Brushing Mom’s Hair

When your mom has breast cancer, how do you cope?Ann is just short of fifteen when Mom is diagnosed with breast cancer. How can she tell the girls in ballet class that her mother had her breasts cut off? Her matter-of-fact sister, Jane, takes charge at home; her brother, Nick, calls from California; Dad helps when he can, as do friends, teachers, and relatives. Still, Ann is consumed with worry. Who's going to make sure that Mom drinks enough water, like the doctor said? Unless she is dancing or making pottery, Ann feels completely alone. She has a book that says, "Don't sweat the small stuff. And it's all small stuff." Even cancer?

Mom is scrubbing/the kitchen floor./ My mother/ is cleaning/ again!/ I put a sponge/in the bucket/and make a big wet circle/on the floor/ with two eyes/and a smile./Mom's head/is near my face./ Hey, could that be hair/growing back?
Author perspective

Several months after I finished treatment for breast cancer, these poems came to me. I showed them to my editor, and she was interested in acquiring them for publication, but I was worried about the reaction of my younger daughter, Ann. If she felt that they were too private, I would never allow them to be published. When I showed Ann the poems, she cried because “some of the poems are so right on, but some of them are so wrong.” I am not Ann. I can only try to put myself in her place, and although we are close, I am not her. When I asked her about publishing the poems, she said that she thought the book would help other teenagers whose mothers have cancer, but she asked me to hold off until she had graduated from high school. Now she is in her second year of college, and the book has arrived.



Based on Cheng's experience, this candid story sensitively explores a teenager's emotions as she copes with her mother's illness and recovery during treatments for breast cancer. Writing in free verse, Ann is just shy of 15 when her mother is diagnosed. Backed by a loving and supportive family, Ann goes about her daily life, yet everything is permeated by the thought of her mother's illness. She has difficulty talking about it to friends: "I don't say, / My mom / had both her breasts cut off / and now she has stitches / covered by bandages / where they were." Instead, Ann copes by immersing herself in ballet. The author never shies from sharing the gritty details, from cleaning the tubes with bulbs attached "like turkey basters" where her breasts use to be, to hair loss, fainting and chemo treatments, all the while realistically conveying Ann's fears and uncertainty. Wong's delicate black-and-white sketches that grace each poem make Ann look somewhat younger than 15. As a result, this slim volume is likely to appeal to a correspondingly younger audience. Worthy and moving. (Fiction. 10-13)

- Jul 2009


Brushing Mom’s Hair. By Andrea Cheng. Illus. by Nicole Wong. 2009. 64p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $17.95 (9781590785997). Gr. 7–10. REVIEW First published September 1, 2009 (Booklist). In connected poems, this verse novel expresses a teen’s reactions to her mother’s breast cancer—her terror, denial, sorrow, love, and hope. The author’s biographical note reveals that Cheng is a breast cancer survivor and drew from her own daughter’s experiences in these poems that show an insider’s knowledge of the disease. The reality of the situation is monumental: “My mom / had both her breasts cut off / and now she has stitches / covered by bandages / where they were”). But Ann, the young narrator, describes the experience mostly through the “small stuff“ of daily life. With one or two words on each line, the poems are a fast read, but the chatty voice packs in emotion, all the more powerful because it is so tightly controlled. Wong’s small black-and-white pencil drawings on every page extend the poetry through the characters’ body language. A great choice for poetry classes, as well as for bereavement counseling. —Hazel Rochman

Book type: 
Middle grade novel
Nicole Wong
Publication date: 
Sep 2009
Interest level: 
Honor Award in Language Arts grades 7-12 Society of School Librarians International , Dec 2010