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Mothers in Children's Books

By Jerry Griswold

Mothers in storyland might be well advised to increase their life insurance. Compared with real life, actuarial statistics suggest that literary moms are especially likely to suffer an early death. Cinderella’s and Snow White’s mothers, for example, pass away in the first paragraphs of their stories. Indeed, motherless orphans abound in children’s books: Babar, Dorothy (of Kansas and Oz), Harry Potter, Tom Sawyer, and on and on.

Monster Moms. Often, the biological mother passes away and is replaced by the Monster Mom. In novels, this is frequently the Awful Aunt: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm has to suffer under the tyranny of her Aunt Miranda, Pollyanna is badgered by her grumpy Aunt Polly, and Tom Sawyer suffers under the quick hand of his own Aunt Polly. In fairy tales, of course, the arriving Monster Mom is the evil stepmother. (Their reputation sometimes worries real stepmothers, needlessly: See below.)

Good Mom/Bad Mom. Psychologist Melanie Klein explains that children are not able to grasp the baffling fact that the parent who loves them is also the one who disciplines them, so they create the fantasy of the Good Mom and the Bad Mom. The Good Mom is their biological parent and gives them everything they want. The Bad Mom is no relation to them (a stepmother) or a distant relation (an aunt) and makes demands on them. Of course, as children grow older, discipline becomes more important, so children’s stories often picture the biological mother’s early death and her replacement by the Monster Mom. Note, in this regard, how monsters appear after Max is scolded by his mother in Where the Wild Things Are: You figure out who the monsters represent.

Non-biological Mothers. Of course, mothers come in many a guise and are ubiquitous. Pamela Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, says that the role of mother is the middle phase of every woman’s life “whether this is biologically true or not” (the other phases, incidentally, are virgin and wise woman). In other words, a nanny or grandmother, as well as many others, can be a “mother.” But we can expand Travers’ notion to observe that mothers need not even be of the same species: Mowgli is nursed by Mother Wolf, Babar the elephant is raised by the Old Lady, Nana the dog is the nursemaid to the Darling children in Peter Pan, and a spider named Charlotte nurtures Wilbur the pig in E. B. White’s famous novel.

Mothers-in-Training. Of course, before the spider takes over the raising of the pig in Charlotte’s Web, the little girl Fern pushes Wilbur around in a stroller and feeds him his bottle of milk. Wendy is also an apprentice girl-mother to the Lost Boys when she plays house in Peter Pan: darning their socks, tucking them into bed, telling them stories, and preparing imaginary meals. Even the pirates and Captain Hook come to express the wish that they had a mother. As Barrie’s novel indicates, without some kind of mother you become a Lost Boy--or, for that matter, a Lost Girl--and possibly head down the wrong (pirates’) path. Every days’ newspapers suggest this is so.

TV Moms & Movie Moms. Looking around our culture, we see all kinds of mothers. From The Brady Bunch and Partridge Family to The Simpsons, television moms are adept at solving madcap problems but often seem ditsy combinations of Lucille Ball and June Cleaver. Movie mothers–from the Joan Crawford of Mommie Dearest to the comically murderous matron played by Katherine Turner in Serial Mom–often seem so heinous or misguided that we must wonder: Who wouldn’t want to Throw Momma from the Train?

Literary Moms. On the other hand, the mothers who appear in children’s books (those who have survived beyond the averaged maternal mortality rates in storyland) are, quite simply, saints. Here the great example is Marmee in Little Women, who untiringly works in the background to shape her daughters’ characters. Another example is Mrs. Sowerby in The Secret Garden who appears late in this motherless novel and takes the orphaned Mary Lennox and abandoned Colin Craven under wing. When she appears, the children have been creating a religious ceremony and singing hymns, then Mrs Sowerby is suddenly in their midst in a blue cloak and with the sun behind her and the flowers all in bloom. It’s as if we were in Fatima and the Blessed Virgin appeared. But one of the children makes things clear: “It’s mother–that’s who it is.” This is, after all, storyland where every day, more or less, is Mother’s Day and mothers come in various forms.


Some Mother’s Day Readings:

Where the Wild Things Are
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By: Maurice Sendak
HarperCollins, $16.95 (Hardcover)

Charlotte’s Web
Ages 9 - 12 yrs.
By: E. B. White   Illustrator: Garth Williams
HarperTrophy, $6.99 (Paperback)

Peter Pan
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By: J. M. Barrie   Illustrator: Elisa Trimby
Penguin, $3.99 (Paperback)

Little Women
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By: Louisa May Alcott
Penguin, $6.99 (Paperback)

The Secret Garden
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By: Frances Hodgson Burnett   Illustrator: Tasha Tudor
HarperTrophy, $5.99 (Paperback)


About the Author
Jerry Griswold is the Director of San Diego State University's National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His most recent book is The Meanings of "Beauty and the Beast" (Broadview Press).

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