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Book Review: Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder

Publisher’s description

Part poignant cancer memoir and part humorous reflection on a motherless life, this debut graphic novel is extraordinarily comforting and engaging.

From before her mother’s first oncology appointment through the stages of her cancer to the funeral, sitting shiva, and afterward, when she must try to make sense of her life as a motherless daughter, Tyler Feder tells her story in this graphic novel that is full of piercing—but also often funny—details. She shares the important post-death firsts, such as celebrating holidays without her mom, the utter despair of cleaning out her mom’s closet, ending old traditions and starting new ones, and the sting of having the “I’ve got to tell Mom about this” instinct and not being able to act on it. This memoir, bracingly candid and sweetly humorous, is for anyone struggling with loss who just wants someone to get it.

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s been 8 years since my dad was killed in a car accident. Sometimes I absolutely cannot handle anything that deals with parental death. But I’d been looking forward to this book for a long time, so when it showed up at my house, I dropped everything and read it. I’m so glad I did.

Grief is a weird thing. It changes all the time, it’s intensely personal while also being so universal, and you have to still try to live your regular life while hauling it around. Feder’s book captures all of that and so much more.

When Tyler’s mother feels some abdominal pain, no one knows that indicates their lives will be forever changed. She’s eventually diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, and eventually that diagnosis morphs to stage 4 uterine cancer. They all try to remain optimistic, but it isn’t long before it’s very clear to Tyler and her family that her mother will not survive this. As her mother undergoes treatment and begins to fade, Tyler is still going to college and trying to compartmentalize her life enough to power through each day. Eventually, of course, as we know this is a dead mom memoir, the cancer spreads, hospice is called, and her mother dies.

But then what? Sure, they have the logistical pieces of meeting with the rabbi and the funeral director. But, seriously, then what? How do you go about daily life? Tyler shows us the ups and downs, the setbacks and little steps forward, the pain and laughter and unexpected moments. Much of the story is told in a traditional graphic/comic format, but there are small breaks in the narrative that offer up lists or comparisons or little snippets of grief life. There’s a chart of items to have on hand for making a good cry a great cry. There are illustrations of misery yoga, depictions of things that died when her mom died, cliche grief remedies that actually work, types of sadness, and dos and don’ts for dealing with a grieving person.

While this is about watching someone you love die and life after loss, it’s also just a really beautiful love letter to her mom. Her mom seems like she was awesome. I was worried this book would wreck me, but that wasn’t the case. I mostly just nodded my head in recognition at her feelings, admired the close relationship Tyler and her mother had, and appreciated the candid, warm, cathartic feel of the whole thing. The mileage varies on everyone’s grief, but this story full of so much love and honesty will be a comfort to many.

Review copy (finished book) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525553021
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 04/14/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

WRITING YOUR OWN STORY (SORT OF), a guest post by Greg Howard

whispersLet me start by clearly stating that THE WHISPERS is first and foremost, a work of fiction. I’m reluctant to even call it semi-autobiographical. With that said, there’s no doubt that I left a lot of me on the page. Sort of.

 

When I first had the idea for this story, I thought a lot about my childhood—colorful family members, small towns in South Carolina where I grew up, the woods I explored with my buddies, those early school friends and bullies who leave a lifelong, indelible mark one’s psyche and memory. But I kept circling back a central missing puzzle piece of my youth—my mother.

 

 

My mother was a conspicuous and fundamental figure in my childhood even though she was absent for most of it. Why she wasn’t around isn’t as important as the fact that she was there in a monumental way in the beginning—when your attachments and developmental influences take root and form who you are as a person. She was a local beauty queen beloved by everyone, a steadfast pillar of the church community, a faithful wife and nurturing mother revered by other wives and mothers for her beauty inside and out. She was practically an angelic presence temporarily on loan from God to the good citizens of Georgetown, South Carolina. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Greg's mother

Greg’s mother

 

As I grew older and wiser (sort of), the more I realized that my memories of my mother were a mix of the authentic and the imagined—some created from faded Polaroids, others from family lore, but only a scattering from actual events and real-life moments. That’s why I consider the mother in THE WHISPERS to be a tribute to my mother, but also a fully fictionalized character.

