Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott is the mother of all boy mom books. It’s required reading for anyone learning to speak boy. Equal parts despair—Lamott is a single mom who sometimes wants to leave her crying boy outside on the stoop—and equal parts gut-punches of hilarious wisdom and ardor about boy life and mom devotion.
This moving novel is a deep-dive into the inner-life of grieving boys. Edward’s real mom is missing in this novel and her long shadow sits over the whole book. The childless aunt is the stand-in mom, and she shows us what it’s like to learn to love an ever-so-fragile boy who can’t speak about his sadness for the novel’s first half. This book nailed the tone and the handle-with-care instructions when boys begin to risk showing their emotions and their true selves.
Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is such deliciously smart, domestic cinema, and the novel’s teenage boy, Levi, provides so much of the heat. Smith invites the reader to watch up-close while Levi’s mom supports his embrace of his Black identity and also his rage over systemic racism. The novel reminds us to pay attention! Pay attention! Do not look away from the teen boy for even a minute, or you’ll miss crucial pieces of information and risk losing him.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People does boy inner life so very well. The novel also does deft work around the depiction of a divorced boy mom, who doesn’t abandon her son when he appears to be taking advantage of his secret girlfriend. The mom calls her son out on his latent misogyny, and the son takes notice. All the while, she’s working full-time cleaning houses and making it her life’s job to meet her son where he is again and again.
Lost Children Archive
Lost Children Archive by Valerie Luiselli takes us back to the early years of boy momness. This book is the most unique parenting novel I’ve ever read: a mother and father and two young kids drive into the border crisis and make meaning of the words family and love and missing. The writing feels part-diary, part-indictment, and part love-letter for the son that the mother is sure she’s already in the act of losing.
And lastly, there’s my novel, Landslide, which depicts two wise, funny teenage boys and their mom trying to make it on the coast of Maine. The novel shows us teenage boys in all their sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll glory—with a mother who vows to stay in the trenches with them and keep loving them unconditionally.
The thing about boy mom books that I love the most is when they thread the needle between the mother’s wonderment at the very idea of raising a member of the boy species, and then an intense commitment to trying to speak “boy.” The books that I’ve chosen here are really about the art of inference and subtext and humor, and what is not said between boy moms and their sons. There’s this sense in all these books of “coming in through the side door” to meet the boy. Not through the front door, where you risk scaring the boy off. There’s also a deep well of respect for boys in these books—a way of honoring boys and their imaginations and naiveté, instead of selling them out to tired clichés that blame boys for the masculinized culture we swim in.
Featured Image: @christophermorganphotography/Twenty20