The Literary Moms of Children’s Books


In Storyland every day is, more or less, Mother’s Day . . . 

Mothers in Storyland might be well advised to increase their life insurance. The actuarial statistics are staggering. Compared with their counterparts in Real Life, Literary Moms are highly likely to suffer an early death. The mothers of Cinderella and Snow White, for example, pass away in the first paragraphs of their daughters’ stories. And motherless orphans abound in children’s books: Babar, Dorothy (of Kansas and Oz), Harry Potter, Tom Sawyer, and on and on. That said, let us consider the various kinds of moms who survive these injurious odds.

The wicked queen and stepmother in Disney’s “Snow White”

Monster Moms. In Storyland, the biological mother often passes away and is replaced by the Monster Mom. In novels, we encounter the Awful Aunt: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, for example, has to suffer under the tyranny of her Aunt Miranda and Pollyanna is badgered by her grumpy Aunt Polly. In fairy tales, of course, the arriving Monster Mom is often the evil stepmother. (Given their reputation, this sometimes worries real stepmothers: See below.)

The Other Mother from Henry Selick’s film based on Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline”

Good Mom/Bad Mom. Psychologist Melanie Klein explains that young children are unable 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. Think of the “Other Mother” in Coraline who lures the little girl, asking her to renounce her parents and have buttons sewn over her eyes.

“Mary Poppins,” by P.L. Travers, illustrated by Mary Shephard

Proxy Moms. Mothers are ubiquitous and come in many forms. In fact, Pamela Travers (the author of the Mary Poppins books) insists that the role of mother is the middle phase of every woman’s life “whether this is biologically true or not.” In other words, a nanny or grandmother can be a “mother.” And many, many others are also eligible. Further, mothers need not even be of the same species: Mowgli is nursed by Mother Wolf, the orphan Babar the elephant is raised by the Old Lady, and a spider named Charlotte nurtures Wilbur the pig in E. B. White’s famous novel.

“Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams

Moms-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. And then there is Wendy, who is also an apprentice girl-mother when she plays house in Peter Pan: darning the Lost Boy’s socks, tucking them into bed, telling them stories, and preparing imaginary meals. Even the pirates and Captain Hook express the wish that they had a mother. In Peter Pan, James Barrie ultimately makes this developmental point: Males who lack a mother become either Lost Boys or Pirates.

“Serial Mom,” directed by John Waters, starring Kathleen Turner

TV Moms & Movie Moms. Even so, Literary Mothers (in their various incarnations) differ from those we see elsewhere. Consider Television Moms from The Brady Bunch and Partridge Family to The Simpsons; they are adept at solving madcap problems and seem ditsy combinations of Lucille Ball and June Cleaver. Movie Mothers, on the other hand — 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 might wonder: Who wouldn’t want to Throw Momma from the Train?

“Little Women” (1949), directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Literary Moms. Finally, the mothers who do appear in children’s books (those ones have survived the high mortality rates in Storyland) are usually — well, 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 under her wing the orphaned Mary Lennox and the abandoned Colin Craven. When she appears in the novel, 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. One of the worshiping children explains this apparition in an awe-struck voice: “It’s mother–that’s who it is.” This is, after all, Storyland where every day is, more or less, Mother’s Day and where mothers appear over and over again, in changing incarnations.

Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (May 2005).


07. March 2016 by Jerry Griswold
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