Ann Hood has written just about everything: novels for adults and middle-grade readers, an essay collection, a memoir. Many of her books reflect the experience of losing her five-year-old daughter, but until her 2021 novel Jude Banks, Superhero, she hadn’t written about grief in her books for young people. Her newest children’s book, Clementine, features a character who’s struggling after the death of her little sister. Hood spoke with PW about exploring death and mourning for middle graders, why she thinks these books are so necessary, and the importance of not sugar coating difficult subject matter.
You’ve written about grief and loss in novels for adults. What’s different about writing about these topics for middle-grade readers?
I’d done a fun middle-grade book about a kid trying to meet the Beatles and a 10-book series about time travel. I’d never considered writing something about grief and then I was talking to my editor from Penguin and he said, “When are you going to write about grief and kids?” It was one of those moments that both took my breath away and made perfect sense. And I thought, I’ll do that now. I lost my daughter Grace when she was five, and it was very sudden. My son Sam was eight, and I thought about how he didn’t have very good resources. There were picture books or very gentle books about losing a grandfather, but there wasn’t anything that talked about the things I was seeing my son go through. So that was the first book I did about grief, Jude Banks, Superhero. Jude isn’t Sam, but the emotional truth is there.
Does anything about your process or approach change when you’re writing for a younger audience?
It’s interesting, because years ago I wrote what I thought was either a very long short story or a novella for adults, and I gave it to my agent, and she said, “Oh, you’ve finally written a YA book.” I said, “I did?” I was kind of surprised. It had a teenaged protagonist who discovers her father had an affair after she’s had a religious experience. What that taught me was that a teenager or younger character is still a fully developed character, and you can’t write down to them or condescend to them. And as a fiction writer, when you create a character, no matter what age they are, if you get them right you get them right. All my novels have teenaged characters: I’m interested in that voice. I think in some ways it’s because I’m a frozen teenager. I think I’m still a 14-year-old in my bedroom listening to Simon and Garfunkel.
Clementine, the protagonist and titular character of this book, was a minor character in Jude Banks, Superhero. You’ve said that she demanded her own book. How so?
A lot of readers really loved the character of Clementine. Her story’s different. She’s older; she’s a girl; she comes from a very different family, one with just three people, and once you change the family dynamics, everything changes. But she’s also the kind of character I like to read about—so much of what I write is what I like to read, or what I wish were out there to read. She’s kind of bossy; she’s quirky; she’s dark; and when she isn’t in her deep, dark places, she’s a kid I’d totally hang out with. I thought her voice was unique but relatable. And her story: it’s just a mom and two sisters, so it’s a three-legged horse already, and you lose one of the legs and what do you do but topple over. It felt like there was a lot there. Not every story is a family with two parents; grief comes to everybody. And I thought readers deserved a look at a different family structure and a different personality. And with the pandemic, even though it wasn’t the same kind of loss I wrote about, anxiety and depression in kids that age have skyrocketed, and I thought this kind of grief and her reaction felt like they would be, to use that word again, relatable. And with grief, part of it is becoming hopeful again. It’s not getting over it; it’s not fixing it, but it’s re-entering the world as the person you’ve become and being able to be optimistic and hopeful again.
Clementine isn’t just grief-stricken; she also seems to feel guilty both about not doing better and about the rare times she’s happy. Do you think the two emotions are intertwined?
I think they’re completely intertwined. I’ve done so much work with grief groups and conferences, and throughout the country at houses where families can go and be with other families who’ve lost a child, and 100% of the time, in conversation, the person thinks they’ve done something. “I should have called,” or “I shouldn’t have called.” “Why did I let him go to a friend’s house?” whatever it is. And as the listener—not as the person grieving; as a mother grieving, I did the same thing—you understand that that’s not what happened, that that person didn’t do anything wrong.
Were you worried about the book being too dark or difficult?
I wasn’t worried about it being difficult, because grief is difficult. And when I first started writing about this—after Grace died, I wrote a novel for adults called The Knitting Circle, about a woman who loses her daughter—I made rules for myself: I would not soften anything; I would not make a timeline that promised healing in a certain time period, because that’s not that the way it works; and I'd go to the hard places. And I’ve found that my readers really appreciate that and they can see through attempts to sugarcoat or soften this terrible blow.
What do you hope that readers—both those who have experienced a major loss and those who haven’t—take away from the book?
I hear from my readers, and as many grieving people as I hear from, I hear equally from people who say, “Now I understand what my mother went through when we lost my sister,” or “now I have something to give my friend.” And as readers, we want to understand life in all its messy glory. With Clementine, I think there’s a lot in it for any kid. The backdrop—maybe it’s the front drop—is grief, but she’s feeling a lot of emotions. The book is about your mother not acting like your mother, about being in a new school, about the kid who’s isolated. It’s about liking the wrong boy and messing it up with the right boy. I just watched the Judy Blume documentary, and she’s still going strong; her fans still read her books, and it’s because she told the truth. I just want to tell the truth.
Clementine by Ann Hood. Penguin Workshop, $17.99 May 23 ISBN 978-0-593-09410-5