A young Greg and his sister

A young Greg and his sister

To my main character, Riley, his mother is virtually his entire world and when she goes missing, he’s not only completely lost without her, but obsessive about finding her and bringing her home. The world as Riley knows it simply doesn’t work without her. His dad grows isolated and distant, his brother retreats from the family, his grandparents are despondent, and as a mama’s boy who finds himself suddenly without a mama, Riley feels as alone and acutely isolated as I did at his age.

 

Growing up a self-aware queer kid the rural deep South only added to my seclusion. It was time when you didn’t talk about such things, neither at home or at school, and certainly not at church. Preachers told me I was going to hell without even realizing (I hope) the oppressive guilt and shame they were imposing on an already sensitive, fragile kid. Authority figures seemed to know without question or a second thought that I was not normal. I never found myself in television, movies, or books, but only ever saw a romantic construct of love represented between a man and a woman. Even at that young age, I felt erased from society and reality. Compound that with the absence of my mother and you have one deeply confused, broken and lonely little boy.

 

That was my story, but through writing THE WHISPERS, it became Riley’s.

 

Sprinkling the seasoning of my life into THE WHISPERS was deeply satisfying, incredibly cathartic, and at times particularly painful. From Grandma’s fruit salad recipe, to the Pentecostal corn choir, to missing family photo albums and boyhood crushes, to camping trips in the woods, childhood trauma, a country market, nightmares so vivid I remember them to this day, and even to the greatest dog in the history of dogs, Tucker—I lent it all to Riley. And it was interesting to see with those same story ingredients borrowed from my life, how drastically his path diverged from my own.

 

I used to think of THE WHISPERS as my own story. But the longer I’m away from it, the more I consider it Riley’s story. Those are now his adventures, hopes, pains, dreams, struggles and triumphs. But I’m delighted that my real-life memories served Riley well and found a safe and evergreen place to land. Riley’s was a more fantastical journey than mine, but imagination was important to us both. Imagination was the vehicle of our escape to an alternate world. One full of hope. And in that small yet significant way, Riley and I share this story.

 

When writing fiction, I don’t believe you can truly write your own story. At some point the characters hijack it and make it their own, and that’s okay. So, now I can say with definitive clarity that THE WHISPERS is my own story. Sort of.

 

Meet Greg Howard

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Greg Howard grew up near the coast of South Carolina. His hometown of Georgetown is known as the “Ghost Capital of the South” (seriously…there’s a sign), and was always a great source of material for his overactive imagination. Raised in a staunchly religious home, Greg escaped into the arts: singing, playing piano, acting, writing songs, and making up stories. Currently, Greg resides in Nashville, Tennessee, with his husband, Steve, and their three rescued fur babies Molly, Toby, and Riley.

 

 

 

 Connect with Greg online:

Twitter: @greghowardbooks

Instagram: @greghowardbooks

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/greghowardbooks/

 

About THE WHISPERS

whispersA middle grade debut that’s a heartrending coming-of-age tale, perfect for fans of Bridge to Terabithia and Counting By 7s.

Eleven-year-old Riley believes in the whispers, magical fairies that will grant you wishes if you leave them tributes. Riley has a lot of wishes. He wishes bullies at school would stop picking on him. He wishes Dylan, his 8th grade crush, liked him, and Riley wishes he would stop wetting the bed. But most of all, Riley wishes for his mom to come back home. She disappeared a few months ago, and Riley is determined to crack the case. He even meets with a detective, Frank, to go over his witness statement time and time again.

Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, Riley decides to take matters into his own hands. So he goes on a camping trip with his friend Gary to find the whispers and ask them to bring his mom back home. But Riley doesn’t realize the trip will shake the foundation of everything that he believes in forever.

(ISBN-13: 9780525517498 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 01/15/2019)

CHECK BACK ON 1/15/2019 FOR AMANDA’S REVIEW OF THE WHISPERS