Dying Teenagers in Love

Tears are the highest praise for Lurlene McDaniel’s brand of sick lit

  • Dying Teenagers in Love Image

    Amanda Bruns / www.amandabruns.com

  • Dying Teenagers in Love Image

There are camps for kids with cancer. I know this because Lurlene McDaniel told me so. I spent my preteen summers at Jewish camp, counting down the days while fantasizing about terminal illness and constructing romantic, overblown narration for my life. She walked to free swim, auburn hair billowing in the breeze, her tiny porcelain face exquisite. She was beautiful, but her dark liquid eyes revealed an inner pain.

Never mind that my inner pain had much to do with being forced to go free swim, or that my hair wasn’t auburn, nor was my face exquisite. The descriptions felt real. They were tragic, and they were mine. I was the type of girl who spent a lot of time holed up alone with books, writing poetry and thinking deep thoughts. I conjured up visions of a valiant death by tuberculosis, and I read Lurlene McDaniel novels. Turns out, I was not alone.

Lurlene McDaniel is the author of some 50 young-adult novels, including Too Young to Die; Don’t Die, My Love; If I Should Die Before I Wake; and her tour de force Six Months to Live. Her books are of the made-for-TV, disease-of-the-month variety, featuring boys and girls—though mostly girls—and their struggles with leukemia and hemophilia and heart transplants. They are embarrassingly overwrought and inexplicably delectable.

McDaniel, now 66, began writing about kids with life-threatening illnesses in the mid-’80s when her son, Sean, was diagnosed with diabetes. She saw a need for young-adult literature that taught kids frankly and sensitively about illness and mortality. “I hope ‘well’ kids will see a bigger picture of real life,” she says about her stories.

To McDaniel’s surprise, the books became successful. So successful that Six Months to Live was chosen by children across the country to be placed in a time capsule at the Library of Congress, and six of her novels have been Publishers Weekly best-sellers.

Turns out that kids love reading about other kids with cystic fibrosis (A Time to Die) and inoperable brain tumors (Mourning Song). McDaniel has attributed her success to her care in depicting the lives of her characters realistically, something she was able to do even better after surviving breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with in 1997. “When you actually have cancer, you experience a whole range of emotions that you’ve not felt before,” she says. “The diagnosis gave my characters greater depth, I think.”

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