CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — It makes sense that the idea of writing children’s books was first suggested to Lurlene McDaniel in a hospital.
In the years since, McDaniel has probably written more hospital-room scenes than any other writer for young people. With the stroke of her pen, her teenage characters have died from car crashes, asthma attacks, school bombings, cystic fibrosis, aneurysms, AIDS and cancer. Especially cancer.
If you or your child has ever wept over a novel set in the pediatric oncology ward, you probably have McDaniel to thank.
“Teen cancer novel” exists as a genre in part thanks to the 75 books that McDaniel has written. And now, the same religious faith and commercial savvy that powered her 35-year quest to make teens think about their vulnerability to death have led her to home in on her next audience: adults.
In person, this effusive evangelical grandmother of 10 doesn’t seem to have a morbid bone in her body — certainly not a whole skeleton tough enough to spend her days crafting scene after scene of tragically youthful pain and illness.
“Believe me, when you’re called ‘the crying-and-dying lady’ for 20 years, you have to develop a sense of humor,” she smiled.
But the titles of her books alone show how maudlin her imagination is: “A Time to Die.” “Mother, Help Me Live.” “Sixteen and Dying.” “Please Don’t Die.” “Till Death Do Us Part.” “She Died Too Young.” “Too Young to Die.” “Don’t Die, My Love.”
That last one sold half a million copies and became a TV movie. McDaniel’s books were wildly popular in the 1990s. In a Book Magazine poll, both girls and boys picked McDaniel among their top five favorite writers. The Library of Congress put “Six Months to Live” in a time capsule and buried it until 2089.
“There’s always a market for it, that genre of teen suffering,” said Kristen Warner, once a teenage McDaniel fan and now a 36-year-old associate professor at the University of Alabama. “I think she hit pay dirt on that: about trying to live your life, but also deal with these diseases and these illnesses that come to rob you.”
Why do so many readers, especially preteen and teenage girls, have a penchant for such morbid stories?
“I never would have said that they were my favorite books, but there was just something in them that I couldn’t get from other books. I wanted that pure misery that other books shied away from,” said Hannah Moskowitz. She and Kat Helgeson — both authors of young adult novels – launched a podcast called “Hey Lurlene!” to discuss McDaniel’s books in minute detail.
“I think I always like to know the worst thing that could possibly happen,” Moskowitz said. “If I read all these books about kids dying, it meant that I wouldn’t die, because I was prepared for it.”
For Warner, who tore through one McDaniel book after another in eighth grade, the topic of teenage mortality was thought-provoking. But the romance — every dying McDaniel heroine seems to have an incredibly perfect boyfriend sitting by her sickbed — was the real draw.
“I remember how much less superficial it felt than Sweet Valley High,” Warner said. “This felt like a turn toward the serious, without going too far. There was something sort of nice about the fact that this was a very PG romance.”
Teachers and librarians appreciate that too, knowing that parents tend to get more upset about books with bad language or premarital sex than hundreds of pages about what it’s like to die.
The kids are on board, too. “Yes, some of them are kind of sad and sappy, but they’re really detailed. I usually go for stuff with adventure and action, but I just love these books,” said Isabella Grabowski, 13, who said the books answered some of the questions she had when her grandmother died of leukemia.
McDaniel hit upon this specialty for reasons both personal and commercially calculated.
When she happened to meet a woman in a hospital waiting room, more than 30 years ago, whose father owned a publishing company and needed board book writers, the young mother had no visions of a literary empire.
“It was providential, I tell you,” she said. “The hand of God was on every step of my life.”
She wrote a picture book for the company, and then a second one. Then, bored, she asked if she could write for older children – and someone mentioned that fifth-grade girls are the best customers at school book fairs.
That’s when she thought about why she was in that hospital in the first place: Her son Sean suffered from Type 1 diabetes. She knew how challenging it was to manage a serious illness and still be a kid — and she thought kids might want to read about that.
Her first novel was “Will I Ever Dance Again,” about a 13-year-old girl who finds out she has diabetes. “Six Months to Live” took off after that, and soon she found her niche writing about cancer. At her fastest, she was finishing a book every eight to 12 weeks.
McDaniel didn’t invent the dying young heroine, of course. Beth March, Little Eva, Cissy Gay and their similarly pretty and consumptive counterparts made readers cry long before McDaniel.
But McDaniel made it a formula.
Now, when similar books such as Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper” and John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” make it big, librarians tell readers to check out McDaniel’s body of work next.
McDaniel seems preternaturally unselfconscious and unperturbed by criticism. “I am not a great writer. I just know how to write a story that will touch the heart,” she said.
She’s also bluntly unromantic, which may come as a shock to fans who swooned over the ideal of a boyfriend she created. She divorced when her children were young, around the same time she started writing novels, and she’s never had interest in marrying again.
“I make up the perfect guy. There’s a reason it’s hard to find him: because they don’t exist, honey,” she said while heating store-bought soup in the immaculately clean ranch house where she’s emphatically happy to live alone.
With that same certainty, she decided recently that after 35 years of writing about teenagers, she’s done. “I am over high school,” she declared. She might write sequels to existing books, but for new work, she’ll be writing about adults.
Her transitional book was 2016’s “Losing Gabriel,” a novel significantly longer than most of her teen stories. It started in high school, then took its young characters several years into the future, weaving a complex story about their adult lives with material McDaniel strictly avoided for decades, including premarital sex. There are no sex scenes — this is still Lurlene McDaniel — but it’s clear that it’s happening.
The sequel to “Losing Gabriel,” released last summer, is even more expansive and more adult, and she continues that story with another novel scheduled for a December release. At 74, McDaniel is excited to try her hand at something bigger.
Like her young-adult books, her more grown-up novels contain subtle nods to her Christian faith, though she believes her more overt message for readers of all ages is one of understanding, especially for people going through devastating illness. She has a proud collection of letters from readers, like the 1991 note from a 20-year-old with an inoperable brain tumor who said, “Thanks to people like you, my friends might understand me better.”
Over the course of decades and dozens of books, she’s taught her readers compassion and given them hope, which is something people could use at any age.
Julie Zauzmer covers religion, faith and spirituality for The Washington Post.