I dedicated Baba Yaga’s Assistant, my first book, to my grandma Lily; it never occurred to me to dedicate it to anyone else. There would, I knew, be other books for other people. Lily was the daughter of a bookseller and an avid reader throughout her life. She raised my mom to love stories in all their forms and my mom, in turn, exposed me to folktales from around the world, took me to plays and the ballet, and read me my favorite books over and over again. Both my mom and grandma instilled in me the importance of story. They also taught me how to make: how to sew, tell stories, create, draw, sculpt, and cook; their values and skills helped me become the maker I am. My book would not exist without the influence of my grandma and mom; I wouldn’t have had the skills to make it.
But dedicating the book to my grandma had a bit to do with time, too. I knew Grandma Lily might not get to see future books. And, there was the obvious (yet, at the time, somehow not conscious on my part) fact that at the heart of this story is the relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter.
Lily got to see Baba Yaga’s Assistant, though by the time the finished copies arrived she could no longer read on her own. My mother read it to her and my grandma was proud. Four months after publication, on December 2nd, 2016, the day before my birthday, I received the news that my book was back on the New York Times Bestsellers list. A few hours later, my mother called me to let me know that my grandma had died. The next day, my birthday, I had a 10am book event. All these things felt related, but I didn’t have the emotional capacity to figure out how, so I sobbed in a friend’s embrace and did a little writing. But there was still the matter of the book event. I wouldn’t think of cancelling on one hundred 5th graders, so I went to the event, fervently hoping no one would ask me about the character of the grandmother; I didn’t need to break down in front of one hundred fifth graders. No one asked this time, but they’ve asked in the past. They’ve asked since then, and I’ve since been able to answer, I’ve been happy to answer.
I think a lot about my relationships with my mother, my grandmother, and the other women who have been pivotal in my life and my development. These relationships have been (and continue to be) important and I therefore strive to show them in my writing. Baba Yaga’s Assistant is about a grandmother and granddaughter. My second middle grade graphic novel is about sisters. My YA graphic novel is about female friendship. The novel I’m working on is about a girl and her aunt. As a teen, I watched many of my friends clash with their mothers. Many of these relationships were later mended, but many have never been the same. In my writing, I strive to show these important female relationships with love and care without down-playing the tensions that can erupt. My hope is that the relationships in my books will provide a map or simply the reassurance that such positive relationships can exist.
In a time when many YA novels kill off female friends and mentors, I think the role of female relationships in literature is extremely important, whether these be between grandparents, parents, children, relatives, friends, or mentors. I don’t necessarily write these relationships well, I make mistakes, and I’m not devoting a doctoral thesis to the topic (though someone should). However, I hope that the female relationships I put in my books in some way provide a mirror to readers’ relationships with the women in their lives, or show a view of what a possible positive relationship could be.
So, happy Mother’s Day to all those people who play a supportive, nurturing, inspiring role in someone’s life. Simply saying “thank you” isn’t enough, but it’s a start.
Photos: Lily Muller (the author’s grandma). Joy Muller-McCoola (the author’s mother; both Joy and Marika work in the same pose), Photo Credit: Leiko Uchiyama