In honor of Mother’s Day (a day late because my internet service bailed on me), I thought I’d share some thoughts about my process in creating a mom character in a young adult fantasy series that is believable and important to the plot.
Meet Natalie Sawfeather, the mom in my Juniper Sawfeather Novels trilogy. When reviews for Cry of the Sea (the first book in the trilogy) started coming in, I noticed there was not a lot of love for this pushy, demanding, impatient environmental lawyer.
“I wasn't fond of Juniper's mother, she was pretty over bearing and didn't have many redeeming qualities.” I Loves 2 Read
“The mom sounded a bit fake to me who really wants glory and not just this cause she was fighting for. Then at the end she suddenly became a very dear mom who's very supportive of her daughter.” Versus the Writer
And the thing is, these reviews didn’t upset me. They actually made me happy, because, being that the book was written from 17-year-old Juniper’s point of view, I didn’t want people to like Natalie that much. She is over-bearing. She has high expectations for her daughter while at the same time not letting her be her own person. A constant issue throughout the series is Juniper wanting to leave Washington to go to a school in California, while her mother wants her to go to the same college as her, have the same major, follow in her footsteps, and fight the same causes. Juniper admires her mom for all that she has done for the environment, but she also can’t stand her and wants to get away from her to find her own path.
That’s when my mom said it. Those words that said everything about how much my mom cared about the environment and how little she cared about me. Because if I didn’t want to grow up and be just like her then nothing I wanted to do would be good enough. “You don’t have the slightest idea what you should do with your life!”
And that’s when I said my equally hurtful words. “No, I know what I want. I want to get away from you!” (Cry of the Sea, chapter one)
When the going gets tough for Juniper, she leans on her father instead of her mother. There is a moment ¾ of the way through the book where some genuine feelings by Natalie are shown, and at the end she is clearly trying to be more loving. Still, it isn’t a solid mother/daughter relationship.
When I began writing book 2, Whisper of the Woods, I thought a lot about the power struggle between Juniper and her mother. I wanted it to develop further. There were a couple things I focused on. One, Natalie never saw the mermaids (except in a video) in the first book and, despite everything that happened, is still a bit on the fence about magic being real. Two, how will someone as no-nonsense as Natalie handle her daughter getting trapped in a tree? I can tell you without spoiling much, she doesn’t handle it well. Worry and concern don’t sit well on this woman. Neither does not being able to control what is happening to her daughter.
“I am also happy to know that while things don’t seem to be exactly great, Juniper’s relationship with her mother seems to be improving from where it left off in Cry of the Sea, and I feel like the third installment of this series will probably be a big one for the both of them.” Anita Loves 2 Read
I decided that Natalie needed a character arc just as much as my protagonist. She goes through some emotions and changes in this novel. While I don’t think 18 years of being difficult and dismissive is waved away, and they’ll be painting each other’s nails and having mommy/daughter days, you can definitely tell that love is there, and respect is building. In the end, I hope Natalie comes across as more authentic and real, if still somewhat difficult to love.
“We aren’t bad parents,” she choked. Mom dropped to her knees on the carpet in front of me and put her hands on my legs. She locked her eyes on me in that uncomfortable way where she shifts her gaze from one of my eyes to the other, like she couldn’t quite bear to look at both of them at once.
“Are we, June? Are we bad parents? Am I a bad mother?”
“No, of course not.” She was frustrating, over-bearing, pushy, and critical. She was also brilliant, driven, passionate, and inspired. I despised and idolized her in equal parts. “You’re a great mom. You guys are great role models.” (Whisper of the Woods, chapter sixteen)
Now there is book 3, Echo of the Cliffs (scheduled for release on May 23rd), and I’ve done something rather unusual for a young adult novel. I have Mom – and Dad – actively participating in the entire story. Juniper goes on quite an adventure in this novel, and her parents are tagging along.
What? No! Juniper is 18! This can’t be! Everyone knows parents are supposed to die, divorce, vanish, abandon, or be negligent, unaware, awful, distant… Yes, I know. I did a blog post about the absence of mothers in children’s and YA books a couple years ago. You can read it here. http://www.dgdriver.com/write-and-rewrite-blog/where-are-the-moms-in-ya
The thing is, while the main story of these novels is about Juniper’s connection to the mythical world and unraveling its mysteries, there is also a theme about her finding her own identity as separate from her parents. They are important figures in the environmental activist world, but Juniper has a voice and strength, too. Instead of having an adventure and coming back to tell them about it, I felt like she needed to show them herself. She needed to be the leader, tell them what to do, and prove that she is worthy of their respect. I also wanted to show that Natalie loves her daughter more than the readers suspected. Despite it all, she doesn’t want to see her daughter in danger or pain. She’s not great at expressing it, but the feelings are powerful and deep. Perhaps, by the time you’re done reading this book, you’ll see that Natalie has gone through an emotional journey right alongside her feisty, determined daughter.
Another thing, too, is that when I was in the throes of writing and revising Cry of the Sea, my daughter was quite young. She was in middle school as I worked out Whisper of the Woods. She is in high school now, and my relationship with her is more strained than it used to be. As a teenager, she is more secretive, keeps things to herself, has many moments of her life with her friends that I don’t know about. She and I have similar interests, theater in particular, and she’s not super open to my advice or ideas. She wants to do things her own way, and I have to learn to respect that. So, maybe Natalie has a little more of me in her than in the earlier stories.
“Everything will wait,” Mom said. “My daughter has been almost killed in a tree and drowned in the ocean in just the past month. If she’s determined to put herself in danger again, I’m damn well going to be there if she needs me. I’m not sitting on the sidelines. I’m not going to hear about it later. I will be at her side.” She ran her hand down my hair and then flicked it back behind my shoulder. “Besides, I still haven’t seen a mermaid. I was promised.”
“Yes, you were, Mom,” I said, reaching out an arm and pulling her to me for a very rare hug. “Yes, you were.” (Echo of the Cliffs, chapter eight)
So, Happy (belated) Mother’s Day to Natalie Sawfeather. If she were real, I’m sure she’d be nibbling at a veggie burger, drinking some herbal tea, and reminding her daughter not to kill a tree for a greeting card. I can hear her saying, “If you really want to do something for me, go fill out that college registration form I put on your desk. It’s overdue.”
If you’ve read Cry of the Sea or Whisper of the Woods, what are some of your feelings about Natalie? Feel free to share. If you haven’t read these books, this is a great time to get started. Spend your summer with Juniper.
Do you have any other moms from YA or children’s books that you love or hate? Why? Comments are welcome. And please, sign up for my mailing list.
D. G. Driver
Author of Young Adult books Cry of the Sea and Passing Notes.