reader sends an actual letter written in purple gel pen. Those are always the best!