Dancing at the Pity Party: Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2021

Welcome to our stop on the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour! Author Tyler Feder was kind enough to answer my questions about Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir (Dial), this year’s Gold Medal winner in the Young Adult category. Feder’s look back at her mother’s illness and death is poignant, honest, and full of specific details that make it easy to feel like you know young Tyler and her family — including lots of naturally integrated references to Jewish practices around death, and to Jewish life.

Shoshana Flax: What does the Sydney Taylor Book Award mean to you?

Tyler Feder: Growing up, I was the kid who never won anything, so it was so exciting to win an award, especially for a book I poured my soul into! But the mushy reason I’m especially honored is that my mom used to read me and my sisters a chapter of All-of-a-Kind Family before bed each night when we were little. She would also read us board books and things, but that was the chapter book. As an adult, I hadn’t read it in a long time and didn’t remember the name of the author, so when I looked up Sydney Taylor and saw that she had written it, I immediately choked up. I still have our copy, which is completely falling apart. To know that my book about my mom won this particular award was a special, emotional kind of honor.

SF: You explain Jewish bereavement tradition really clearly and accessibly. Were there any challenges in deciding what or how much detail to include?

TF: Yes, definitely! I tried to find a sweet spot where people unfamiliar with Jewish traditions could learn the essence, while those already familiar with sitting shiva and the like would feel seen, rather than bored or condescended to.

SF: What goes into your decisions about when to use smaller panels, when to use full-page infographics, and so on?

TF: It’s more of a gut instinct than anything. With drawing and expressing myself creatively, I tend to go by what feels “right.” In general, I would say I save the full pages for particularly emotional moments in the story, moments that felt big as they were happening.

SF: What did you learn from revisiting this time in your life? Is there anything you wish you could tell your earlier self?

TF: As I worked on the book, especially the first few chapters detailing exactly what happened as my mom got sick and then died, I felt really in awe of my younger self. Now, I’m so used to having a dead mom, but this was a time in my life when I was so young, and everything was such a giant shock, and I somehow got through it. I mean, I still have plenty of truly good memories of my sophomore year of college, both before and after my mom died. It just goes to show the magic of how humans are able to adapt. If I could go back in time and talk to my earlier self, I think I’d just give her a hug and tell her it’s going to be okay. I think deep inside, she knew that, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a reminder. 

SF: You incorporate a lot of humor amid the seriousness. Was all of it as funny at the time?

TF: It wasn’t all funny, but some of it genuinely was. Death and grief are just such strange things, so surreal and disorienting, and often my family and I were so exhausted and emotionally drained that things felt hilarious. I will clarify, though, that a good portion of the laughing fits ended in crying and despair. Just a lot of different emotions all swirled together.

SF: Favorite comfort food recommendations?

TF: Ooh, I could talk about this all day! Of course I am a longtime lover of the humble bagel with lox and cream cheese, but I love nearly any combination of a carb-y thing and cheese. Macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese are favorites, and during quarantine I have been making a lot of spinach quesadillas.

Visit the Association of Jewish Libraries’ “People of the Books” blog to see where the other gold and silver medalists will be interviewed over the next few days. And check out the Sydney Taylor Schmooze for year-round blog posts about Jewish books! For more Horn Book 2021 ALA Youth Media Awards coverage, click on the tag ALA Midwinter 2021

Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, associate editor of The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in writing for children from Simmons University. She has served on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and Sydney Taylor Book Award committees.

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